You may know that I am obsessed with the art of listening. And the older I get, the more I am convinced that our personal relationships depend on our capacity to pay attention to each other, that our social and business relationships rely on our ability to really hear the other, that our national and international engagements hinge on the way we listen to one another.
I have also become more concerned that most of the time we hear but do not listen, we don’t really make the effort to give the other person our full undivided, intense attention. Shema is one of the key words of the final and urgent speech and message of Moshe to his people before he died. It appears no less than 92 times in the Book of Devarim and it’s of course one of the axiomatic words of Judaism itself. שמע ישראל Listen Jews! (Deuteronomy 6:5). It is at the heart of this week’s Parasha.
God wants us to listen with the deepest parts of ourselves – the heart has been called the third ear – to listen isn’t just to obey, Shema Yisrael open yourselves to the potency of His challenges, Shema Yisrael really question very deeply what it is to be a Jew, what it is to be called on.
It takes courage to really listen. It can be especially painful to have to listen, to be confronted to move outside your comfort zone. It’s so easy today, courtesy of Google filters and Facebook friends to live in an echo chamber and only hear the voices of those who share your views. Remember, says Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, it’s the people unlike us who make us grow. It’s also the antidote to the fundamental mind-set and its slogan as characterised by Bernard Lewis: “I am right; you are wrong, go to hell”. Listening is about being respectful of different views, holding civil discussions about the politics that divide us, not just discounting your opposition as a ‘basket of deplorables’ or dismissing everything they say as fake news or with crude insults.
So are we really listening with all our hearts, our souls and our being? Mobile phones may help us reach people a lot quicker but they haven’t quickened our ability to reach out to them. In fact, if in the middle of a conversation with someone you’ve texted or scrolled through your phone or taken a call, you’re guilty of phubbing also known as phone-snubbing.
Phubbing may seem harmless and almost normal, but it disconnects you from the person you’re having a conversation with. It’s actually bad for your mental health and your emotional well-being. It affects our deep need to attach meaningfully to other human beings, it degrades empathy. We know that phubbers who use their phones during a meal with friends or family actually enjoy their food less and felt disengaged from everyone at the table. And of course phubbing is most damaging for couples: it can ruin that special intimate moment together with your life’s partner. At work, it diminishes respect for your employer if they cut you off to take that call. Even a momentary glance or distraction – you know the ping – you’ve got a message or an alert or even just having your phone visible undermines the quality of our different relationships. We feel unheard, disrespected, disregarded. If we’re really serious about our conversations and meetings we should leave our phones behind, put them in a basket at the door.
Relating is about listening and listening is about being fully present without distractions, without deviations. It’s like the love of the שמע which demands we do it בכל לבבך ובכל נפשך ובכל מאדך with all our heart, all our soul, all our strength. It’s like the opening words of the second paragraph of the שמע with its double emphasis: והיה אם שמוע תשמעו . If you indeed heed or Sacks’s more forceful translation – ‘If you listen – and I mean really listen’. You can imagine the Israelites saying to Moses “OK. Genuk Shein, enough already, we hear you” and Moshe replying “No you don’t, you simply don’t get it: The Creator of the universe is asking you the smallest of nations, you, the most ordinary of individuals, to tune into yourself, to tune into others, to tune into His world: to do something about suffering: be it the hungry and homeless outside the Coles supermarket, the terrified kids in Yemen or Idlib, the displaced Rohinga of Myanmar, the desperate depressed individuals on Manus and Naru. Being compassionate isn’t about being political, it’s about being human, it’s about being true to your Jewish tradition.
And incidentally talking about listening it’s about looking directly at other people, reading their expressions hearing the nuances in their voices, noticing their postures. Witgenstein calls it the most fundamental moral act, recognising the other as a unique, irreplaceable individual; it’s an “attitude towards a soul”. That’s what God models for us when he speaks directly to Moshe on that first Yom Kippur פנים אל פנים – face-to-face, heart-to-heart – eye-to-eye; no filtering, no phubbing no funiculling.
We feel more empathy when we put away our smartphones and that’s why I love the Shabbat. Despite my mobile addiction, on this day I’m liberated, screen-free and smarter than my phone. I listen better, I hear more sounds of the world around me, I’m more attuned to nature, I’m close to my Creator, I talk more and hopefully better to my wife and kids, my grandchild and congregants. I’m more in touch with the loneliness that people are experiencing and that is growing across our culture. I feel connected to my community.
It’s no coincidence that the first word of the first paragraph of the שמע prayer is ואהבתyou shall love. For only when you really listen do you really love. Love, as the Torah reminds us, is not only about loving the ones closest to you –your family, neighbours and friends, but the mitzvah to love extends to the other, the stranger, the widow, the poor, the displaced and the vulnerable refugee Veahavta et hager… (You shall love the stranger).
Listen and Love. Listen like you’re hearing for the first time, love like you’re discovering it for the very first moment. Don’t be a disengaged phubber, be an attentive loving listener!