Sometimes we feel besieged on every side; there are just too many claims on our attention.How can we pay attention to everyone—our children, our spouses, our parents, our bosses, the media, our leaders, our friends, et al —who needs or wants us to listen to them? Everyone is so insistent that we must pay attention to their message, that what they have to say is more important than all the other messages with which we are bombarded daily.
And yet, in the welter of messages we become aware of each and every day, the most important messages are often lost. The slickest messages, the messages most effective in breaking through to our awareness, are not always the most important.The most sincere words uttered by the most sincere voices, coming from the people most important in our lives, are often the most inarticulate, least insistent and most ineffectively expressed.Most of what we hear “goes in one ear and out the other.”
For these reasons, it is not surprising Judaism teaches that listening attentively is an especially important value.In fact, Pirke Avot 6:6 lists attentive listening among the 48 virtues which help a person to learn Torah. —From the Tradition (Min Hame’soret מִן הַמְּסֹרֶת))
שְׁמַ֖ע יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל יְהוָֹ֥ה אֱלֹהֵ֖ינוּ יְהוָֹ֥ה ׀ אֶחָֽד:
Hear, O Israel, Adonai is our God, Adonai is One (or, Unique). —Deuteronomy 6:4
The tradition asserts that when we listen attentively or actively, we can hear the unique voice of our partner(s).Attentive or active listening validates our conversation partner(s) and helps their messages to break through the barriers to communication which surround us.
Rabbi Judah ben Shalom taught: “If one poor person pleads before another person, the second one does not listen to the poor one. But if the person who comes to plead is rich, the second person welcomes and listens to the rich person right away. God, however, does not act this way. In God’s presence, all are equal, whether they are women, slaves, rich or poor. —Exodus Rabbah 21:4, She’mot Rabbah שְׁמוֹת רַבָּה
There are many barriers to communication which listening attentively can help us to overcome. Sometimes these barriers are social, political or economic stereotypes or distinctions which obscure our conversation partner(s) and their messages. Sometimes the barriers are expectations or memories. Sometimes they are cultural forms or linguisticexpressions that are unknown to us or dimly understood. In any of these cases, we can mislead ourselves by blocking our perception or our conversation partner(s) and their messages and prevent ourselves from receiving them as they actually are.
דֶּ֣רֶךְ אֱ֭וִיל יָשָׁ֣ר בְּעֵינָ֑יו וְשֹׁמֵ֖עַ לְעֵצָ֣ה חָכָֽם:
The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but the wise man accepts (hears) advice. (Proverbs 12:15 (Mishlei מִשְׁלֵי))
There are times when, convinced of the correctness of our position, we are unwilling to be shaken from what we suppose to be our security.We pretend to hear what others say, but we are truly closed and, therefore, we dismiss even advice that we suspect may be valuable.Whenever we limit our view to what we see through our own eyes, and resist hearing the views of others, we limit our own capability; as in the world of nature, the power to grow depends upon being open to stimulation from outside resources.
Happy are the people whose leaders listen to average Joes. —Babylonian Talmud, Talmud Bavli תַלְמוּד בָּבְלִי,
Rosh Hashanah 25b רֹאשּׁ הָשָׁנָה
Leaders, that is to say, anyone who wishes to move others and themselves in the best direction, namely, in a direction that coheres with God’s plan as manifest in the structure of the universe, will not find traces of the path God would have us follow only in the artifacts made by and the words spoken or written by the cultural, political, economic and social elites.On the contrary, one will find the same pathway limned in the expressions of the folk, amcha (Your People), the “average Joes” who live in the everyday.And more accessibly so, since the level of affectation and jargon is so much lower.
God’s voice reached the People of Israel according to their ability to be obedient.The elders heard God’s voice according to their ability, the adolescents, the youths, the children and the babies heard God’s voice according to their ability to follow God’s words.The women heard God according to their ability, and even Moses heard God according to his ability.As it is written, “As Moses spoke, God would answer him with the voice” (Exodus 19:19).In other words, God would answer Moses with a voice that Moses was capable of hearing.” —Midrash Tanchuma מִדְרָשׁ תַנְּחוּמָה ,
She’mot 25, 90b שְׁמוֹת
God speaks to us as a unique being, in a voice that addresses humanity and each individual simultaneously, uttering universal truths in the particular voice addressed to each uniquely capable human, while transmitting that voice in a form accessible to all, called sacred text or Torah.Torah is the modality God uses to make the moment of מַתַּן תוֹרָה (matan Torah, the giving of Torah) reproducible, to make the act of reading, studying and understanding Torah the act of receiving Torah at Mt. Sinai.God’s voice speaking Torah is a kind of fractal, true and particular at the same time.God can transmit Torah universally, but we can only receive Torah individually, לְפִי כֹּחוֹ (le’fi kocho, according to the individual’s power or ability), so Torah is only fully manifest in the aggregate of 600,000 “individual Torahs” present at Mt. Sinai.Would that we could, any of us, comprehend that superscribed revelation; that perception occurs only in the mind of God.