Rosh Hashana Sermon 5770 -- The Art of Listening September 20, 2009 Rabbi Moshe P. Weisblum, PhD
Happy and healthy New Year 5770,
Imagine you wake up in the morning and there is a message on your answering machine. You push the button and you hear the message:
"GOOD MORNING, This is G-d speaking. Are you listening?
I will be handling all of your problems today.
I will not need your help.
So relax and have a great day!!!"
Isn’t that the way some people think? Jewish teachings do not concur with this approach.
Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish wrote a book entitled "How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and How to Listen So Kids Will Talk." Today I want to speak about how our listening—both to G-d and to those around us - can have powerful results.
If we listen and, especially if we try to help those to whose problems we are listening, we will be emulating G-d, thereby pleasing our heavenly father. By pleasing G-d, we will reap rewards both in this life and in the afterlife. It is even a greater mitzvah if you help others with no expectation of a reward, but simply to follow in G-d’s will.
Listening, my dear friends, really listening, has incredible power. If I were to ask every wife here what improvement she would most want to see in her husband, most women would say their wish is for their husband to listen to them.
When a person knows that you are giving them your undivided attention, they feel important and cared for. Those feelings can translate into desirable action.
For instance, someone you know may have lost his or her job. Because of his age and the present skyrocketing unemployment, he fears he will not find another job. By listening sympathetically to that individual, showing your support, giving encouragement, and just by listening to his or her fears, you will help that person to feel energized and put new effort into finding a job. And chances are that this new energy may well result in a new job. Similarly, when we pray to G-d, if we really concentrate, give G-d our full attention, show our respect, and speak from the heart, we will also feel
Almighty G-d listens to us—to our prayers, both spoken and unspoken—and answers us. The answer to our prayers may not be the answer we want, but it is the right answer even though it may not seem so at the time.
[Frequently wisdom comes from an unexpected source.] A young girl prayed to G-d for a new bicycle for her birthday. When asked by an elderly neighbor what she wanted for her birthday, she confided her prayers to him. Several days after her birthday, the man saw the girl riding her old bicycle and asked her how come G-d had not answered her prayers. She told him that G-d did answer. The answer was "no".
Maybe you remember asking your father for something as a child and your father telling you "no". At that moment, you probably thought it was unfair and you might even have been angry. Looking back now, you probably realize that your father made the right decision.
When our earthly father told us "no," it was for our own good. When our heavenly father tells us "no," it is to help us on the journey that we were put on this earth to travel. By trying to connect to G-d, and by listening to his answers to our prayers, we should be able to correct ourselves.
We read in the Torah how our forefather Abraham was directed by G-d to leave his family and travel. In those days we did not drive in a car to the airport and then get on a plane. People traveled by donkey or by camel. They never knew when they would find food or water or if they would run into hostile people. Yet, Abraham and his wife Sarah followed G-d’s directive.
We read today in the Torah how again G-d spoke to Abraham. This time Abraham was commanded to take his beloved son Isaac and sacrifice him on the Mount Moriah. Abraham listened to G-d and G-d listened to Abraham. G-d sent an angel to prevent Abraham from killing his son and placed a lamb in the thicket for Abraham to sacrifice. Abraham’s reward for listening to G-d was to become the father of our people. When we listen to our father, trust our father, and try to please him, the rewards are great.
Today, on Rosh HaShanna, the gates of heaven are open wide and G-d is listening carefully to all our prayers and meditations.
Today should also be a day that we are open to hear G-d’s messages to us. G-d wants us to become closer to him--exactly like any loving father. How can we do that? There are many ways. We can come to our daily minyan thereby making our prayers stronger through the power of numbers. We can choose to examine our Shabbat observance and see how we can make it stronger. We can be more generous when we are asked to give charity.
G-d sends us messages all the time. Are you listening or are you half listening? Maybe you are praying but thinking about what you are making for lunch, or how to ask your boss for a raise, and not concentrating on your pleas to G-d. We certainly won’t hear G-d’s messages if our mind is preoccupied with other matters.
