An ear to listen – 5778/2017

The Chinese call it living in interesting times, the Jews call it living in mishiga times – a mercurial trumpeter in the White House, a wild turkey in the Korea House, floods and earthquakes, droughts and disasters, wars, terror on the streets and untold human suffering.

We’re like the man sitting on the deck of the Titanic with a glass of whisky saying “I know I asked for ice, but this is ridiculous!”

I know we ask for challenge and variety, surprises and excitement, but this is ridiculous! On this birthday of the world היום הרת עולם even God must be looking around in amazement and confoundment, confusion and sadness.

As confounding as those early days when Cain turned on his brother Abel with a vicious vengeance, hitting him here, drawing blood there, until he discovers how to kill, how to seep the vitality out of another human being, how to diminish your own humanity, how to scar the face of God himself.

What is it that drives the human heart into such darkness, what is it that makes us inflict so much pain and suffering on those around us?

What turned Cain against Abel? Was it simply that he wasn’t able? That he resented Abe’s lightness of heart and step? Or was it something more sinister, something more malignant in the human heart that turns brother against brother, husband against wife, neighbour against neighbour, Nazi against Jew, Tsusti against Hutu, Hindu against Muslim, Buddhist against Rohinga Muslim and Islamic extremist against everyone who is unlike them?

Some 1500 years ago the Rabbis brilliantly dissected the anatomy of the human heart. Look to Cain they said.

ויאמר קין אל הבל אחיו”

ויהי בהיותם בשדה

“Cain spoke to his brother And when they were in the field he killed him”. Cain had words with his brother but there was no conversation, there was no dialogue (no reply is recorded), there was no listening. He spoke, but did not listen. He spoke, but did not hear. As Bob Dylan put in back in 1963: “How many ears must one man have before he can hear people cry”? When we fail to listen we fail one of the most basic lessons of being truly human. So Cain creates a perfect storm of conflict, a breakdown of communication; this is the heart of darkness.

Gary Peer may rightly tell us that it’s all about location, location, location but the Torah says it’s also about communication, communication, communication!

It’s not for nothing one of the most critical words in Jewish prayer and life is שמע

שמע ישראל שמע קולנו שמע קולי. It’s not by chance that the most well-known mitzvah of today is to hear the Shofar. We aren’t a visual culture; we’re an auditory one, a hearing people. It’s no surprise that Freud, a Jew, invented psychology, the listening cure.

You want to know how wars begin? Not when the first shot is fired or the first missile launched. No, they begin when a husband refuses to talk to his wife, when a sister won’t pick up the phone, when a parent stonewalls, when you slam the door and storm out the house – that’s how wars begin,…

They begin when people won’t speak to people; they begin when nation will not enter into dialogue with nation; when you won’t rock up to the negotiation table; when countries prefer to threaten rather than talk.

Leaders have a special responsibility to listen, to hear the voices of the other. To listen and understand doesn’t mean to agree. A wise leader isn’t just an appeaser or populist; but one who provides guidance and direction with passion. But also in a spirit of temperance, wisdom and moderation. As Rabbi Sacks expresses it “It’s not the job of leaders to give people what they want It’s the job of leaders to teach people what they ought to want”. It takes a wise leader to know when to be silent and when to speak out. When to talk about strong action and when to show restraint. And for the leader of the free world to talk at the UN about annihilating another country is surely as unwise as it is frightening. Where are Moses and Mandela? Why are Western governments still supporting the military of Burma; where is the wise voice of Aung San Suu Kyi who we once so admired, not the weak and defensive one we heard on Tuesday. Who will speak for the disenfranchised of her country, of Yemen, Syria and the Congo?

Moshe our greatest leader was, at first, a better listener than a speaker. Being a poor speaker and afraid of public speaking however meant he had to learn how to understand the unspoken cry of others and the still, small voice of God that קול דממה

I know I have done my best work as a rabbi, not by giving fine or fiery speeches, but by hearing the underlying pain of others. I have parented best when I have heard my kids and held off lecturing them. It takes a smart parent to know when to ignore and when to intervene. Listening is the only gateway to communication. So pick up the phone, send that text, make that visit.

Each age has its own unique shofar sound; its own unspoken voices, its own sounds of silence that a leader must learn to hear. Some 1500 years after Moses another superbly attuned leader burst onto the Jewish scene. He was a man who listened with his third ear, his heart, to the tenor of his times; he caught the zeitgeist and in a remarkable gesture of courage and chutzpah saved Judaism from extinction.

I’m referring to the remarkable Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai who lived through some of the blackest days in Jewish history. He was in Jerusalem as it faced destruction in the year 70. He lived through the agony of the disaster, loss of State of Israel. He felt the tectonic shift in Jewish life. He knew this wasn’t just a geographical loss but a metaphysical existential challenge.

