Yom Kippur Morning 5776
Rabbi Rachel Timoner
Congregation Beth Elohim
Franklin Roosevelt often endured long receiving lines at the White House. He complained that no one really paid any attention to what was said. The story goes that one day, as an experiment, he murmured to each person who shook his hand, “I murdered my grandmother this morning.” The guests responded with words like, “Marvelous! Keep up the good work. We are proud of you. God bless you, sir.” It was not until the end of the line, while greeting the ambassador from Bolivia, that his words were actually heard. Nonplussed, the ambassador leaned over and whispered, “I’m sure she had it coming.”1
Though it’s easy to be critical of the people on that White House receiving line, anyone who’s ever tried to meditate has a sense of how thoughts continuously run through our minds, how often we are entirely occupied by the flurry of activity within, especially when we’re under pressure. In order to hear another person there has to be a pause in our inner conversation. There has to be some shrinking of me in order to make space for you.
Then there’s that person before us with something to say.
Listening as a Practice
I first became sensitive to listening as a child. I remember adults pretending to listen but not really listening. I remember telling a story when I was about five, when the person I was speaking to became distracted and started saying, “Uh-huh, uh-huh” but her eyes were wandering and I could tell I’d lost her attention. I remember struggling to stay with my train of thought, to keep track of what I was saying. It was as if, in not being heard, my words evaporated. It was as if, in not being witnessed, I didn’t exist anymore.
1 Thanks to Rabbi Judy Schindler for this story and a great deal more in this sermon.
I remember deciding that I wanted to be a person who listened well. Over time I learned that when another person listens to us fully, we can access language and insights that are only apparent, only discoverable, in that person’s presence. Something happens between us, some kind of alchemy of listener and speaker that enables truth and understanding to emerge. But this is not easy. The louder our external world gets, the more competition for our attention, the more distractible we are. Many times I have come home for one precious hour with my family and found that as soon as Felicia starts to tell me something I remember an email I was supposed to write. The next thing I know my eyes are on my phone and I’m not listening.
Oliver Sacks, alav hashalom, when asked how he’d like to be remembered in 100 years, said “I would like it to be thought that I had listened carefully to what patients and others have told me, that I’ve tried to imagine what it was like for them.” “To use a biblical term, [I would like it to be thought that I] bore witness.”
To bear witness, to listen so carefully that we imagine the experience of another, is a sacred act.
I’m in here, and no one else, no one, knows what it is to be in here. In order to even try to communicate, I need to trust that you will receive my words with the benefit of the doubt, with honor for my humanity, for my effort, with forgiveness for my limitations, my faulty choice of words as I try to illuminate some facet of experience previously unnamed or unknown to me.
I have to believe, I have to have faith, that we have enough in common that you could understand what it’s like to be in here. And that my experience of being in here has meaning for your experience of being in there. I need to believe that I will find words to express that meaning, words that you will apprehend and words that will touch something inside of you. In that process, we both come to know that we are less alone. And we both understand something more about what it is to be. Communication becomes a form of self-discovery and other-discovery. The more we know the other, the more we know the self.
Shema is the first prayer that most of us ever learned. We say it three times a day, we say it before bed, we say in the mikveh at conversion, we say it upon our death bed. Shema, listen, pay attention. You think you know. You don’t know everything there is to know. In listening you realize that it’s all One. That we belong to each other and have so much to learn from the other.
“Who is wise,” Ben Zoma asks in Pirkei Avot, “One who learns from every person.” There’s a reason that the Jewish approach to Torah study is chevruta. Chevruta means friendship. In the process of Torah study, we are trying to learn deeply about what it means to live a good life. We are trying to extract lessons encoded for us 3,000 years ago. So we sit with another person, a friend, and encounter a text together. In so doing we find in the listening and the speaking out loud more than we ever could glean by reading on our own. Something happens in the speaking and the listening that transforms the learning and reveals truth. I study every week with a chevruta, and I find this to be unfailingly the case.
Many of us think of ourselves as good listeners, but how good are we at listening to the people closest to us?