Most people have never learned the true art of conversation—listening to others and then speaking to them—not having parallel discussions without really connecting. When most people hear someone complaining and they think they want an answer to their problem, most of the time people just need someone to listen to them. They usually know the answers themselves but need to feel that someone cares enough about them to hear their pain.
The other day, I was standing in line behind a father and his less than age-two son, the father was chatting on his cell phone and his son talked to me.As his words were unclear, I did not understand anything he said, but I gave him encouragement and said, "Really, is that so—wow!"
The father, realizing what was happening, ended his phone conversation and turned to me and said, "I guess we all need someone to listen to us."
Things happen to people that they do not connect to G-d. Why? Most people are accustomed to dealing only with what they can see, what they can touch and what they can hear. Say a man gets sick and can’t go to work. He feels inconvenienced, he may even be angry at G-d. But maybe he needed that time to contemplate, to get his priorities straight, or maybe he was being removed from a situation that could have had a long-lasting and damaging consequence.
A woman can’t get pregnant and thinks that G-d has turned his back on her. If we look in the Torah we see that the greatest women couldn’t get pregnant. G-d wanted their prayers. Some people are very impressed with the idea of Zen (7th century AD, China) in Buddhism. It is a form of meditation – self-developing art of listening, including self-listening. However, this notion originated in our ancient Judaism.
An example is: today in our biblical chapter which we just read in the Haftarah - the writings of our ancient prophets - the story of Channah who is childless. She spoke to G-d, but because her words were not audible even though her lips moved, the high priest that she was inebriated and mumbling. G-d listened to the outpourings of her heart and granted her wish to have a son who she named Shumel. She in turn dedicated her son’s life to G-d in appreciation of his gift.
G-d gives us all gifts. How we use the gifts determines how G-d will listen to us in the future. Did G-d give us lots of energy? If so, do we use it to help others or for our own gratification and entertainment only? Did G-d give us the gift of speech? If so, do we use it to advocate for others, to encourage others, to praise others, or for lashon hara – evil gossip?
Do we really listen? Think about the opportunities we have to cheer others with just a warm smile and a sincere question of how the other person is feeling. Then do we listen to the answer while looking at them, and giving them our undivided attention? Thepower of listening can elevate people, can heal people, and can encourage people. As nurses and doctors, are we really listening to our patients? As parents, are we listening to our children? As children, are we listening to our parents? As employees, are we listening to our boss? As business owner are we listening to our employees? We live in a world where we are constantly distracted by Blackberries, email, TV, the radio and telephones and many people have forgotten how to listen.
We are commanded to listen to G-d; we say so every day when we utter the shema. This commandment is written in our mezuzahs and in our tefilin. We are supposed follow G-d, which means that just as G-d listens to us, we have to listen to others. We need to develop and improve our attentiveness capability. Even though it is hard to give up our cell phone or email and listen to our fellow man. There is a Chasidic saying, "Do you know where the L-d is to be found? He is in the place where He is invited to enter."
On this Rosh HaShanna you are invited to pour your heart out to G-d. You are invited to bring G-d into your life. You are invited to hear G-d’s words every day and every hour. All of these invitations are for you – to bring your life spiritual richness, to elevate the quality of your life and the lives of those around you.
G-d loves all types of communication from us. He loves every one of us as though we were his only child. He listens to us when we sing his praises, when we scream for mercy, when we whisper our devotions and when we join with others to give our thanks. One of the great acts of kindness is to listen attentively to another person.
The Chafetz Chaim, who was a great 19th century eastern European rabbi wrote extensively about guarding your tongue, once said, "Do not ask G-d what you think is good…Ask Him for what He thinks is good for you." The only way to ascertain what the Almighty G-d thinks is good for you is to listen to Him.
We pray that G-d will listen to us and that he will inscribe us in the book of life. We pray that the Almighty G-d renew us for a year 5770 to be a good and sweet, happy, prosperous and peaceful year for all. Amen.