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The Art of Hearing


Rabbi Dovid Simon


Self-help books abound with advise on listening: active listening, dealing with selective listening, getting your children to listen . . . the list goes on and on. This being so, it comes as no surprise that the Torah, the world’s oldest self-help manual, places tremendous importance on proper listening. Much of what our tradition has to say about listening has a great deal of relevance to the period in which we presently find ourselves, the Days of Awe - the ultimate time of Jewish self-help.

The Talmud Yerushalmi relates that Rav Yosi ben Chanina,  with the aid of ruach hakodesh (Divine inspiration) saw a vision of a woman who was known to be extremely righteous during her lifetime suffering in Gehenom. Strangely, upon closer examination Rav Yosi saw that the hinge at the opening to Gehenom was intertwined with her ear. In repeating this story to his students, Rav Yosi explained that although this woman had lived an extremely pious life, she never made any effort to conceal her piety from others.

From this incident we can gain a great deal of insight into the type of modesty that one should seek to achieve in his or her Divine service. Rav Dessler writes that one who wants to measure the extent to which his actions are done for the sake of heaven and the degree to which they are merely a result of glorified self-interest should look and see how many of his deeds are known by others. The Torah tells us, “Hatzneiah lechet im Hashem Elokecha - you should walk modestly with Hashem your G-d”. According to R’ Dessler’s principle, perhaps we can also understand this verse as saying, “When a person acts with modesty, this indicates that the person is close to Hashem.” Indeed, the extent to which one desires that one’s deeds be known by others tell us a great deal about one’s true level of mitzvah observance. However, what does the Yerushalmi mean when it tells us that Rav Yosi saw that “the hinge of the gate of Gehenom was intertwined with her ear”? The Tashbatz observes that the hinge that pierced this woman’s ear is reminiscent of another type of ear-piercing with which we are already familiar. Although a Jewish slave who, after completeing his obligatory six years of work, wishes to continue working for his master is permitted to maintain his position, the Torah commands that in such a case the slave’s ear must first be pierced.

What is the idea behind this mitzvah? Why does the Torah require that the slave undergo such a seemingly cruel and painful act? Our Sages tell us that this procedure actually serves as a type of atonement for this person’s ear which heard Hashem proclaim at Mt. Sinai, “For they are my slaves who I have taken out of the land of Egypt”. After hearing clearly that the Jewish people are Hashem's servants how could a person choose to enlist in voluntarily servitude? Thus, because it did not internalize that which it heard clearly at Mt. Sinai, and as a direct result of this brought about the decision to become a “slave to slaves”, the slave’s ear must now undergo this process of atonement. In essence, this piercing is a message to all who witness it and most importantly the person himself that his situation was brought about by a fault in his ability to listen and internalize that which he heard. Thus, it is this conceptual “lacking of the ear” which in turn manifests itself in a physical reflection of this fact which will stay with him for the rest of his life. This same concept, continues the Tashbatz, can also be used to explain Rav Yosi’s mysterious vision. Because she desired to hear about her valuable deeds from the mouths of others, this woman prevented herself from listening to the depth and importance of the Torah’s command, “Hatzneiah lechet im Hashem Elokecha” As in the case of the Jewish slave, this lacking in her ability to hear the truth resulted in a spiritual manifestation of this fact.

This incident also alludes to the fact that if a person is not careful to hear the truth correctly the person opens up a gate to all the impurities and negative aspects in the world. Interestingly, the Reishit Chochmah adds that the “hinge” pierced her from one ear to the other. This emphasizes the fact that one must attempt to ensure that his or her acceptance of the truth be total, as if it penetrates from one side of his head to the other.

The Alter of Kelm compared a person who has not mastered the art of hearing to a common person attending a symphony performance for the first time in his life. While the grandeur of the music and the way in which all of the different instruments mesh together will undoubtedly inspire him, his appreciation of what he is hearing will always be limited by his untrained ear. So too, a person who has not sufficiently trained oneself in the art of hearing may listen carefully to what is being said, but the depth and significance of what is heard will undoubtedly elude the individual.

In order for us to really make a change this year, we have got to become more skilled listeners. This means that we need to take the time to listen to others and really hear what they are saying. Unfortunately, many times we do not comprehend the true meaning of what we hear simply because we have already predicted what we think the speaker is going to say before the speaker has even opened his or her mouth. If we wish to achieve authentic communication we must cast aside all of our preconceived notions in order to focus on what is being said. Not only will this approach help us to succeed to a much greater degree in our personal relationships, but it can also serve as the first step to the overall improvement of our entire Jewish observance. Far too often, our preconceived notions about a given issue lead us far astray from the truth. By making a concerted effort to honestly examine the individual issues that each of us is dealing with and by living lives which are faithful to the truths which we have heard and absorbed, we clear for ourselves the path to growth and most importantly, we begin to develop the type of genuine self-evaluation after which we can stand up on Rosh Hashanah and proclaim Hashem’s ultimate sovereignty from the depths of our hearts.
The first step is to learn to listen and to see without thinking about what we have to say on the topic. Once we have become experts in this, our hearts will take over and lead us to deepen and internalize everything we have heard and seen. Then we will have become experts in The Art of Hearing & Seeing.

In fact the irony is, as we see in Chazal, that in order to hear at a deeper level we have to listen at a simple level and only then it will penetrate to the deeper level.

In Yeshayahu (6:9-10) G-d speaks to the prophet and tells him, “Go and tell this nation you shall surely hear and not understand, surely see and not know. This nation’s heart and ears are heavy, and its eyes downcast. If only it could see with its eyes and hear with its ears, its heart would understand, repent and be healed.” The Malbim explains that this reproof was forthcoming because the Jewish people were not willing to listen to the prophet due to an overload of ideas and information. Therefore, G-d’s advice to them was to tell them very simply “you shall surely hear” or “you should surely see” and not mention the fact that there is something to understand “and not understand” or to know “and not know”. If they think that they have to look deeper into his words it will immediately turn them off and they won’t hear or see anything, rather just tell them to listen and see.

You may ask, if they aren’t going to understand what is the purpose of listening and seeing? That is what the verse finishes off if only it could see with its eyes and hear with its ears, and its heart will understand, repent and be healed””, in other words just tell them and let them see in a very simple superficial way, and their hearts will take care of the rest.

In the school classroom or if someone is giving a lecture or a demonstration, as the teacher/lecturer starts to speak, the questions start flying before the attendees have even given themselves a chance to hear or to see.

We see that in order to attain the deeper level that we are required to in order for the truth to really penetrate, since we are in a generation where “this nation’s heart and ears are heavy, its eyes downcast” the key is first and foremost to learn to listen and see on the most simple level.

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