Our parents are often the most difficult people for us to bear witness to. We tend to see them in such a fixed and habitual way. What has it been like to live their lives? What has it been like to suffer as they’ve suffered? To dream as they’ve dreamed? What is something new that we can learn from our parents by listening?
What about our brothers and sisters? How do the patterns from our childhood shape and limit what we can hear from them? Who are they now? What might we perceive if we were to listen?
How about our colleagues? Are there people in our workplace from whom we habitually expect the worst? Whose actions we unsympathetically misinterpret? What could it look like to listen to them?
Might we listen with finer tuning to what our children need, rather than presuming we know what is best? Might we be able to hear what they’re not saying, to sensitize ourselves to listen beneath and between their words? How about our beloveds, our spouses, with whom we’ve taken on this life? The people we’re most likely to take for granted because they’re always there. What listening are they quietly needing from us? How do they feel unheard? How might we bear witness to the burdens and beauty of their humanity?
The Hasidic master Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev in the Ukraine said that he learned the meaning of love from a drunken peasant. The rabbi was visiting the owner of a tavern in the Polish countryside. When he walked in, he saw two peasants at a table, gloriously drunk. Arms around each other, they were protesting how much they loved each other. Suddenly, Ivan turned to Peter, “Peter, tell me, what hurts me?” Bleary eyed, Peter looked at Ivan. “How do I know what hurts you?” Ivan replied: “If you don’t know what hurts me, how can you say you love me?”
Turning to the Other
Father Greg Boyle, known as Father G, founded Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, a successful outreach program that helps gang members get into recovery and off the streets. In his memoirs, Tattoos On The Heart, Father G tells a story of a heroin addict, gang member, street person, and occasional prostitute, named Carmen. One Saturday morning while feeling pressed for time, Father G stops in his office to quickly clear some busy work off of his desk. Just as he is about to begin, Carmen defiantly barges in, sits across from him, and says:
“I went to Catholic school all my life. Fact, I graduated from high school even. Fact, right after graduation, is when I started to use heroin.” “And I … have been trying to stop … since … the moment I began.”
We’re always in the middle of something, whether it’s important business or simple daily distractions. But the person we think is an interruption may be bringing us the very lesson we are on earth to learn, or the very insight we need on that particular day; he or she may open our minds and hearts to an experience we’ve never had, or may connect us to a truth we thought was ours alone, but realize, in listening, we share.
The more we think that someone is different from us, whether because of race, class, neighborhood, culture, religion, age, or experience, the more courage it takes to listen.
Anna Deveare Smith calls this “A broad jump toward the other.” She says, “This is exactly the gift that is missing in the United States of America, and to me this is a crisis in this country, that we don’t know how to feel about anybody but the people who not only look like us but think like us.”3
To the extent that I think I’m the same as an other, I’m not attuned to the ways that we’re different. To the extent that I think I’m different from an other, I’m not attuned to the ways that we’re the same.
2 Thanks to Rabbi Aaron Alexander for this source.
3 From “Young Artists” on HBO.
Boyle watches as:
Carmen tilts her head back until it meets the wall. She stares at the ceiling, and in an instant her eyes become these two ponds, water rising to meet their edges, swollen banks, spilling over. Then, for the first time, she looks at Boyle, and says:
“I … am … a … disgrace.”
Suddenly, [Boyle says,] her shame meets mine. For when Carmen walked through that door, I had mistaken her for an interruption.”
Turning Toward African-Americans
There are three kinds of listening to the other I would like for us to do together at CBE over the next few years. First, the events of this year, the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Sandra Bland, the Charleston massacre, all beg us to listen more deeply to our African-American sisters and brothers. How well do we understand what it is like to be them? How much do we know what hurts them? How much are we able to love?
“I am afraid.” Ta Nehisi Coates writes to his 15 year old son in Between the World and Me. “I feel the fear most acutely whenever you leave me. But I was afraid long before you, and in this I was entirely unoriginal. When I was your age, the only people I knew were black, and all of them were powerfully, adamantly, dangerously afraid.”
