Shabbat Blog: Va'eira - Listening Changes Everything

Friday, December 31, 2021
Posted by: Rabbi Barry Gelman

 וְגַ֣ם  אֲנִ֣י שָׁמַ֗עְתִּי אֶֽת־נַאֲקַת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר מִצְרַ֖יִם מַעֲבִדִ֣ים אֹתָ֑ם וָאֶזְכֹּ֖ר אֶת־בְּרִיתִֽי׃ 

I have now heard the moaning of the Israelites because the Egyptians are holding them in bondage, and I have remembered My covenant. (Ex. 6:5)  

This verse ushers in the redemption from Egypt. Only after God hears the moaning of the Israelites does He set in motion the process of their freedom. (While similar indications that God has heard the cries of the Israelites serve to move the redemption narrative forward see - Ex. 2:24, 3:7, 3:9, the verse we are studying is the formal beginning o of the process as is evident by God saying immediately after “Say, therefore, to the Israelite people: I am the LORD. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements.”)   

This idea reminds us of the importance of listening as a means towards action. (see here for some of my other thoughts on listening) 

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks reminds us that “listening lies at the very heart of a relationship. It means that we are open to the other, that we respect him or her, that their perceptions and feelings matter to us. We give them permission to be honest, even if this means making ourselves vulnerable in so doing. A good parent listens to their child. A good employer listens to his or her workers. A good company listens to its customers or clients. A good leader listens to those he or she leads. Listening does not mean agreeing but it does mean caring. Listening is the climate in which love and respect grow.”  

The importance of listening, of course, is highlighted in the prayer that Jews recite as a declaration of faith and the first steps in our relationship with God. “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one”.   

In a sense, Jewish history was set in motion by acts of listening – God listening to the cries of the Jewish people and the Jewish people listening to God at Sinai.  

The Chassidic masters teach that the Midrashic statement (Ruth Rabbah 1:1) :  אין מעידין אלא בשומע - “a witness must be one who can hear”, means that God’s revelation of the Israelites depended on their ability / willingness to listen. 

In opposition to God and the Israelites listening we read:   

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר פַּרְעֹ֔ה מִ֤י יְהֹוָה֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר אֶשְׁמַ֣ע בְּקֹל֔וֹ לְשַׁלַּ֖ח אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל לֹ֤א יָדַ֙עְתִּי֙ אֶת־יְהֹוָ֔ה וְגַ֥ם אֶת־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לֹ֥א אֲשַׁלֵּֽחַ׃   

But Pharaoh said, “Who is the LORD that I should listen to Him and let Israel go? I do not know the LORD, nor will I let Israel go.”  

Pharoah’s downfall begins with a lack of listening. How many relationships are ruined by a lack of listening. 

We see in this week’s Parsha that listening is the first step in being an ally. It is at this point, after the Torah records God hearing the cries of the Israelites, that the redemption begins.   

The ability to really effect and generate change begins by listening to the oppressed. It is the only way to truly be a partner.  

We often think that giving is the best way to illustrate our love. The truth is, listening is an even more powerful mode of loving. Rabbi Nagen puts it well when he says: “When we love someone, we care about what they have to say, and thus can - and want to - listen to them.” 

This is an eternal message.  Listening changes everything.   

How can we be better listeners? 

  • Think of a moment in your life when you felt listened to.  Why it was important. 
  • Do you recall times when you were not heard? Why was that difficult / frustrating? 
  • How can we listen better? Here are some suggestions:
    • Listen w/o offering examples of your perceived similar pain
    • Make a conscious decision to listen in order to learn
    • Ask for clarification of what you do not understand
    • Don’t get defensive (take a moment before responding) 

Shabbat Shalom, 

Rabbi Barry Gelman 

Rabbi Barry Gelman is the Director of the Bobbi & Vic Samuels Center for Jewish Living and Learning (CJLL). Rabbi Gelman teaches a number of classes at the Evelyn Rubenstein JCC and is working on injecting Jewish content to existing programs as well as developing new programs to highlight the beauty and relevance of Judaism. 

Category: ERJCC Blog