Rabbi Rant: The Power of Listening

by Aaron Potek / March 29, 2017

Maybe I don’t know how to relax.

While most people choose to spend their vacations on a beach, last week I spent my vacation in the West Bank.

Through an organization called Encounter, I was there facilitating a group of American Jewish leaders who came to learn about Palestinian narratives. Encounter is non-partisan and has a unique educational philosophy rooted in listening, not dialogue.

I’m a strong advocate for dialogue, and I struggled for years with Encounter’s methodology. Why I am being silenced, instead of being able to respond and challenge? Also, there are at least two sides to every conflict – why are we exposing participants to such a distorted, one-sided view?

More recently, however, I’ve come to appreciate the deep spiritual power of listening.

As Pádraig Ó Tuama, an Irish theologian who was recently interviewed by Krista Tippett, said: “I think we infuse words with a sense of who we are. And so therefore, you’re not just saying a word; you’re communicating something that feels like your soul… There is the way within which there’s a generosity of listening. And when somebody says something to try to figure out, ‘Did I hear them correctly?’”

We all need to be heard. When we focus on our own need to be heard, we become incapable of hearing others. But when we remove the expectation that we will be heard, we are able to truly listen. In order to fulfill that need in others, we have to temporarily suppress that need within ourselves.

Listening is an essential part of our spiritual tradition. It’s the focus of a central prayer that we recite every morning and every evening – the Shema: “Listen, Israel…”.

Perhaps we need to remind ourselves of its importance twice a day precisely because it’s so hard to do. Or, perhaps we need the frequent reminder because we Jews are so bad at it. And that’s not my assessment, it’s God’s: “’I have seen this people, and, behold, it is a stiffnecked people” (Exodus 32:8). As the commentator Rashi explains: “They turn the stiff back of their necks toward those who would rebuke them and refuse to listen.”

And so, to counteract this tendency, the Talmud instructs us: “Make your ears like a funnel and acquire for yourself an understanding heart to hear.”

I’ve tried hard to internalize this message this past month. In addition to my recent trip, I’ve also been at JStreet and AIPAC conferences, and I’ve listened to Palestinians, Israelis and Americans with vastly different perspectives.

Listening isn’t about about arguing or debating; it’s about witnessing another’s experience. It won’t necessarily change our views, but it will expand our hearts.

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