What is it like to live with that fear in every place at all times? What is it like to have the forces sworn to protect seek to destroy you? What is it like to be caught, trapped, between the danger of the streets and the dead end of the schools and the menacing police4 and the yawning jails? Are we willing to listen? Are we willing to bear witness? Are we willing to know what hurts? Are we willing to make the broad jump toward the other?
You’ll find Voting Rights postcards on your seats… as you know, the Voting Rights Act has been eroded, particularly in Southern states, over the last several decades. Signing and mailing these cards is a simple thing we can do to indicate to the US Congress our desire to restore basic voting rights to African Americans in every state of this country. Rabbi Weider and I recently participated in the Journey for Justice, a march organized by the NAACP for racial justice in policing and prisons, in voting rights, in jobs, and in education.
There was a man named Middle Passage on the march. He was 70 years old and he insisted on marching the entire 40 days, 15 to 20 miles a day, all the way from
4 I delivered this sermon with this language, but I would like to make clear in this written version that I do not think most police are to blame for the injustice of the justice system. The police are working for us, the American people, and acting on our behalf. The institutional racism that they are acting out is our racism. It is our problem, our disgrace, our responsibility.
Selma, Alabama to Washington DC. He carried a huge American flag every day. I met Middle Passage while I was marching. Other rabbis who visited the march on other days later told me that when they asked him why he was named Middle Passage he responded with just one word: Slavery. Over the course of the journey almost 200 rabbis participated, each flying in for a day and flying back out. Middle Passage was there day in and day out. And then, just four days before the march arrived in Washington, Middle Passage died of a heart attack while marching.
I feel deeply that our country’s legacy of slavery has left all Americans with half-lives marked by squelched potential and fear of the other. But I never asked Middle Passage why he chose his name. I never learned about his life or his own relationship to slavery. I think I was afraid of what he might say. I think I wanted to feel good about my day trip to the South and if I really listened to Middle Passage, it might have implicated me. Or it might have broken my heart. Sometimes we don’t listen because we’re afraid of what we might hear.
You might excel at being wholly present for the people closest to you in your life. You might be great at listening fully even when interrupted. But what about listening across lines of race and class? Our society is so segregated that it’s challenging to even be in each other’s presence in such a way that deep listening to the other becomes possible.
Over the next few years, I want us to enter into relationships with African American churches in New York. So that we can bear witness. So that we can make a broad jump toward the other. So that we can come to know one another deeply, and so that we can go into action together for the kind of city and world we need.
One year from now will be the 25th anniversary of the Crown Heights riots. How much has changed since then? Who are we to our African-American neighbors? Who are we to our Chasidic neighbors? What kind of listening have we done? What kind of listening could we be doing? What kind of relationships do we want to have 25 years from now?
Turning to Other Jews
Second, listening is as great a challenge within the Jewish community as outside of it. The Park Slope Food Coop hummus wars are legend. In the ugly fight over the Iran deal, we are seeing hatred of Jews by Jews. Jews calling other Jews Nazis. Jews threatening other Jews with death. There is so much shouting, so little room for listening. You might say: I’m great at listening to my parents and my children. I’m all in for listening in Brooklyn’s black churches. I’ll be there. But someone who supports BDS? Not them. Or an AIPAC Netanyahu supporter? Not them. A settler? Not them. Our inability as American Jews to listen to one another affects the Israeli people. It also affects the Palestinian people. Our inability as American Jews to listen to Israelis, the inability of Israelis to listen to each other, could be the pivotal factor in our future as a people. Look at what has happened in Jerusalem just since Rosh Hashanah. We need to be able to talk to each other about this. Can we develop the ability to learn from one another, to seek to understand how and why our opinions differ? Are we willing to be changed by what we hear? Will we create forums that are not characterized by shouting and ad hominem attack, but are spaces for inquiry, for humility, for developing a common language?
