Listen, O Israel!


2014-11-02 – Good Morning Daylight Wasting Time! Isn’t that what you should call it? It’s the alternative to Daylight Savings Time. We are now plunging into the darkness of winter. The extra hour of sleep doesn’t make up for it, does it?

That’s not what I’m going to write about today. But how can you help noticing. There was frost on the ground and my weather app said it was 28°. I don’t know if I believe that, exactly. But that’s where we’re headed.

What I want to write about today is listening.

Now that I have a new job and things are pretty settled, I am starting to look for a bit of volunteer work. Many years ago, I did volunteer work as a community mediator. I knew nothing about mediation when I signed up. I signed up on the recommendation of a lawyer I used to work with, nothing more, but I learned an important lesson about dispute resolution that was fairly foreign to the legal system I had been working in.

You have to listen.

Lawyers, like most of society, are big talkers, but somewhat lacking in the listening department. Mediation turns that around. The key to resolving conflicts between people is to listen. It’s not the whole answer but it is an indispensable start.

I had cases that were referred to me by a misdemeanor court. These people had come to blows over some kind of dispute and the police were called. You’d think the points of conflict were important—at least to the disputants. Often they were not. Often they were just a matter of not listening. Once in a while, the dispute disappeared entirely once the parties listened to each other. More frequently, there was more work to be done to settle a matter. But there was no settling of anything if folks didn’t listen to each other.

I was in my thirties when I came to learn about listening. Understanding the value intellectually is not the same as being able to do it. We’re all taught to put up defenses. One of these defenses is refusing to listen.

We’re all familiar with the biblical vision of a world of peace from Isaiah 2:4: “Nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.” We learn to be aggressive. We learn to fight.

Shouldn’t we learn to get along? Shouldn’t we be learning to listen?

Shortly after the millennium, I was actively involved in my sons’ school. As with any school, there were issues of bullying. I found a group that would come into a school and teach conflict resolution: listening skills and problem solving. They had a neat little textbook with all sorts of practical exercises. I had a teacher who wanted to take the program on.

But the other teachers were opposed. This was not something the schools need to do, they said. The kids already knew how to listen, they said. They get that at home, they said.

Of course, the evidence is abundantly to the contrary. We as a society do not listen well. We don’t teach it at home. We don’t teach it in school. A select few learn about listening in college—in psychology and business programs. By then, for many, it is often too late to counter engrained habits.

The teachers wouldn’t listen. The principal wouldn’t listen. And the program never got off the ground.

Now, many years later, I’d like to try this again.

* * *

In Jewish tradition, the central passage of the Bible is this: “Listen, O Israel!” (Deut. 6:4) For centuries, Jews have recited these words every day of their lives: “Shma, Yisrael!” We are commanded to listen, but few of us do. It’s like that other key passage that tells us to “Love your neighbor.” We give lip service to passages like these, but not ear service.

(If you are up on your Bible, you might dispute my interpretation of Shma, Yisrael as a command about empathetic listening. In context, Shma, Yisrael does read more like “listen up, Israel” demanding that we listen to the commands in the rest of the Torah. But what if we’ve been plugging our ears to the empathetic message?

And even if my interpretation is “out of context,” everyone else does it—especially if they want to justify unsavory acts and oppressions. If this is out of context, at least it’s in a good cause. . . . But maybe it’s not. Let me know. I’m ready to listen to your point of view.)

2 responses to “Listen, O Israel!

  1. Love this post.
    One book said listening = love. Well, no wonder it’s an artful skill that not many of us have. It’s so much easier to form opinions, speak or observe than to listen. Listening, not just hearing words, takes the other into consideration.

  2. Thanks, connectdd! I like your listening = love.
    There’s so much to say on this topic. I had to leave a lot out. One thing I left out was my experience in an improv class. You’d think that people trying to be funny probably don’t listen much. But an improvised scene will die the minute the actors stop listening to each other.
    Well, guess what? Every time we have a conversation with another person, we are improvising.

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