Weekly Messages From Rabbi Avi Harari

Learning to Listen

A message from Rabbi Avi Harari

Parashat Behukotai 2017

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Much of Parashat Behukotai exists as a presentation of the tokhehah – the doom and punishment that await Am Yisrael if they stray from the path of God. The description of these ominous conditions is twice preceded by a brief description of Am Yisrael’s potential rebellion:
And if you will not listen to Me… (26:14)
And if in all this you will not listen to Me… (26:27)
R. Norman Lamm noted that the word “shemi’ah,” or “listening,” is a homonym. Depending on the context, it can mean either a literal sensory experience or the more figurative expression of obeying an order or will. He explained that the two meanings dovetail with one another, as the primary cause of disobedience is faulty listening. When God warned the nation about disobedience he was in essence cautioning them about the necessity of proper listening, as well.[1]Seth Horowitz, an auditory neuroscientist, distinguished between the sense of hearing and the skill of listening. He explained that hearing has evolved as our alarm system, operating out of line of sight, and working even while we are asleep. Listening, however, is the intricate application of attention to the auditory sense. In our world of digital distraction and information overload there exists the acute risk of losing the skill of listening. Horowitz warned:

…And yet we dare not lose it. Because listening tunes our brain to the patterns of our environment faster than any other sense, and paying attention to the nonvisual parts of our world feeds into everything from our intellectual sharpness to our dance skills.[2]
Our individual success in all realms of life is importantly dependent upon our ability to cultivate the skill of listening.Michael Taft, author of The Mindful Geek, explained that the first step to learning how to listen is discovering how to be quiet. Instead of appropriately focusing on the words and thoughts of the other person during our conversations, our mind capacity is generally spent pondering our own response. He suggested that we wait one full second before responding to a comment while talking with another person. That second of silence should be spent paying proper attention to what the other person has said. Taft explained that because humans love to be heard, the speaker will begin to say things and respond in ways that are very positive, while you will feel yourself opening to the person in a new way. Proper performance of this simple task has the potential to transform a dysfunctional conversation into one of thoughtful engagement and dialogue.[3]

Summarizing his central thesis, Seth Horowitz wrote, “The richness of life doesn’t lie in the loudness and the beat, but in the timbres and the variations that you can discern if you simply pay attention.” Parashat Behukotai reminds us about the importance of “listening to God.” It teaches that just as our success in dealing with other people and navigating the various challenges of life depends upon our skill of listening, so too does our relationship with God.

Beyond merely “hearing” the words of the Torah, we must attentively listen to them. Instead of viewing the missvot ha-Torah as mere rules and demands to dutifully obey, we must listen for the penetrating “voice of God” as it calls for their performance. The model of “a single second of silence” must exist in developing our relationship with God, as well. It is the necessity for us to pay attention to His words and creation, to let them resonate, and to properly understand them. It is the necessity to listen.

Shabbat shalom!Rabbi Avi Harari


[1] R. Norman Lamm, Derashot LeDorot: Leviticus (New York, NY, 2013), pg. 177-8.
[2] Seth S. Horowitz, “The Science and Art of Listening,” The New York Times, Nov. 9, 2012. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/11/opinion/sunday/why-listening-is-so-much-more-than-hearing.html.
[3] Michael Taft, “Learning to Listen,” Huffington Post, Sept. 29, 2011. Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/michael-taft/learning-to-listen_b_912046.html.