What do we miss when we tune out perspectives that differ from our own?

Rabbi Amy Feder

By Rabbi Amy Feder

This week’s parasha begins with a communication breakdown. In its opening lines, G-d shares something fantastic with Moses: G-d has remembered the Israelites and is going to take them out of slavery. Wonderful news! Time for the Israelites to rejoice and start packing, right? Yet the minute Moses tries to pass the message on, things go awry. The Israelites don’t listen. Poor Moses is so sure the fault lies with him as the messenger that he gets cold feet about speaking with Pharaoh. Between those who can’t listen and those who can’t speak, G-d has to go back to the drawing board and revert to Plan B to get the Israelites out of slavery. 

What made it so hard for the Israelites to hear Moses out? It’s hard to imagine that it was really because Moses was such a poor communicator. He may describe himself as slow of speech and tongue, but he can’t have been all that bad; as Tevye jokes in “Fiddler on the Roof”, “for a man who was slow of tongue he talked a lot!” 

The Torah tells us that the Israelites couldn’t listen because of their hard labor and kotzer ruach, literally “shortness of breath.” Rashi explains that when people are under stress, it becomes difficult to breathe and take a deep breath. It’s as if the Israelites were collectively panicking and as a result, couldn’t hear the very news that would have allowed them to feel a sense of calm. Since ruach means not only breath but spirit, this makes some sense; Rashi also goes on to say that the Israelites were so beaten down they couldn’t even accept Moses’ consolation, so convinced were they that redemption would never come. 

Yet when I read this passage, I’m reminded that there are many other reasons that people aren’t always able to hear what others have to say. There are certain topics I feel so passionately about that when someone raises an alternative viewpoint, it’s nearly impossible for me to hear them out. These past few years, I’ve experienced this more and more, both in myself and with others in our community. 

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The minute certain sensitive topics come up — the President! Israel! Immigration! — conversation either explodes or shuts down entirely. We are each so convinced that our side of the narrative is correct that we literally can’t hear the other’s perspective. Rarely, like Moses, do we assume that it’s because we ourselves aren’t making our case clear enough. We just believe wholeheartedly the rightness and righteousness of our beliefs, and don’t listen. As a result, the chasm widens between our beliefs and those of our neighbors, and nothing changes.

For the past year or so, I have tried to challenge myself to overcome my own unwillingness to hear other’s perspectives. When I find myself immediately jumping to the defensive or blocking out someone’s words (how easy it is with a click to just block a Facebook post or delete an email!) I try to breathe deeply and overcome my own kotzer ruach, reminding myself that the call to Shema, Listen,extends to so many different areas of life. If I am able to hear someone out whose perspective is totally different than mine, is there a chance that not only might I learn something, but also that they might be more inclined to listen to me?

We have no idea what might have changed had the Israelites been able to hear Moses’ words from the beginning. Perhaps the 10 plagues might have been avoided. Perhaps the Israelites might have risen up against Pharaoh and left Egypt before G-d ever had to harden his heart. Or perhaps nothing would have changed at all. The same can be said for us. If we are able to truly listen to those voices that are contrary to our own and hard to hear, maybe nothing will change. But, halevai, if only! What a difference it could make. 

Amy Feder is Senior Rabbi of Congregation Temple Israel and a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical and Cantorial Association.