CBE has been such a place, a place where Israelis and Americans can come together to confront the difficult questions facing our people, to listen to opposing views, to be challenged in our perspectives, and to expand our ideas about the possible ways forward. I am committed to nurturing a space in which we engage in humility and with patience, in which we express our fears and hopes, and see each other’s humanity; and in which our dialogue is characterized by profound respect even when we differ. In the book of First Kings, Elijah feared for his life and longed to feel God’s presence. An angel told Elijah to stand before God on the mountain of Sinai. On that summit, where Elijah stood, “A great and strong wind rent the mountains, but God was not in the wind; and after the wind there was an earthquake, but God was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake there was a fire, but God was not in the fire; and after the fire, there was a still small voice.” In our conversations about Israel, amidst all the wind of punditry, the
earthquake of fear, the fire of passion, can we become quiet enough, humble enough, to hear the still small voice, the wisdom to find our way forward?
Turning to the Other at CBE
Third, in your search for a new rabbi, Congregation Beth Elohim, you turned to one another and listened. You came together in small groups across lines that mixed all of the different sectors of the community. You met people you’d never known before, across your differences. And you found that you had more in common than you ever imagined.
When I arrived this summer, I knew that my first step had to be listening too—I met with ECC families, Shir L’Shabbat families, Altshul members, Yachad families, Kehilla members, Havurah members, Friday night people, Saturday morning people, Lay Led Minyan people, Brooklyn Jews, parents of teenagers, Shabbat morning learners, Mussar learners. We met in small groups so there was time for each person to speak. I listened, and you listened to one another. Inevitably, in every circle, people heard something they hadn’t known before. Even old friends remarked that they learned new things, understood each other in a new way. Many times I thought: what would happen if all of these little pockets of CBE could hear one another? What would happen if the Altshul people and the Classical Reform people could listen to one another, could get curious about one another? What if old people and young people came together to listen? What if long-timers and newcomers came together to listen? What if we started with curiosity, with humility, with eagerness to learn? How much might we find we have in common? And how much might we grow from our differences?
So, I’d like to do three kinds of listening as a congregation: listening to African-Americans, listening to other Jews about Israel, and listening within our congregation across our differences.
The Listening of Forgiveness
Now, finally, we return to the personal. The listening of this day is about forgiveness. This is the hardest kind of listening. You might be connecting all the dots at CBE. You might have weekly tea with BDSers and AIPACers, together. You might already be in deep relationships across lines of race and class, busy defusing tensions in Crown Heights. You may be unerringly present to the people closest to you. But is there someone out there to whom you do not speak? Is there someone who’s angry at you? In his essay, Toward the Other, Emmanuel Levinas comments on the well-known mishna: “The transgressions of a human being toward God are forgiven on the Day of Atonement; the transgressions against other people are not forgiven by the Day of Atonement, unless the other person is first appeased.”
The entire purpose of Yom Kippur: teshuva, forgiveness, depends upon our ability to turn toward the other and listen. To allow ourselves to be confronted by a reality that might not match our own. Sometimes when we listen to the other we hear what we do not want to hear. Our version of history might be refuted. Our memory might be challenged. Our sense of self might be undermined or threatened. Opening to the narrative of another disrupts our internal monopoly over truth, requires us to make room for a different truth.
Levinas, here and elsewhere, calls God the absolute Other. But he notes that in the case of forgiveness, God is less other than humans are to one another.5 Because God will forgive us on this day even if we do nothing. But God cannot forgive us of our transgressions against other people, unless we turn toward those other people with open hearts, ready to listen. Yom Kippur, then, depends entirely on making that broad jump, on bearing witness, on knowing how it is that the other hurts and in that way knowing what it is to love.
5 Emmanuel Levinas, “Toward the Other,” in Nine Talmudic Readings, Indiana University Press, p. 16.
Dear God, Holy One of Blessing, knower of hearts, teach us to hear, help us to make a practice of listening to our parents, our children, our siblings, our colleagues, our spouses, our friends. Give us the courage to turn toward others to find our common humanity so that we can be united in action for a better world. And may we use this day to listen to those we’ve hurt so that we can know how to love.
Ken Yehi Ratzon.