William Hamilton

Listening For Feelings

Judaism is great at listening for feelings. Not to feelings. For them. What’s the difference? Listening to feelings involves having your radar up to register anger or distress in somebody’s voice. Listening for them is deciding to use a flashlight and shovel to excavate for them. 

Why do such a thing? Because it occurs to you, especially when nothing else is helping, that listening for feelings in another person is always in season. That is, when you do it with kindness and concern, it gets experienced as a gift. 

We can listen for feelings in the story in this week’s Prophetic passage, special in anticipation of Sunday’s Purim celebration. Ancient Israel’s first King, Saul, does some things well, but fails in the end. Why? According to the Prophet Samuel who relieves him from duty, preparing to replace him with King David, Saul’s shortcoming originates in his self-esteem. Even though Saul is tall in stature, he is “small in his own eyes” (I Sam. 15:17). The careful and caring reader will be moved by Saul’s yearning for another chance. He asks again and again. There is deep sympathy for how his being vulnerable, an honest quality in a leader, is dismissed by God’s Prophet. 

The takeaway? Leaders of the People of Israel need to be worthy of accountability and high expectations, particularly when those they lead are engaged in the fight for and of their lives. They need to be humble enough to confess to and learn from their failings, and impressive enough to inspire those they lead to see themselves as part of something larger and lasting. Impressive enough to inspire a generation of young soldiers to write their letter containing their final wishes if they’re killed or taken captive. Impressive enough to inspire you and me to rise as our ancestors have risen throughout the ages, to recognize our vital role in the front row of Jewish history. 

I’ve noted how hard it can be to feel driven when you’re overwhelmed. That is, when you are motivated, any starting point will do. When you aren’t, no starting point will. It’s at such times that we depend on the needs of others, on responsibilities at home and at work, to pick us up. We can’t do it on our own. 

Well, what if the Jewish Calendar functions as a similar prompt. And what if we consider its prompts to be emotional. In the summertime, Tisha B’av expects pain and sadness. At Hanukkah, bright hope. On the High Holy Days, frailty and reverence. At the Seder, suffering that leads to tasty liberation. And now at Purim, frivolity and surmounting. 

On any given Sunday, your teenager may be in a funk. But they’re going to go visit grandma anyway. The calendar holds sway. This is especially so when you’re not feeling a particular season’s mood. 

And, when you really listen for the feelings of the Holiday, you may just find that your People’s Calendar is listening for your feelings too.

About the Author
Rabbi William Hamilton has served as rabbi (mara d'atra) of Kehillath Israel in Brookline, MA since 1995.
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