Eliezer Shemtov
Trying to make a difference

How Good are Your Hearing, Listening, Speaking and Saying Skills

Haazinu

So far, in this series of Biblical Life Hacks, we have shared possible solutions to help deal with thoughts and feelings of anxiety or depression. 

This week we will look at a tool that can help one who is living with someone who is suffering from depression in the hope that it might help somewhat to better communicate with him or her; often a very daunting task. 

Of course, there are many types and degrees of depression as well as different causes for depression. It is not possible to give a general solution that works for everyone. However, I would like to share a perspective that might be helpful to someone, somewhere, sometime. Needless to say, I do not intend to for this to substitute professional help if it is needed; this is merely a possible complement.

There are those who suffer from depression incessantly for long periods of time and there are those who are visited by the “black dog” —as Winston Churchill referred to it— from time to time. The latter feel great when they are OK and terrible when they are not. I don’t like to put labels or give diagnoses —it’s not my role— so I won’t do it; I am just referring to the realities as we see them: sometimes our loved one is motivated and productive and sometimes very listless with his self-esteem down to the floor.

Notwithstanding the difficulty in witnessing and living with such unpredictable moods, it may help to know that each one of these moods brings a particular challenge —both for those who are going through them as well as for their loved ones— as well as an opportunity. It helps to understand the particular language to be used in each of the frames of mind in order to overcome the challenge and access the opportunity. 

When one is strong you can challenge and make demands from him; when he is weak, you have to support and motivate him and remind him of similar situations from which he emerged. Instead of seeing him as unpredictable, look at him as a polyglot. Sometimes he speaks “English” and sometimes he speaks “Croatian” ; you just need to understand the language he is currently using and use it to respond.

This idea came to me when I read the verse with which this week’s reading [1], Haazinu [2]: “Listen, O heavens, and I will speak, and let the earth hear the utterances of my mouth.”

Moshe Rabbeinu invites the heavens and the earth to serve as witnesses to what he is about to say to the Jewish people before his passing.

The selection of his wording is very precise. Moshe Rabbeinu uses two different verbs to summon the heavens (Haazinu, listen) and the earth (Vetishmá, and hear) and in turn employs two different terms with regards to his own words: vaadabeira (“and I will speak”), Imrei fi (“the utterances of my mouth”).

Regarding the two summoning verbs, our sages point out [3] that since Moshe Rabbeinu was closer to heaven (spirituality) than to earth, he used the verb haazinu, which implies to listen from close up, when he addressed the heavens, and when addressing the earth he used the verb vetishma, which connotes to hear from afar.  

One of the lessons here is that there are two ways of perceiving what someone says: hearing from afar or listening from close up, not as far as physical proximity or distance is concerned, but rather conceptual and experiential closeness or distance. Sometimes we understand very well what someone says, it is “close” to us, since we went through similar experiences and sometimes what we hear sounds very “distant”, far from personal experience. When you listen to a loved one, pay attention to see if you are hearing them from “far away” or from “close up”, if you are merely listening to the words they are saying or if you are paying attention to what they really mean to communicate through those words.

Then, there are two options regarding how to respond: strongly and softly. Dibur denotes strong words and Amira implies soft words [4]. When attempting to communicate with your loved one (even —or especially— if that “loved one” is yourself), who is sometimes flying in the “sky” and sometimes lying on the “ground” —or under it—  speak to him/her in the language and tone that he/she understands at that moment. When they are in the “sky”, full of motivation and in a productive state, take the opportunity to tell them all the constructive criticism they needs to hear. They are in a position to receive it well and it will do them good. But when they’re on the ground, listless and depressed, with no energy or strength, don’t get angry. Speak softly, give words of encouragement, remind them of how in the past they had managed to get out of the same situation, and go easy with the demands. They are not in a position to hear criticism, demands or advice. They just need and can only understand that they are valued even though they are the way they are, that the things that depend on them are under control and that soon they will come out of their slump and feel better again.

Another layer: perhaps we can understand “hard” words to refer to rational and objective arguments that ignore emotions and “soft” words to refer to sensitive words, coming from and directed towards the emotions. Every language has its place and purpose.

So this week’s tool is: think before you decide what to say and how to speak and, before that, check if you are “listening” or just “hearing”. 

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  1. Which is the same as next week’s. Since this Shabbat coincides with Rosh Hashanah, which has its own reading, Haazinu will be read in the synagogue the following Shabbat.
  2.  Deuteronomy, 32:1-52
  3. Sifri in situ

An example of such a distinction is seen when G-d commanded Moshe Rabbeinu to go and speak to the Jewish people about their willingness to receive the Torah. The command was expressed as follows (Exodus 19:3): Ko tomar leBeit Yaakov vetageid livnei Israel; “Thus shall you say to the House of Jacob and speak to the children of Israel. Beit Yaakov, the “House of Jacob”, refers to the women and Bnei Israel, the “sons of Israel”, refers to men. In addition to instructing Moshe Rabbeinu to speak first to the women and only afterwards to the men —a great practical lesson here as to how to get things done— He indicated to him how each of them should be spoken to: when addressing the women it was necessary to speak in a gentle way —tomar— and with the men he should speak in a forceful way —vetageid.

About the Author
Rabbi Eliezer Shemtov, born in in Brooklyn, NY in 1961. Received Smicha From Tomchei Temimim in 1984 and shortly after was sent by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, may his merit shield us, together with his wife Rachel to establish the first Beit Chabad in Montevideo, Uruguay and direct Chabad activities in that country. He has authored many articles on Judaism that have been published internationally. Since publishing his popular book on intermarriage, "Dear Rabbi, Why Can't I Marry Her?" he has authored several books in Spanish, English and Hebrew dealing with the challenges that the contemporary Jew has to deal with.
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