William Hamilton
William Hamilton

Paying attention

Less is more. It’s good advice for public speakers. I’m still struggling with it. Lincoln knew it best. One scene early in the Spielberg film finds Lincoln offering a two sentence speech at a flag raising dedication. “It’s my job to raise this flag, which, assuming the machinery works, I shall now do. Once it’s up, it will be the job of the people to keep it up.”

The rabbinic maxim ‘adding too much, subtracts’ (ha-mosif goreah) is also good advice for trying to persuade somebody with whom you disagree. Instead of firing back with many reasons why you’re correct, select just one or two, lest you dilute your strongest claim. If you really want to be effective, select and affirm the best one of your opponents claims. You may even extend it. If you do, you’ll certainly have their attention.

So why does our prayer book heap so many prayers upon prayers. With forgiveness liturgy now front and center, why not distill in order not to dilute? Perhaps because you never know which phrase or passage will sing in your heart. Hopefully one will. Will you feel answered as did Esther, or Daniel, or Ezra?

Also, itemizing details matters. “The greatest writers – Homer, Dante, Shakespeare – are effective largely because they deal in particulars and report the details that matter” William Strunk and E.B. White note. “Their words call up pictures.”

Painting pictures in our minds comes to mind in this week’s portion of Torah at a decisive nation-forming moment. “Pay attention and listen, Israel; today you have become a nation (Deut. 27:9). One interpreter suggests that the unusual word for ‘pay attention’ (hasket) evokes the painting of a mental picture that will help us listen well (Seforno). Maybe when we keenly experience one sense like seeing, another sense like listening gets awakened. A tender eye can soften an ear.

What you do with your attention, where and how you elect to appoint it, is a worthy question with which to rise each morning.

A final reason why our prayer book brims with so many prayers is because we’re veterans at renewal and recovery. Leann Shamash paints moving pictures this week of our people’s vast history of struggling to meet the demands of our day. May we recall the words of I. B. Singer, “With the Jews, resurrection isn’t a miracle. It’s a habit.”

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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