81. Shofetim - WHO LISTENS?

THE STORY is told of a psychiatrist who was asked by a friend, "Tell me, how can you listen hour after hour, day after day, to people who pour out their frustrations and tales of woe from the couch?" To which the psychiatrist is said to have replied, "Who listens?"

Yes, indeed! Who bothers to listen these days? This constitutes one of the tragic predicaments of our times. On the one hand there are the arrogant and opinionated individuals who, swollen with pride, refuse to listen to others. Then there are those who are preoccupied with themselves - with their wants and desires - and are simply deaf to the rest of the world. A third category, to which the vast majority belongs, is that of individuals who are so busy listening to words and sounds that do not deserve a hearing, that they have no time left for communications that merit attention, to words that could make a significant contribution to their own and society's well-being. When words that can benefit and improve our lives are rejected and voices of greed, malice and debauchery are accepted, it leads to deterioration of character and the ruination of the moral fiber of the community.

There is yet a fourth category: those who hear but do not listen. There are two words in Yiddish that sound the same but whose meaning is different: heren and derheren. The first refers to the physical act of catching sounds; the second is intellectual in nature. It represents the ability to grasp the meaning of what one hears. Hearing words may only mean that sound-waves have reached the ear-drums; that the hearing machinery is in good working order. Listening, or derheren, implies that the mind is interpreting the words and is making sense of them, and that they have an influence on our emotions and style of living.

Sometimes when talking to a neighbor or friend, you will notice an empty stare. His mind is miles away from you. He seems to hear only sounds. So you interrupt your conversation and say, "Are you listening?" And even if his answer is yes, you have the feeling that you are wasting your breath.

Teachers will spend a great deal of time preparing a lesson, and be awarded with a bored expression from their students. They simply are not listening. Someone suggested that just as there are public speaking courses offered at universities, so should there be listening courses - on how not only to hear but to listen.

Have you ever visited the United Nations, when it is in session or watched the deliberations on television? There are representatives of various nations who talk; others who are presumably listening and still others who make no pretense of listening but are either dozing, conversing with one another or "doodling" on a sheet of paper. Those who talk keep stressing the principles of the U.N. charter, democracy and peace. The people in the hall know that the words are meaningless and insincere, for the speakers represent nations who are generally the major violators of the principles that they are proclaiming from the podium.

When Soviet spokesmen harangue about self-determination and peace, the delegates cannot help but think of what Russia has done to Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Czechoslovakia. When the P.L.O. speaks of "a secular democratic society in Palestine," one has only to look and see what their people are doing to their fellow Arabs in Lebanon to realize that their words are not worthy to be listened to.

Several years ago the Ecumenical Council of the Catholic Church proclaimed that anti-Semitism is sinful; that Christianity owes a debt to the Jewish religion; that the charge of deicide is false. All thought that at long last this marked an important milestone in Jewish-Christian relationship and that it would usher in an era of brotherhood and love. Recent reports released by Catholic institutions, however, reveal that the attitudes of students in parochial schools and of men and women in the professions haven't changed. Despite pronouncements read and sermons delivered from the pulpits, prejudice lingers on. People heard but did not listen.

In the course of more than four decades in the rabbinate numerous people have come to unburden their hearts and souls to me. If I were at liberty to speak, I could tell a long tale of woes. I do not exaggerate when I say that in most instances the trouble could be traced to a breakdown in communication. Husbands do not listen to wives, and wives do not listen to husbands. They have lost the art of speaking to one another in a meaningful manner. Instead of talking they shout, and instead of listening they whimper and sulk. Again and again I hear the pathetic plea, "Rabbi, please speak to him (or her). I can't seem to reach him (her), for he (she) won't listen!"

When a husband complains that his wife talks too much, I say to him, "Perhaps if you would try and listen to her once in a while she would not feel constrained to talk so much."

Children do not listen to their parents, and parents often fail to listen to their children. "Leave me alone," a child will cry. "It's my life and I'll have my lacks and fun when and where I want them!" But kicks and fun at whose expense? It is the parent who gets kicked in the end.

I once heard a mother shouting to her boy to come home, but the young man paid no attention to her. When I asked the young man why he didn't respond, he said that when his mother means business she shouts much louder than that. Chances are that that boy will someday say regretfully, "Gee, if I only had listened to mother when I was young things would be different with me today!"

Parents do not always listen to children. A father will say, "Please don't bother me now! Can't you see that I am busy? I have things to do and people to see."

Then when the adolescent gets into serious trouble, he will whine, "He never told me!" or "She never confided in me!"

A young girl was talking to her mother while her mother was reading a newspaper. The girl was angry and said, "Mother, you're not listening to me!" "Yes, I am," responded the mother. "But mother," the child persisted, "you're not listening with your eyes!"

Someone remarked that a happy family can be compared to a baseball team. Mother is the pitcher, father the catcher and the children the fielders. And everyone takes a turn at the bat.

Ah yes! In a happy home everyone must take a turn at the bat - voicing opinions and expressing ideas - while the others do the fielding - listening, advising and helping.

A man confided the following story. He was born in Poland and came to these shores during the Great Depression. He worked hard and did well for himself. In 1939 he received an urgent letter from his only brother in Poland. He begged for an affidavit for himself, his wife and two children to come to the U.S. But this man was reluctant to assume the financial responsibility. Then the war broke out and his brother and his loved ones were cremated in Auschwitz. Now his conscience gives him no peace. Ah if he only had listened!

Unfortunately, that man is not the only one who has turned a deaf ear to the cries and pleas of others.

In this sidrah we are told that when Israel faced war, the kohen meshuach milchamah, the Chief Chaplain of the Armies, addressed the people with words of encouragement and faith. The first words he used were Shma Yisrael, "Hear, O Israel" (Deut. 20:3).

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