Friday, April 13, 2018

Haftarat Machar Chodesh (Shemini): Do I Listen?

I have this T-shirt that I love. I received it for being a supporter of WHYY, our local NPR affiliate. It's a black T-shirt with the radio station's logo on the sleeve, and the print on the front says just two, simple words.
They're meant to reflect my pride in enjoying their programming, but I love this shirt for its rabbinic and pastoral message as well. The shirt says: "I listen." It's such a succinct and straight-forward phrase; yet many, MANY people around the world are terrible listeners. We talk about poor communication - in our political discourse, the Middle East conflict, the gun violence debate, the abortion debate, and in just about EVERY important conversation that takes place anywhere - but communication is often not the problem. We know how to talk. Some of us incessantly, in fact. But we don't listen. We don't hear one another, and we cannot truly imagine ourselves experiencing what they live with every day.

We're not the only ones, by the way. Our Biblical ancestors were no more skilled listeners than we are today, and I can't decide whether that makes me feel better or worse. Humans have struggled with this for millenia, so it's not exclusively OUR
fault. And yet, it's also tragic that we haven't been able to learn from the mistakes of our forebearers. Our Torah portion this week features a heart-breaking case of a communication (or really listening) breakdown, and our Haftarah - a special one chanted whenever a new Jewish month starts the next day - deals with a story that is just as painful. In each, we see men who don't talk or listen, which shouldn't surprise anyone (least of all women...), because my gender is notoriously terrible at both. One scenario ends with lethal consequences, and the other just barely escapes the same fate. And together, they are meant to teach us that this is a SERIOUS issue. It's not a small matter; we NEED to work on our listening skills, people!

The Torah portion, Shemini, tells the joyous story of Aaron, the High Priest, finally dedicating the Tabernacle in the desert, and all the Israelites bring sacrifices to celebrate. Then, out of nowhere, two of Aaron's four sons, Nadav and Avihu, approach the altar - unsolicited - and offer something
the Torah calls "strange/alien fire" (Lev. 10:1). Immediately, the two are struck dead by God, to the horror of everyone watching... especially their father. Moses then does what men do, and says something utterly lacking in sympathy to Aaron. Aaron remains silent. Even God says nothing. And we still never learn WHAT Avihu and Nadav did wrong, or why they suffered this gruesome fate. No communication; no compassion. Sure, the rabbis offer a plethora of explanations and interpretations that try to smooth things over... but the pain remains. We can and must learn from this story: You can't "talk away" death or grief; but you CAN offer kindness, sensitivity, and a loving, open heart that is ready to just listen.

The Haftarah tells us a little about the early life of King David, and in particular his friendship with the son of David's predecessor, King Saul. Unfortunately, Saul HATES David, and plans to kill him so he cannot unseat Saul and seize the throne.
To make matters worse, David and Jonathan have a bond that seems to go beyond friendship, possibly even a romantic love that was LONG before its time. The threat of violence tears Jonathan and David apart, and also causes an irreparable rift between Jonathan and his father, Saul. There is no understanding or empathy... and no listening. And so I urge us to sit with these two stories. To sit with the knowledge that these same struggles and obstacles remain, right now in 2018. So much pain and grief, and so many fights between individuals and nations, come down to lack of communicating; though in truth, at their core, to an inability to listen mindfully, attentively, and with kindness. I see that WHYY T-shirt as a challenge, not a statement of fact. We all need to work hard - really on a daily basis - to live up to that maxim. It seems so simple, yet takes so much effort. But I promise you, it's worth it.

Photos in this blog post:
1. CC image courtesy of Connormah on Wikimedia Commons
2. CC image courtesy of kurichan+ on Flickr 
3. CC image courtesy of piviso_com on Flickr

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