I am fascinated by the spirituality of hearing. Hearing requires an intrinsic connection between the source of the sound and the one who hears. The dynamics of hearing are emphasized throughout the Tanach, Talmud, and our liturgy. It focuses on us hearing G-d and each other, as well as G-d listening to us. Ultimately, our acts of listening and responding will bring redemption.
The most famous instance of hearing is the Shema prayer: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our G-d, the Lord is One” (Deuteronomy 6:4). The Israelites are being told to hear our core doxology — G-d’s oneness.
In other areas, we ask that G-d listens to us. The Shema Koleinu prayer in the Amidah says: “Hear our voice, Lord our G-d … accept our prayers in mercy and favor, for You are G-d who hears prayers…” The ability to hear is raised to a Divine characteristic.
The Talmud presses us even further though. In Berachot 15a, we are told: “Let your ear hear what you utter with your mouth.” This may be our most difficult task — to hear and monitor our own speech.
This past year, it seems we have momentarily forgotten how to hear each other and realize the impact of our own voices. Too often our public discourse has been reduced to demeaning rhetoric. The language of inspiration has been replaced by social media consisting of anger, belittlement, and bluster — from both the political left and right. While many disenfranchised voices have come forward this year, declarations of hatred, which long lurked on the fringes of our communities, have also been heard.
The ripples of this past year have left many feeling scared, anxious, and unsure about tomorrow. Approached at kiddush after services, women have confided in me that they feel less safe due to emboldened male coworkers’ use of inappropriate innuendos. Parents express uncertainty about how to talk with their children about not bullying or using “mean language.” This past year, many have felt that a tectonic shift has occurred.
I also hear from a few who continue to be ecstatic about this turn, though they are in the extreme minority.
We need to reclaim the spirituality of hearing. We need to listen to each other more deeply. We need to understand each other’s true pains, anxieties, and narratives. We need to honor empathy to lift each other up. We need to honor our own responsibilities in our circumstances as well.
The Ashrei prayer teaches us the results of this high level of interconnectedness and hearing. In the closing lines it says, “…yishma v’yoshiem”: “G-d will hear and therefore He will redeem them.” In Ashrei, redemption only comes because of hearing.
For 5778, I pray we improve our willingness to hear others. The reaction to some voices will demand a clear moral response. Other opinions will provoke thoughtful inquiry and deliberation. And hearing other voices will kindle empathy and compassion. Hearing each other and ourselves though is a spiritual practice and decision we must make each day.
Wishing you a Shana Tova U’metuka, a good and sweet new year.
By Rabbi Greg Harris
Rabbi Greg Harris is the head rabbi of Congregation Beth El in Bethesda, Maryland.