Divrei Torah by Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman
Some years ago, I sat down with a friend, someone who I always thought had such an abundant life. She and her husband had good jobs, one married son with a new grandchild, and one son with a good job doing exactly what he wanted. And everyone in good health. During our visit she shared a story about her son. At 32 years old, he came out to himself as gay and then came out to his parents who are lovingly supportive to him. Yet for all these years until now, he had struggled to accept himself and so he became isolated from any supportive community of peers. As his mother related his story, the pain in her eyes was palpable, for she, like every mother, longs for her child’s happiness and cries for his suffering.
This past week I reconnected with another old dear friend who shared her story about her 24 year old son who has been struggling with mental illness. She expressed the pain of isolation from her friends who simply cannot “deal with” their chronic crisis situation.
How these and so many other conversations reveal the hidden suffering that our friends, family and neighbors are experiencing. The fact is that most everyone has a story that hurts, though most often we do not know and we do not see. I was privileged to these stories for one reason only; I simply made space to listen.
My friend had not been able to talk to others about her gay son because he had not yet come out to others, but in confidentiality she shared this story with me. And as she did, I watched as a great weight lifted from her. Even in her pain there was a sense of joy and gratitude that she was able to finally share the truth and be received with love. In tears she thanked me for listening, for holding her story with her.
This week’s Torah portion opens with the words, “if you will surely listen- eikev tishma’un.” Tishma’un comes from the root word Sh’ma which means Listen. Just last week we read the declaration of the Sh’ma itself: Listen! Israel! - Shma Yisrael - God is One. This word Sh’ma/Listen appears 92 times in the book of Deuteronomy. Surely, this is something we should listen to!
All the world is speaking to us all the time; the birds, the rivers, the melting glaciers, our ancestors, our neighbors, our children, facebook, the nightly news… They are all speaking and this can surely feel overwhelming. Often, our instinct is to close down for self-protection. This is a natural response. But paradoxically, the way in which we can actually create peace amidst the cacophony is through the act of deep listening.
The wisdom-bearers of our tradition understood that our ability to hear takes place in the sense organ known as the heart. In fact, when God appeared to King Solomon in a dream and asked him what he would like to be given, Solomon replied: lev shomei’a, meaning literally “a listening heart.”
Listen, Israel! All the world is indeed crying out but first you must listen to your own heart. Our Torah portion this week instructs us with a strange image. It says, “umaltem et orlat l’vavavchem- you shall circumcise the foreskin of your heart.” This is a powerful and perhaps unsettling image, but it is intentionally provocative. It is meant to grab our attention. Torah says: here is the medicine for the blocked heart, for the common tendency to close off our deepest listening. To circumcise means to remove the outer protective covering and reveal the inner sensitive organ. Torah enjoins us to remove the shield that blocks the heart from the basic function of hearing and listening.
So how do we do this?
First and foremost, to really listen requires setting aside our own inner dialogue. It requires not preparing what you will say while the other is speaking. It requires creating an inner space where the presence of another can fully enter. It requires a contraction of the self, a stepping back to receive another in all their fullness of being. It means making the hole in our heart larger, rather than trying to fill it.
In exactly one week, next Shabbat, we will begin the new month of Elul, the last month of our Jewish year. Tradition asks that we dedicate this month to heshbon hanefesh- to taking an account of our souls. It is time for spiritual bookkeeping to assess our actions and begin to reconcile our accounts with our families, neighbors and communities. As we begin this process, let us return first to the heart. Is their a hole in your heart? Can you make it bigger? Can you listen deeply to the urgings of your own heart and to the felt needs of another?
Our Torah beckons, “eikev tishma’un,” if you will surely listen, then blessings will flow for all. When we listen compassionately, we provide the gift of understanding to another. We relieve some of their singular burden and in so doing we expand peace in our world. Let us enter into this new month together with an intention to simply become better listeners. If that is all we do, then we will have made a tremendous contribution to expanding a web of peace into this world.
Rabba Kaya Stern-Kaufman
Rabba Kaya served as Interim Rabbi of RJC from October 2017 through June 2019.
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