sermon: Yom Kippur 5777

Compassionate Listening

Put your phone down and pay attention.

This is our time to reflect on how we could have been better listeners and make a promise to listen more attentively in the coming year.

We are truly facing a new world. Just ten years ago flip phones were standard, we still counted talk-time minutes, and web searches were relegated to a heavy laptop with spotty wi-fi. “Tweet” meant the sound a bird makes, “searching” meant looking for a lost item, and “surfing” meant riding the waves. Now tweet means to post a 140-character thought on Twitter, searching is finding that killer pair of shoes on and surfing is what we do when we float from article to article on Huffington Post.

Have you noticed, these days when we ride the train everyone is looking at their personal devices? Waiting five minutes for a table at a restaurant, we pull our phones from our pockets. Thanks to Pokémon Go, walking down the street is cause for looking down into our screens. Entire families, all watching different video clips and scrolling different social media, sit on the couch together but are not actually together. The pull of our devices is so strong. More and more studies are saying that we are actually addicted to our phones. With each ding of a new message, tweet or notification, our brains surge with pleasure hormones. Even now, I imagine that some of you are feeling twitchy, wishing you could reach for your phone. The further we sink into this gratification, the further away we fall from the actual humans around us.

We know the issues associated with looking at our phones all day. However, this is not a sermon about the scourge of phones… believe me I love mine. What I want us to talk about is how our love of our devices is hindering our human interaction. We are losing the ability to talk and listen to each other. Conversation isn’t like watching our Facebook newsfeed update by the second.

Krista Tippett, host of the NPR show On Being, describes listening as “an everyday social art, but it’s an art we have neglected and must learn anew.” She defines listening as, “more than being quiet while the other person speaks until you can say what you have to say.” Conversation is about listening, processing, and participating in a dialogue.

Picture this: You get home from work and your spouse or partner is already there. You walk in the door and say hi and maybe even go over and give them a kiss on the cheek. You ask, “How was your day?” And between finishing the last word of the question and waiting for a reply you forget to listen for the answer. Your partner could have said they personally went to the moon and came back but you are thinking about the meeting with your boss that didn’t go very well or whether your child ate their entire lunch. By not listening to answer, we miss the opportunity to connect with the important people in our lives. Instead of coming close together at the end of the day, we remain apart. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel says,

Living is not a private affair of the individual. Living is what man does with God’s time, what man does with God’s world.Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism (Macmillan, 1976), p. 356.

When we say the word, Shema, we are compelled to follow through, it is not a request but a command. Hear or listen up, you people of Israel. Adonai is our God, Adonai is one. When we say the words to the Shema, we are acknowledging God but we are also acknowledging our capacity to pay attention in order to understand. These six words teach us the importance of listening as a spiritual act. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of England writes,

In Judaism we believe that our relationship with God is an ongoing tutorial in our relationship with other people. How can we expect God to listen to us if we fail to listen to our spouse, our children, [our friends], or those affected by our work? And how can we expect to encounter God if we have not learned to listen? On Mount Horeb, God taught Elijah that God was not in the whirlwind, the earthquake or the fire but in the kol demamah dakah, the “still, small voice”… a voice you can only hear if you are listening.“The Spirituality of Listening” (Eikev 5776)

Not only are we to listen to the words of our tradition and God but we are to use it as a model for listening to other people.

The High Holy Days are just begging us to listen. Rosh Ha’Shanah, also known as Yom Teruah – the day of the calling, wakes us up with the sound of the shofar. On Yom Kippur we recognize our failing to listen attentively through Al Cheit. In Avinu Malkienu we request that God hears our voice, our prayers, our innermost thoughts in the line – shma koleinu – hear our voice. Like Rabbi Sacks says, how can we expect God to hear and listen to us if we are ill equipped to hear and listen to the people who surround us on a daily basis?


When was the last time you truly listening to someone else? Not just waiting for them to stop talking, but allowing the idea they were conveying to drop into your ears and your consciousness? How do we reach this level of listening? It is about being quiet and being truly present for another person.

Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, Clinical Professor of Family Medicine at the UCSF School of Medicine, when speaking with young doctors, coaches them on generous listening. She says,

Generous listening is powered by curiosity, a virtue we can invite and nurture in ourselves to render it instinctive. It involves a kind of vulnerability to let go of assumptions and take in ambiguity.  The listener wants to understand the humanity behind the words of the other, and patiently summons one’s own best self…quoted in Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living (Penguin Press, 2016), p. 29

It’s no wonder that we are falling out of practice with conversational listening it is really difficult. It requires us to put aside our own thoughts and focus on the person in front of us.

