This post was originally delivered as a Rosh Hashana sermon at Kol Hadash Humanistic Congregation in 2015/5776 as part of a series entitled “The Simplest Things.” You can hear audio of the sermon through the Kol Hadash Podcast.
What was the most important Jewish invention? Not a new technology from the Start Up Nation. Not a medical treatment like Salk’s polio vaccine, not an insight into the physical world like Einstein’s relativity. In the 1880s, into Dr. Josef Breuer’s office came a young Jewish woman named Bertha Pappenheim – she was afflicted with paralysis and speech disturbances. Together the two of them discovered that simply talking about her symptoms, and exploring the thoughts and feelings she associated with them, helped the symptoms reduce or even disappear. The patient called it “chimney sweeping,” but it later became known as “the talking cure.” Sigmund Freud would make it famous through psychoanalysis, and generations since have been helped by this invention; including some of us here tonight. The talking cure does not only help psychological issues, even traumas – the talking cure is why we know that we are much more than our rational, conscious minds; the talking cure is why men have learned to talk about their feelings (some men, at least), and why women’s consciousness-raising groups in the 1960s changed the world – the personal can become political, but only if someone is listening. Diaries have been around for a long time; what made the talking cure different was not the talking. It really should have been called “the listening cure,” because the listening made the difference.
Why do people pray? Why do they join traditional congregations? Why do Catholics go to confessional? They want to be heard. Why are blogs and talk radio call-in shows popular? Why does a Peanuts cartoon with a sign saying “the doctor is in” give us hope, while “the doctor is out” leaves us sadder? Why do we love getting Likes on Facebook? We want to be heard.
If I have learned one lesson in my rabbinic career, it’s been the simple truth that people want to be heard – they want someone to say three simple words: “I hear you.” That need to be heard, the like on Facebook, the favorite on Twitter, having people to hear and understand you, that need transcends theology and religious tradition and time and space. Even the Hebrew God in the Bible wants to be heard: at the beginning the Binding of Isaac story, traditionally read on Rosh Hashana, when Elohim (or God) calls the name “Abraham”, Abraham response “Hineni” which is the Hebrew equivalent of “Yo!” And only then do the instructions begin, after it is clear that Abraham is listening. “Hineini” is also how Abraham responds when an angel of the god Yahveh calls out “Abraham, Abraham,” saving Isaac at the last minute. If you heard that the name for god changed in the middle of the story, that was good listening too – it may well be that two stories were put together, one where Abraham showed his obedience to the hilt (so to speak), and one where the episode was a test of the emergency commandment system; it was only a test. Different groups were attached to different versions of the story, but each one wanted to be sure that their narrative would be heard, and so they both were and are.
We who have used language all our lives may not realize what a great evolutionary leap forward human language truly was. Animals certainly communicate with each other, but has there ever been a Dolphin Shakespeare? (Truth is, who knows?) Our language does not merely work in the present tense, telling us where the food is or watch out for that tiger; we can grapple with the complexities of life and death, we can explore the past and imagine countless futures. But all of that potential in our language goes nowhere if we do not have someone to hear it. Even Tom Hanks’ character in Castaway needed to talk to a Wilson volleyball and not just to himself. He did not need a god; he needed another face.
If we want to understand how important the listening cure can be, imagine for a moment what life would be like if you were not heard: no one to complain to, no one to share your joys, no one to participate in your life. During the Holocaust, one of the motivations that kept some alive was the desire to bear witness, to tell the world what really happened, to make sure that these horrors would be heard and understood and never again.
Sometimes the survivors in America did not talk much about their experiences right after the war because they were not ready; other times it was because their neighbors would not have been able to hear and understand what had been endured by the survivors. Even if the survivors were ready to talk or write, and some of them did in Yiddish, their mameloshn [mother tongue], we on the outside were not ready to say, “I hear you.”