Reinventing yourself in an age of change is one of the most formidable challenges. It’s exactly what the student of Rabbi Yochanan, Rabbi Shimon, recommended when he said you need vision more than anything else רואה את הנולד. Seeing the change, catching the zeitgeist, realising that you’re living in a time when things have already utterly and irrevocably changed and that you can never go back. Rabbi Yochanan recognises this, seized the moment, moved the Jewish centre to Yavneh and ensured Judaism would survive the next few thousand years.

We are in the middle of the biggest transformation since the Industrial Revolution: The Internet Age. And it’s transforming and transmuting everything including the way we transact our Halacha and live our lives as Orthodox Jews. It’s shattering the paradigm of unassailable Rabbinic power and veto. Joogle or Rabbi Google today has more knowledge and power than almost any local suburban Rabbi. Chareidi areas in Israel have highest sales of mobile phones in Israel because they have 2 phones each – one kosher approved by their rabbis and one non-approved version with internet and wifi access!

We’re in the midst of a revolution and it’s a shofar call to the Chief Rabbinate of Israel. A clarion call to the Orthodox Rabbinate of Australia. Listen, wake up, open your eyes and embrace the birth if you want to stay relevant, if you want to shape the future, if you want to lead our magnificent community through the morass!  Don’t tell them to vote “yes” or “no” but do show them how to say “Yes” to a terrific, principled tradition of love, compassion, morality and a compelling intellectual legacy. And listen to the קול הנערים the voice of the young who still seek meaning and connection to Judaism but not in the same way as their parents or grandparents.

God says, I have given you a heart to listen, eyes to see, ears to hear. A good heart, a Lev Tov לב טוב a listening heart, a caring heart is the ultimate weapon in a divided and wounded world. It’s the most critical piece of advice of another student of Yochanan Ben Zakkai named Rabbi Elazar. At the end of the day being Jewish isn’t about strictures or scriptures it’s about how Judaism lives in your veins, how it beats in your heart, how it connects you with compassion, how it energises your empathy. If you want to live your Kashrut with care, your Shabbat with sensitivity, your family life with sanctity, live it with heart for that’s what makes us human, that’s what makes us Jewish. Travel with heart! A heart for your life’s partner, for your kids or friend who may be struggling, hear their pain, support their dreams, share their vision. A heart for the homeless, a heart for the stranger for the refugees be they from Aleppo, on Manus Island, or from Myanmar or left stranded by our Federal Government in Melbourne. Have a heart for the gay couple struggling to bring up their kids Jewish. The parents agonising over their child’s mental health and future in our community. A heart for the kids abused in a family or by a trusted friend or teacher.  A heart for the battered woman or agunah; the single mum struggling to make ends meet. A heart for our planet that is ailing and failing.

Only travel with heart and you will find a way to engage your head and your Halacha to meet the trying issues of our community be they the alienation of Jewish youth, falling numbers at shuls, a spiral of intermarriage, a lack of Jewish knowledge. Travel with heart and you will find a way to meet the vexatious challenges of our society be they same-sex marriage or euthanasia, abuse or mental health.

There are times that “try men’s souls”. There are times that try our faith, challenge our confidence and sap our sense of security.

These are the times. Let’s meet them with all the boldness and belief, toughness and tenacity, love and caring that are in our fabulous Tradition, all the strength, talent and richness we have in our little shtetl on the Yarra. All the power that we have in our hearts…

About the Author
Rabbi Genende recently retired as the Senior Rabbi of Melbourne’s premier Caulfield Shule and took up the position of Senior Rabbi and Manager to Jewish Care Victoria, Melbourne’s largest Jewish organisation. He was a senior Reserve Chaplain in the South African Defence Force and is now Principal Rabbi to the Australian Defence Force, Member of the Religious Advisory Council to the Minister of Defence (RACS), board member of AIJAC (Australian Israel Jewish Affairs Council) and member of the Premier's Mulitifaith Advisory Group. He was President of JCMA (Jewish Christian Muslim Association) and a long time executive member of the Rabbinical Association of Victoria. He also oversees Yad BeYad a premarital relationship program, is a member of Swinburne University’s Research Ethics Committee and of the DHHS ,Department of Health Ethics Committee and sits on the Glen Eira City Council’s Committee responsible for its Reconciliation Action Plan for recognition and integration of our first peoples. Ralph has a passion for social justice and creating bridges between different cultures and faiths. For him the purpose of religion is to create a better society for all people and to engage with the critical issues facing Australian society. The role of the rabbi is, in his words, to challenge the comfortable and comfort the challenged. In 2018 Rabbi Genende was awarded an OAM for his services to multi-faith relations, and to the Jewish community of Victoria. Rabbi Genende is a trained counsellor with a Masters degree from Auckland University. He is married to Caron, a psychologist, and they have three children and two grandchildren.
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