Talking, Really Talking

A couple of weeks ago, a parent with whom I was speaking in shul said that she had a small question.  She asked how do I balance family and work, especially as a congregational rabbi?

A small question!

I told her it was not such a small question, nor was I certain I had any great solutions. She described some of the “busy”-ness of her life and how hard it was to find quality time with each of her children.

I sympathized, but the one practical suggestion I could make was that to compensate for the evenings I am out, I try to make it up by spending quality time one-on-one with each of my children at another time.

Sure enough, later the same day, my wife Sharon called me to ask if I could spend some time with our youngest son Matan – he and I could have some one-on-one time while our other children had their own activities.  I was able to re-arrange my schedule to make it work.

And so, I picked up Matan for some quality time with Abba on Thursday evening.  We headed to downtown Lexington for dinner at Nourish.

Nourish Restaurant in Lexington, MA

Little did we know that they had gone out of business – and I had been looking forward to their falafel!  That was a setback, especially since there are not many places that serve food options that our kashrut will permit.

Via Lago in Lexington, MA

So, we walked over to Via Lago – I have a particular affinity for their tuna sandwiches!  We opened the door, but, apparently, the restaurant changes dramatically for dinner.  I scanned the new much more upscale menu.  Nothing for us to eat….

We were about to walk out, when I asked the maitre d’ if we could simply get a tuna sandwich.  She suggested that we walk to the back, to the deli counter, order there and sit at a back table (not in the fancy part!)

And that’s what we did.  We ordered our sandwiches, potato chips and drinks and sat down at the back counter for a lovely dinner.  After all that walking around, I could finally relax for a moment.

Instinctively, I reached toward my left hip, toward the holster that usually resides there.  I started to pull out my cell phone to check for text messages or emails or who-knows-what.

I did it mindlessly.  That is simply what I always do.

And then I looked at the face of my sweet seven year old son, whose expression was filled with excitement and enthusiasm.

A thought crossed my mind: what if this dinner had occurred years ago?  What if this had been my dad and me?  What if this “quality time” had preceded the advent of cell phones?

Cell phones

Slowly, I slid the slithery smart phone back into the holster as if I were putting away a dangerous weapon.  I breathed.  I smiled.  I turned to Matan and asked him about school, about sports, about life.

We talked about how much fun it was to run around – he told me about the game “pickle” and I told him about the version I loved playing when I was his age called “running bases.”  We talked about school, about food, about the nutritional value of apple juice versus lemonade.

Apple Juice versus Lemonade

We just talked and talked.

And we listened.  We really listened to each other.

*           *           *

As Alexander said in his introduction earlier, this week’s Torah portion is Parashat EmorEmor means speak.  The root: aleph, mem, reish is fairly common in the Torah; think: “Vayomer Adonai el Moshe – God spoke to Moshe,” but here, in our parashah, the Torah then states “Emor – speak to the Kohanim, the sons of Aaron, Va’amarta Aleihem – and speak to them.”



This is a strange formulation.  Why does one verse tell Moses to speak twice?  Couldn’t Moses speak to the Kohanim one time and that would be sufficient?

Hazal, our rabbis, explain that there are two ideas here.  First, Moses is supposed to speak to the Kohanim to give them the instructions that follow.  But the second mention of speaking is more of a warning about how we should speak.  We are supposed to be careful with our words.

And, since the Torah states to speak to the sons of Aaron, our rabbis further explain that we are supposed to be extremely careful when we speak with our children.

The rabbis realized, as we also know, that the words we speak to our children impact not only this moment, but also the future.  These words will help shape the adults they will become.

Our words become the words that they speak.

The importance of words in our tradition is well known – whether it’s vis-à-vis children or adults.  Huge swaths of Jewish texts discuss the power of words, choosing our words carefully, and listening, really listening.

How disappointing was it this week to hear Donald Sterling, the owner of the Los Angeles Clippers speak words of racism, words of hate.  Fortunately, the larger society as a whole distanced themselves from him quickly, leaving him severely rebuked on a number of levels.

But not only do we need to choose our words carefully, we also need to listen to each other – to really talk with one another.

