William Hamilton

Listening for the feelings of others is always in season

Baggage claim carousels used to urge passengers to identify their suitcases with care. Many bags look alike, they reminded us. Lately I’m sensing, almost none of them do. 

Each one of us comes with unique baggage, containing lived-experiences, personal qualities, memories, and needs. As we prepare to enter 2024, it can serve us well to recall how helpful it can be to listen for feelings, particularly when somebody’s running a higher emotional fever. 

If all politics are local, then all theological beliefs are personal. Nobody understood this quite like Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. His works, which changed my life, are today as plentiful for the spiritually-thirsty as ever. This Shabbat marks Heschel’s 51st yahrzeit and a terrific new essay reawakens us to the need to take Judaism personally.

In this week’s portion of Torah we finally meet Jacob as truth-teller. After a lifetime of hiding, avoiding, and deceiving, Jacob only tells the truth. This is most vivid in his parting words to his children and grandchildren. Nothing is sugarcoated. 

Yet even when truth is reinstated, trust comes more slowly. Joseph’s brother anxiously claimed, “Before his death, your father left this instruction: “Tell Joseph “I urge you to forgive the offense of your brothers who harshly mistreated you” so please do now forgive them” And Joseph wept as he listened” (Gen. 50:16-17). Of course they worried about residual ill-will. Clearly there are ongoing feelings of guilt and fright. Joseph tastes how fragile forgiveness can be.

Our world is awash in pain. Online-life pours oil on the flames of our anxieties. Many claims, meant to be read politically, are read emotionally. 

Heschel taught that the innermost chamber must be guarded by the uttermost outposts. This means setting our weeks, our days, and our hours to the rhythms of Torah. 

As truth is taken personally in the final verses of the Book of Genesis, we too try to set aside a few minutes to take our own emotional temperature. The better we get at it, the better we get at listening for the feelings of others, which is something that’s always in season. In so doing, may we piece-together our hearts to solace suffering, reduce harm, and make goodness irresistible.

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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