To be heard and cared for is a blessing. It is something that we can do for each other.

This past year, at PTS, our Caring Community has sponsored and hosted a course called Wise Aging. Linda Korth, Carol Tabak, and Kathleen Shugar have guided a group of 10 other congregants through conversations about growing older, being attentive, and looking at life with a renewed sense of strength and joy. One of the main components of the course is practicing attentive listening. Each session offers the opportunity for participants to talk – without interruption from the listener – about life experiences, reflections on readings and ideas for personal growth. Listening without seeking clarification, without offering validation or any other reaction. I have heard from the leaders and the participants that this is one of the most challenging aspects of the class but also the most sacred. To be heard and cared for is a blessing. It is something that we can do for each other. Dr. Remen says about this type of conversation:

Just take them in. Listen to what they’re saying. Care about it. Most times caring about it is even more important than understanding it.Rachel Naomi Remen, Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories that Heal (Riverhead Books, 1996), p. 143

When we truly open ourselves up to listening we can get to know people in a new way that brings us closer together and teaches us something about their life experience. Alternatively, when we practice listening in this way we might encounter an idea that we don’t agree with or that makes us uncomfortable. We fear what other people might say. Again this is where social media has allowed us to become lazy in our interpersonal conversation. It’s easier to post a rant about politics or body image or inequality than it is to say those things to the person in front of you. One of the most interesting things about this political season is the realization that most people get their news from the one source that coincides with their previously held beliefs. If you watch MSNBC or only read the articles your friends post on Facebook, you will only get one side of the story, and similarly, if you only watch FOX news and listen to Conservative radio, you will only get the other side. We are so out of practice listening to an opinion that doesn’t match with our own and are stumped when someone says something with which we don’t agree. I have to tell you, listening does not mean agreeing but it does mean caring.

A modern orthodox rabbi and scholar, David Hartman, z״l, wrote a book whose title, A Heart of Many Rooms, suggests that we place in one room those ideas and perspectives with which we agree, and then in another room those with which we don’t agree.  This is what creates a heart of wisdom: the ability to hold two differing positions – the holy and the profane, the sacred and the mundane – in one heart.  Your heart.Excerpted from Rabbi Julie Pelc Adler’s Kol Nidre sermon 5777

In her upcoming book, Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg writes about her climb from young motherhood at Columbia Law School to her current position on the highest court in our country. Her entire career has been comprised of disagreements. One of the things that she cherishes about serving on the Supreme Court is the opportunity for the minority opinion to write a dissent. She says,

Despite our strong disagreements on cardinal issues — think, for example… access to abortion — we genuinely respect one another, even enjoy one another’s company. Collegiality is crucial to the success of our mission. We could not do the job the Constitution assigns to us if we didn’t — to use one of Justice Scalia’s favorite expressions — “get over it!”
“Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s Advice for Living,” The New York Times, October 1, 2016

Her wisdom is that it is ok to disagree but being part of a relationship is allowing room for the disagreement and then to move on.

Our rabbis say, “eilu, v’eilu d’varim Elohim chayim” – these and those are the words of the Living God. Sometimes we need to be open to listening and disagreeing and sometimes our relationships benefit from a little deafness. However, on this Yom Kippur it is upon us to recognize how we can do better when relating with our friends and family, partners and children. How can we listen more attentively? How can we really hear what they are trying to say and respond with kindness and openness? We owe this to the people in our lives and we owe it to ourselves.

This is our time to reflect on how we could have been better listeners and make a promise to listen more attentively in the coming year. Let us all start by putting the phone down more, making a date to have coffee with a friend, learning with one of the rabbis, engaging in a conversation with someone during our oneg celebrations, and being open to differing points of view.

Today we have come here with open hearts and we offer this prayer.

שְׁמַע קוֹלֵֽנוּ יְיָ אֱלֹהֵֽינוּ חוּס וְרַחֵם עָלֵֽינוּ וְקַבֵּל בְּרַחֲמִים וּבְרָצוֹן אֶת תְּפִלָּתֵֽנוּ כִּי אֵל שׁוֹמֵעַ תְּפִלּוֹת וְתַחֲנוּנִים אָֽתָּה. בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ שׁוֹמֵֽעַ תְּפִלָּה:

Hear our voice, Eternal our God, have pity on us and be compassionate, and accept our prayer with loving favor, for You are God who listens to prayer and supplications. Blessed are You, Eternal one, who hears prayer.

from the weekday Amidah

Let this prayer be directed toward God and also to ourselves.

G’mar Chatima Tova!