This is something we have lost in our world.  In his majestic op-ed column yesterday (and it really was unique), David Brooks wrote about a conversation between Isaiah Berlin and Anna Akhmatova in Leningrad in 1945.

Isaiah Berlin


Anna Akhmatova

While I invite you to read the full story (, the short version is that Berlin met Akhmatova one night in her apartment and they shared such a rich conversation that when Berlin returned to his hotel (at 11 a.m. the next morning!), he declared that he was in love.

Their love was not physical; as Brooks wrote “their communion was primarily intellectual, emotional and spiritual, creating a combination of friendship and love.”

It was based on speaking and listening – talking, really talking.

Sadly, “really talking” is becoming extinct.  Recently, I walked by a group of teenagers near the center of town, all sitting with each other, but no one was speaking to another in the group; they were all on their phones texting.  (Now, I like to give people the benefit of the doubt, perhaps they were all texting each other, but still….)

Teens texting

A couple of days ago, I was at some lunch meetings with colleagues. As we were sharing, going around the table, I noticed some of the rabbis were also “with” their smart phones, not really with the rest of us.

The cover of the most recent issue of The New Yorker has it perfectly pictured.  It presents a quaint urban street with a couple sitting outside at a stylish cafe; they are enjoying a latte and an iced coffee at one of those tables designed for people-watching.

The New Yorker cover May 5, 2014

But they aren’t watching anyone, nor are they interacting with each other – not at all. She is immersed in her tablet and he is reading his smart phone.

It is a sad, but true, reflection on our society.  But fortunately our parashah also helps us with this problem.

Much of the rest of our parashah deals with Shabbat.  In fact, it deals with the hagim, the holidays and Shabbat.  But even when it is describing the holidays, it uses the word Shabbat – a day of rest.

The parashah discusses how we are to take a Shabbat Shabbaton – a day of complete rest, a sacred occasion.  “Kol melakhah lo ta’asu – all forms of work you shall not do.”

Keep Calm and Shabbat Shalom!

Got shabbat?

While I am not sure if texting is work or even that hard, it is a form of writing which is clearly prohibited by the rabbis (it is one of their thirty-nine categories of forbidden work).

And thus, the Torah teaches us that we can work, we can benefit from all the technology that the world has to offer – six days a week, but not on Shabbat.

When I hand out my business card, which contains my cell phone number, I remind people that I am available on it, “24/6.”

On one day we put aside devices that we can type on and communicate with and turn to the people around us and actually talk with them, really talk.

That can occur at Shabbat dinner, at a Friday night oneg, at a Shabbat kiddush, on a Shabbat walk, over tea on a Shabbat afternoon – the opportunity to talk, to listen, truly to connect without being pulled into something else.

Our brains are being rewired.  When I wrote this sermon, I kept checking my email (maybe someone was going to email me a great Rashi on this topic?!?) – all our devices seem to be conspiring to facilitate some sort of mass attention deficit disorder….

ADD joke sign

While we have all these devices, WE are also blessed to have the antidote.  The antidote is Shabbat: an oasis in time, an island without so many things, without constant interruptions, a time to be fully present with each other – to sit, to speak, to listen and to be fully engaged with other people.

How many of you (who are not rabbis, psychotherapists or other similar professionals) had several of those types of conversation this week?  A time with another person where you talked, really talked?

Speaking and in turn, listening, is a big part of our tradition – as is Shabbat.  Both of these ideas are rooted in Parashat Emor and are what many of us need more of in our lives.  In fact, they are so important that we may be persuaded to put technology aside at other times as well.  Let’s aspire to counter our addictive technology compulsion with a deep conversation antidote.  It could become a habit.

Fortunately, it is not too late!

There are still nine more hours of Shabbat left today.  And, God willing, many more Shabbatot in the future.

Let’s make those count!

About the Author
Spiritual leader of Temple Emunah, Lexington, Mass. since 2004, David Lerner also serves as the immediate past president of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis. He is one of the founders of Community Hevra Kadisha of Greater Boston and After his ordination at Jewish Theological Seminary, where he was a Wexner Graduate Fellow, Rabbi Lerner served at NSS Beth El in Highland Park, IL.