“Listen to us” the locals tried to reassure a newcomer. “Listen to me” he responded. “No, listen to me” came the reply. “If you’ll just listen to me…Sir, listen to me.” The conversation finally concludes with the newcomer, Abraham, in this week’s portion of Torah, listening to the inhabitants of Hebron by paying the purchase price for Sarah’s burial plot (Gen. 23:6,8,11,13,15,16).
Listening. It’s easier said than done. It requires exertion, even with our neighbors and friends. Alas, we know it’s become impossible with canceled adversaries. Yet even in the Torah it’s difficult. Although Abraham and his interlocutors are being highly deferential, still, the point seems to be that listening works better when it’s directed toward someone else. Listening with a ‘first-person focus’ (to me, to us) tends to boomerang.
“If I had another life” wrote Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “the movement I would initiate would be one that focused on the art of listening and conversation.” It’s hardly accidental that he called his weekly Torah lesson Covenant and Conversation. Each encourages responsive listening.
Rabbi Sacks was fond of distinguishing between Torah and universal wisdom. The Torah we inherit requires authorship. We need to know ‘who said it’. Universal wisdom does not. It’s nice to know who discovered gravity but it’s not necessary. Rabbi Sacks had a rare gift for making Torah lessons feel universal; for making its insights into human nature feel as self-evident as the laws of physics.
Still, his words will forever merit an attribution worthy of affection and honor.
Determining the outcome of whether or not he succeeded in initiating ‘a movement focused on the arts of listening and conversation’ is now in our hands – and our ears. May our listening a bit more help make his legacy bless as prolifically as did his life.