Rabbi Cohen’s Erev Rosh Hashanah 5777 Sermon – Are We Listening?

Erev Rosh Hashanah 5777
October 2, 2016
Rabbi Heidi M. Cohen

Are We Listening?

This past fall I took a class on Mindfulness.

It seems to be a buzzword right now, mindfulness, and I thought, why not, I could handle being a little more mindful! Little did I know that this class was going to require that I sit quietly and meditate. Let’s be clear, most of you have known me for a very long time, and those who are just getting to know me will be able to figure out very quickly – I don’t sit quietly for a long time! That’s like asking a child to sit on the other side of the room from a jar of warm chocolate chip cookies and say to them, don’t move!

But I was willing to give this class a chance and see what I might glean from its lessons. Yes, I did find that I was able to sit for long, quiet, meditative moments – without snoring. And yes, I did find that those long quiet moments were actually helpful and refreshing. If I opened myself up to this gift of mindfulness during which my phone was turned off and I was not allowed to check in with email, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or Snapchat, I discovered a very valuable gift – the gift of listening.

Now you might wonder, what kind of gift is listening? This is something we automatically do. If we are blessed with hearing, then we are listening all the time. A car horn or siren on the street, the parrots as they fly over TBS or our home, the booms from the fireworks at Disneyland at 9:30 every night, to conversations going on around us. And the world is a very loud place with all the chatter from news to conversations at home, work and school. We hear a lot in our day-to-day lives but the question is, do we really listen?

There is a distinct difference between hearing and listening. Hearing is defined as being able to perceive sound, to understand the sounds – it is one of the senses and is involuntary. We can’t help but hear sounds and even be distracted by them. Listening is making a conscious effort to hear, to pay attention – it is a skill that requires being present.

Our hearing is always on, even when we try to block out sound, we will use white noise or even sound canceling headphones that produce a type of hum canceling out the other noise around us. Hearing can happen even with our eyes closed causing us to pay attention. There are three types of hearing: being startled, think of when someone drops a dish or glass near you and you jump. Bottom up hearing; we hear someone call our name or whistles at us to get our attention. And finally, top down hearing; that moment when we really start to focus on the sound, paying closer attention to what is going on or what is being said so that we can truly listen.

Listening is this last type of hearing, it’s voluntary. We can choose to pay attention or just let the words wash over us. I am aware of those moments where another sound takes hold of my attention or a thought enters my head and I lose a few words someone is saying to me and I have to say, “I’m sorry, can you say that again?” It’s not that I don’t understand, it’s that in that moment I heard but did not listen. I sometimes feel like Doug, the dog from the movie, “Up!” – “SQUIRREL!”

There are so many competing things going on vying for our attention and we’re being torn in so many directions and the question is, what is going on that will win our attention?

We live in a world in which we are exchanging convenience for content. We want our information quickly and succinct. We do not want to sit through long speeches, “uh-hum Rabbi.” Growing up, it was not unheard of for Rabbi Zwerin to deliver a sermon that was close to one hour. Today, rabbis would be hung out to dry if we spoke that long. Even TED talks recommend that speeches be only 18 minutes because our attention span cannot handle anything more than this. Yet the most central tenet of our faith is to “Shema!” Listen! Shema Yisrael ADONAI Eloheinu ADONAI Echad. Listen Israel, ADONAI is our God, ADONAI is one. And this is not meant to be only a proclamation we make to God, this is a proclamation we make to one another and ourselves. When we received Torah and at Sinai we said, “na’aseh v’nismah,” we will do and we will listen. The Talmud makes a point of using the expression “Ta u’shma: Come and listen” when it wants us to pay close attention to something, or to prove a point.  When the Talmud wants to introduce a definitive conclusion to a lengthy discussion, it says learn from this, using the words, shema mina, literally, HEAR from this.

Ta u’shma, come and listen – words a grandparent may say to their grandchild asking them to come, sit and listen to the greatest text a person has to offer, the story of their life. In an effort to record people’s stories, journalist, Dave Isay created StoryCorps. He found through his reporting from the Stonewall Riots in New York to the Flop Houses of the Bowery, that by listening and sharing someone’s story, he gave them legitimacy. Dave was sent on assignment to learn more about the flop houses in New York City. These are buildings that contain small cubicles with men living in very close quarters. One man whose story he shared was completely overwhelmed by the fact that someone listened to his story and cared to share it. After Dave published his book, Life on the Bowery, he showed the man his page and the man grabbed the book and went running shouting, “I exist!” This simple act of listening and sharing the story gave the man a great gift Dave never expected. For so long the man felt alone in this world, cut off from family, friends and community. But by seeing his story in print he was validated.

