Just listen

Rabbi James Bennett

By Rabbi Jim Bennett

In her powerful book, “Kitchen Table Wisdom,” Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen writes: 

“I suspect that the most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen.  Just listen.  Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention…I have even learned to respond to someone crying by just listening…I used to reach for the tissues, until I realized that passing a person a tissue may be just another way to shut them down, to take them out of their experience of sadness and grief.  Now I just listen.  When they have cried all they need to cry, they find me there with them.”

Our Torah portion this week, Ekev, begins this way: “If you would just listen. . .” (Deuteronomy 7:14). Moses, in a moment of exasperation, exhorts his people to just listen to God, for if they do, they will be rewarded with abundant blessings.

It wasn’t always this way.  Just a few decades earlier it was the Jewish people who needed God to listen to them, to hear their cries, to become aware of their suffering.  Through the desert journey, Moses implored the people to listen to God’s law.  God wanted Moses, too, to listen carefully to the Divine commandments.  Perhaps this is our heritage.  We are a people who do not listen well!

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I know that I struggle to be a better listener:  I constantly strive to be a better listener to my wife, my children, my co-workers, my friends, my congregation.  No matter how hard I try, I am aware that I am a better talker than listener.  And I suspect I am not alone.

How often do you find yourself talking to others and feel that they are not listening?  They seem to know what they want to say next, they are already preparing their response before they hear what you are saying.  They are too busy or distracted, by their cell phone, their computer screen, the television, the next person, or they are simply not paying attention.  We suffer from a seeming epidemic of bad listening.  

We could learn well from the few people we know who are truly good listeners, the ones who seem to give you their undivided attention, no matter who or what else is going on.  You know the ones; the unusual people who make us feel that we truly matter.

I have a friend like this.  He is unbelievably present when he listens to me.  He looks at me with eyes that say “I am here. I notice you.”  He smiles when he should, and shows concern when he should.  He never looks over my shoulder to see who is more important, more pressing, more interesting.  Being in a conversation with him is a blessing.

Parashat Ekev comes to remind us of this blessing.  If we truly listen, if we hear the sound of the Divine presence, if we listen to the still, small voice….we will feel the blessing.