There are many reasons I am fortunate to do the work that I do: I can study what inspires me, I can teach, I have a warm and supportive community. And I get to listen. I meet families in their homes after someone has died, and they tell me about their loved ones the way they want to remember them. Who else gets to experience those moments? Often, the healing begins long before the public memorial, when we share the good stories, the best stories. Sometimes my listening is learning, and sometimes it is a way of giving. The husband who had to leave the house at 5am every morning, so his wife left out a cereal bowl for him every night before she went to bed. The grandmother who, when she was a teenager, would sleep so soundly that her parents would yell at her to get up and get moving; she was so stubborn that even the neighbor would sometimes yell, “Barbara, wake up!” These families talk to me, and I listen for as long as it takes, and then I prove that I heard them by taking what they said and creating the eulogy. The positive responses afterwards I get are not just for representing the deceased well; they are also gratitude for hearing what was said.
I also visit people while they are alive, of course: in the hospital, in rehab, in long term care. It is true that bikur kholim [visiting the sick] is a traditional mitzvah/commandment that retains its relevance and inspiration for Secular Humanistic Jews. And yes, I learn every time from their life experiences, and I can exercise my compassion muscle; I also give them that gift: the gift of listening. It could be hearing the same story about their father’s business for the third time, or maybe the latest in their medical saga. It is good for me to remind myself how it’s not about me all the time, and it is a reminder to be fully present for them no matter what else I have on my schedule. The gift I give is now a birthday party cliché – my presence is my present.
I once went to visit a member of my congregation when I was working in Michigan in the hospital, She said to me, “Why do you want to see me? I look terrible!” I told her, “I’m not here for me to see you; I’m here for you to see me!” And sometimes I can get where I’m not supposed to be. My mother-in-law once had “minor” surgery (of course, minor surgery means surgery on someone you don’t know), and her daughter called her that evening to see how she was doing. The nurse on duty said tersely, “Calling hours are over” and hung up. Before my wife blew up, I said, “Let me try.” I called again and said, “This is RABBI Adam Chalom calling to check on my congregant; can you tell her that her RABBI is calling?” The nurse responded politely that while calling hours were over, she could bring a note to the patient and the patient could call out. Three minutes later, RING! Was this a ruse, a cunning attempt to trick them? In a good cause, yes. It take no title, it takes no training to give a present of your presence by saying, “I hear you.” It just takes patience and attention and time, if you can afford them.
If we listen to those who are in pain, if we tell those who have suffered or those who are suffering “I hear you,” we expand our horizons while offering them the comfort of not being alone. Now this is not what I promised in our High Holidays PR – I wrote then that doing small things could change the world. Not a “butterfly wings in China cause a typhoon in California” kind of change; a clear and tangible way. Let me share two areas where “I hear you” makes a difference in the big picture, and not just visiting the sick. Listening alone may not change the world – we have to act on what we hear, as we will explore tomorrow through what it means to say, “I’ll help.” Starting with “I hear you” is a crucial first step.
Listening in the land of Israel – 15 years ago, I was in Israel for a summer program, and I tried watching an Israeli TV talk show. They ran the credits, the host welcomed his guests, he asked the first question, and within 2 minutes all 4 people on the panel were talking at the same time as loudly as they could. I understand that it is called a “talk show” and not a “listen show,” and I have since seen other, more civilized, Israeli talk shows. But what a useful metaphor for the situation: people talking and yelling at each other with their demands and preconditions and non-negotiables and claims of absolute right and truth and justice and accusations of absolute evil. We are close to 70 years of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, and another conflict between secular Israelis and ultra-Orthodox Israelis, and far too many people still need to learn that you cannot open your mind until you open your ears. And you cannot open your ears until you close your mouth. None of those four participants in that TV yell-fest, no one on opposite sides of a protest screaming at each other, none of them are able or willing to hear the other side.
Step one to “I hear you” is that we cannot assume we already know. How many of you who are liberal listen to conservative talk radio or read any conservative news websites? How many who are conservative explore liberal perspectives on events? It is very human to listen, but it is also all too human to listen only to what we want to hear – we hear that which confirms what we already believe, and we ignore most everything else. A study was once conducted where different groups received different versions of a report on the effectiveness of gun control – self-identified conservatives read a version showing that gun control worked to lower crime, while liberals read one that showed that gun control did not work. When they asked each group what the report the read said, each side claimed their report confirmed their perspective, even though it clearly not. Now I do not totally despair of the possibility of reason, and dialogue, and communication, even across profound differences. I do recognize our natural tendency to hear ourselves rather than truly hearing others.