Dave expanded on this idea and through StoryCorps he provides thousands of indviduals with the opportunity to not only record their story, but to listen to stories on NPR and through podcasts that they might never have had the chance to hear. StoryCorps has brought together family and friends to deepen their relationships by giving them an opportunity to not only share but especially to listen to one another.

Relationships are built on listening and communicating what it is we need and what we can do in our lives. We find this even within our own congregational family. We have to be tuned in to each other and hope to be sensitive to where each of us are in life. Martin Buber wrote about this in his famous work, “I- thou” as he realized the importance of listening. He wrote that we must relate to another person not as an object, as an “it”, but as a “Thou”, a unique and precious human being.  He summed up his philosophy about religion by saying that it entails responding to the call of another. This is one of the reasons we are a part of a congregation. We don’t join so that we can remain invisible unless by choice. There are some who may be satisfied with, ‘let me come in and pray when I need to and then just quietly leave.’ And there are many who, like myself, are social creatures. We join community because we want to have a personal connection and to join in on the conversation. We want to be seen and we want to be listened to.

Earlier this summer we sent out to the TBS community a census, a survey. The purpose was first to make sure we have everyone’s correct information– basics like contact information, children, and professions so we can create connections when someone says they are looking for someone who can do something specific. But it was also a survey to help us better understand the needs and thoughts of the community. We know that Judaism and our community is always changing – that’s why we are Reform Jews, nothing stays the same, it is fluid and constantly in motion as we discover what we need and where we are. Through the hard work and vision of Angela Holmes and Randie Noell along with Nancy Fidel, we have received over 146 responses – not bad from a 500 family congregation. And I am not going to give a run down of all the results, that report will come later. But here is some of what we heard, what is working and what we can build on together. From more programs for seniors and singles, lectures for adults, building our youth programs that work with the busy lives of our students, to setting the times of programs and services to either later or earlier depending on the demographic. You were honest in areas that we need to strengthen and you raised your hand and said, “we’re here to help, just ask us and we’re there!” A great testament to this was our Sha’Barbecue on August 26; we asked and you heeded the call to create an awesome Shabbat evening together. Thank you! For all of you who stepped up then and those of you who are stepping up over these High Holy Days, thank you! You called and we listened! And we’re going to talk more about what we heard and what we are listening to in these conversations over these days of Awe and this year – because this is the year of Shema! This is the year that we listen to our community, ourselves and to God.

We began this evening with the sounding of the shofar whose purpose is first to startle us to be awake and pay attention. The shofar sets the most active moment of listening from this evening and calls out saying, ‘something important is going to happen.’ Our worship then reminds us that someone wants to get our attention and needs us – God is calling us to hear the words of not only our prayer but also of our heart. And then to understand the purpose of this moment: we must listen to God calling us and take stock of our lives and see where we are going if we continue down the current path or forge a new one. It can be at this moment that we recognize that we must be listening.

And so, I conclude where I began, mindfulness – the call to be more present and to listen. Julian Treasure suggests how we can be more mindful and listen more closely. RASA – the Sanskrit word for essence. To get to the essence of what we are experiencing, we can take this word, RASA and use it’s letters as an acronym for listening: Receive, Appreciate, Summarize, and Ask. As we work toward listening to one another let us receive the words someone is sharing openly and wholly. We should appreciate what is being shared and not be either defensive or dismissive. What someone has to say is important and there is something to be learned or gleaned. Summarize what we heard; be an active listener. Let someone know that you hear them by a simple word, “so…” And finally, don’t leave something on the surface, ask; ask what the other means or needs or what you can do with what you have heard.

Talmud teaches us that we have been given two ears and one mouth for a reason – that we should listen more than we speak. May we, during these Days of Awe and throughout the year and beyond, become more active and appreciative listeners. And through our listening may we grow as a community and as the Jewish people always knowing that who we are is not formed from stone but by breath and soul. We are a people always changing and always growing, and together, through mindful listening we have the ability to create change and strengthen our community. And so I invite us to connect with one another and let’s create a stronger TBS community of connection, understanding and peace.


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