Learn to Listen

Parashat Ki Tisa, Exodus 30:11-34:35

Jonathan Roush, Beth Messiah Congregation, Montgomery Village, MD

People love to talk but hate to listen. Listening is not merely not talking, though even that is beyond most of our powers; it means taking a vigorous, human interest in what is being told us. You can listen like a blank wall or like a splendid auditorium where every sound comes back fuller and richer. (Alice Duer Miller)

Our portion this week opens with Exodus 30:11: “The Lord spoke to Moses saying…”

Drift down to verse 17: “The Lord spoke to Moses saying…”

Verses 22 and 34. Chapter 31:1 and 12. Chapter 32: 7 and 9.

Over and over again we see one party talking and one party listening.

Of the five senses that we have (see, smell, taste, touch and hear) hearing is, arguably, the one we have the least amount of control over. We cannot help what we hear. However, we do have incredible control over what we choose to listen to. Could the exacting details of God’s instructions have been communicated to the Israelites if Moses had not been listening?

Ours is a world that can’t stop talking. Yet at the center of Jewish faith and practice is the Shema, the call, the command to listen: “Shema Yisrael! . . . Listen Israel!” Interestingly enough, the world “listen” is an anagram of the word “silent” in English. How else can we listen unless we are silent?

It’s not for nothing that the Torah records the phrase “The Lord spoke to Moses” (or some form of this phrase) no fewer than 21 times in this parasha alone, while there are only six or so moments recorded of Moses talking to God. The emphasis is clear. Are we listeners?

Proverbs 15:28 encourages us that “The heart of the righteous ponders how to answer,” yet author Stephen Covey once noted, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply.” This breakdown between hearing and intentional listening results in an isolating fracture. Not only between us as individuals, but also between us and God. We all need to be heard because listening is an act of engagement. It’s the foundation of relationship.

In a 2014 sermon Rabbi David Wolpe said that people unfold slowly. “They give new dimensions, different colors, different vectors, different ideas of who they are, where they’ve been and where they’re going each time we engage with them.” Obviously, this requires us to spend time, and it takes real effort.

This stands directly opposite of the world we live in. The world moves so quickly now. Nearly anything is available to us at the touch of a button. Have a question? I can have answer for you in a matter of seconds. Want to see a movie? You don’t even have to go to the theater or the video store, you can stream it on your TV. Want some food? Hop down the street to a fast food place or better yet order in. Want to see the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel? Pull up a photo online. Want to talk to friend? Drop them a text.

We’ve replaced experience with expedience (pseudo-experience)!

It’s not that these things don’t have a useful place in our lives, but would anyone argue that these represent the best, most meaningful and fulfilling ways to experience life? We’ve grown accustomed to the idea that if we can’t get it done quickly, then it’s not really worth doing. Yet, as Rabbi Wolpe notes, one of the effects of this lightning-quick age of technology is that “we know ourselves less well, other people less well and the world less well. We have much more information but less insight.”

There are some things you simply cannot shortcut or shortchange.

By taking the time to listen,

we engage in a way that changes both ourselves and the people we interact with. In music, the way we listen has an immediate effect on the unfolding of what is happening in the ensemble. We are not just each playing our individual instruments at the same time, but rather we are playing together. Our listening and actions are inseparable. (What Does it Mean to Listen by Michael Gold.)

This is not just true of music. This is true of our lives, our relationships with each other and
with God. Moses was changed through the time he spent listening on the mountain.

He was there with the Lord for forty days and forty nights; he ate no bread and drank no water, and he inscribed upon the tablets the words of the Covenant, the Ten Commandments. And it came to pass when Moses descended from Mount Sinai, and the two tablets of the testimony were in Moses’ hand when he descended from the mountain and Moses did not know that the skin of his face had become radiant while God had spoken with him. Exodus 34:28-30

That fact that Moses was physically altered is a beautiful word picture of this dynamic listening.

Albert Einstein said:

A human being is part of the whole . . . limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separate from the rest—a kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

We may not have 40 days on a mountain, but we do have Shabbat. We stop and we work to focus our attention and intention more than any other day. On Shabbat we work harder not just to hear, but to listen. To listen to each other, to listen to creation around us, and to uncover the voice of God in it all.



Stephanie Escalnate