How much more is this the case when our issue is not an ideological policy debate like gun control, but rather a direct and personal conflict, for our family with our neighbors or for our people against a neighboring people. Can we truly hear their story? Will they truly hear ours? At the end of Apartheid, the new South African government created a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Its task was not legal prosecution – it was to provide a forum for people to speak and to be heard. One documentary about the process was called Long Night’s Journey into Day. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was not perfect, it may have given amnesty to some who deserved prosecution. But think of the importance of the Holocaust survivor testimonies recorded by the Shoah Foundation. The recognition of the Armenian genocide that began exactly 100 years ago this year still creates geopolitical tension. Not only is saying “I hear you” to those who have suffered important for families; it is also important for nations to know that their story has been heard.
Progress can happen when we listen to others, and listening without talking is hard to do. In 2014, a Palestinian college professor took a class of Palestinian students to Auschwitz to show them the Jewish experience of suffering. Afterwards, due to an uproar accusing him of being a “collaborator” and a “traitor,” he was forced to resign. The trip was part of a joint program involving Palestinian, German and Israeli universities; it also brought Israelis to meet Palestinians in refugee camps. The Palestinian professor wanted these students to say to the other, “I hear you” – and THAT was the outrage, that they might understand, even sympathize, with the enemy’s perspective. Lest you think Palestinians are the only rejectionists who deny the other’s narrative, witness attempts in Israel to ban from Arabic textbooks the use of the word “Nakba”, or catastrophe, to refer to Israel’s founding, or the ballistic response to non-governmental organizations like Rabbis for Human Rights which, without taking a position on one state or two, simply document human rights violations in the West Bank. Is it truly impossible to both defend Israel’s right to exist in peace and security and to listen, without talking, to the Palestinian experience? We in America have begun to understand that Columbus Day might not be so positive for Native Americans; to paraphrase Malcolm X’s famous line, they didn’t land on Plymouth Rock; the rock landed on them! If we Jews can learn to listen to those Palestinians, and they hear us say, “I hear you,” some of their ears may well open too. And they need to hear us too – our experiences, our pain, our fears. No guarantees, but definite possibilities.
We see the same problem and the same POSSIBLE solution over and over again. When women describe experiences of sexual harassment or rape to incredulous men, or when Black Americans describe their experiences with stop and frisk policing or the social consequences of the War on Drugs. Listening without attacking, listening without defending, listening to learn and listening to grow – it may seem like “I hear you” is a very simple thing to say, but it can be a very, very hard thing to do. We as a society are NOT incurably racist and sexist, evil people in a corrupt culture that will never improve. It is indisputable that our society has made tremendous progress in the last 70 years. At the same time, it IS conceivable that some among us, even you, even me, have unconscious bias that gives more credit to Bill Cosby than to his first twenty accusers, or bias that assumes that people who look different from us are more likely to be dangerous than those who look like us. A more domestic example: we who are married sometimes do things that annoy our spouses – we rarely do them on purpose (rarely), and we often do them without even realizing the impact. How do we learn that we need to change? “I hear you. You’ve shared how you feel about what’s been happening, and I hear you.” To be better people, to build a better society, we need to say and to live all that comes with “I hear you.”
What if we hear that someone needs our help? Tomorrow morning we’ll explore the next simplest thing to say, “I’ll help.” We need to listen before we understand what people truly need – to hear what is said, and to hear what is not said.
Living with other people can be hard, whether it is one other person in our home, or two people as our neighbors, or 15 million people as members of the Jewish family, or 290 million people as fellow US citizens, or 7 billion people as fellow human beings. Conflict will not go away – it is part of the human condition in the real world. The world will never be fully repaired, but it can be improved if we try. I am not a scientist, but there is inspiration to be had from the impersonal world of physics; on the cosmic scale, no lives matter, which is why they must matter to us. In physics, the law of entropy says that a system only gets less orderly, less put together, unless WE add OUR energy to the system to make things right. Sometimes the energy required involves doing, and sometimes we need to do without doing – to actively hear, to learn, to experience from another’s experience, to create community by communing with each other.
In the words of an unknown writer whose words will live on long after he is gone, “can you hear me now?”