During the Jewish month of Elul (August/September) leading to the recent High Holy Days, I made a semi-resolution. The Sages caution against making vows and for good reason, so I avoided going that far. But I determined to try to be a more attentive listener. That’s a challenge.
I took inspiration from Pirke Avot (Wisdom of the Fathers) 4:1 attributed to Ben Zoma: “Who is wise? One who learns from every person.” So often, we only pretend to listen to others while our mental wheels spin on and on. We hear words, but the thoughts and intentions behind them don’t register. We’re too engrossed in googling our minds for ways either to refute the speaker or demonstrate that we know more.
Many people, myself included, love to engage in forms of mental gymnastics. But at the age of seventy, I’m increasingly aware not of what I do know but of what I don’t. I’ve recognized the possibility—indeed, the probability—that others can offer ideas worthy of reflection rather than rebuttal or revision.
Not that I’m waving the flag of false humility. Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) 3:7 advises that there is “A time for silence and a time for speaking.” Obviously, I’m still blogging. Moreover, we all have a responsibility to add knowledge to a discussion or class. When we withhold a fact or considered comment, we deprive others of a learning experience. And while good judgment is required, we have an obligation to correct an error that might mislead others.
Attentive listening also can improve personal relationships. At Congregation Sherith Israel’s Rosh Hashanah services, Rabbi Julie Saxe-Taller gave a sermon on listening without defensiveness when an issue arises. Rather than protesting, interrupting or displaying anger, she said, we do better simply to hear the other person out. Yes, disagreement and anger have their places. But they too often become knee-jerk reactions when someone else speaks about a subject or offers an opinion that may make us uncomfortable or even be contentious.
I started practicing attentive listening last Saturday morning at Torah Study. It went fairly well. I spoke only once—to ask a question. I focused not on what I know but on what others know or how they might get me to look at a piece of the text in a different way. Members of the group may not hear very much from me for the next year (at least), but that’s because I’ll be listening to them.
This brings to mind mid-term Congressional elections only a few weeks off. Our senators and representatives in Washington have a less-than-praiseworthy record when it comes to listening to members of the other party—and sometimes to those of their own. I don’t expect Republicans to become Democrats or Democrats to morph into Republicans. But failing to listen attentively reflects a disturbing preference to demonize others rather than find common ground. Such elected officials say they seek to strengthen the nation. They only weaken it.
So here’s to listening and learning something new. I can’t promise that I’ll succeed, but I won’t fail to try.
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