What is the Quality of Our Listening – Lessons from the Life of Sarah
This world, this country is in desperate need of a new paradigm of listening. What can we learn from our patriarch Abraham in this Torah portion?
This week’s Torah portion is both extremely rich and, dare I say it, a little meandering. We immediately here of the death of our matriarch Sarah. Since this moment immediately follows the story of the Binding of Isaac, some of our commentators said Sarah’s soul literally flew out of her body upon hearing what happened to Isaac.
After we hear about Sarah’s death, we’re told of Abraham’s negotiation with Ephron for the cave of Machpelah to bury Sarah. Ephron wants to give the field to Abraham, and Abraham wants to pay Ephron. The discussion is resolved by Ephron saying, “Well, it’s worth 400 shekels, and what’s 400 shekels between friends?” Sounds like the shuk to me. I don’t know if these two knew of the negotiating adage that the first one to name a price loses.
This exchange is six verses, four of which include the word listen. Three of the verses involve Abraham or Ephron saying some form of “listen to me.” The desire for listening is striking me. This could be viewed in a couple of ways. One might be in a bellicose way, “No, you listen to ME!” Another which I prefer, especially now, is more compassionate and loving. According to our tradition Abraham is representative of chesed (loving kindness), after all.
If this interchange followed communication techniques like non-violent communication or Imago dialogue, each person would acknowledge the other’s statement and needs. They would explicitly indicate that they have heard, truly heard, the other. The Torah text doesn’t include such acknowledgement, but I like to think of the exchange between Ephron and Abraham as following these models, more along the lines of, “I hear what you have said. I hear the yearning behind the words, and I acknowledge it. Here is my need.”
This reminds me of what G!d says in Deuteronomy, that G!d has heard the voice of the words of the Israelites (talking about their response to G!d’s revelation at Sinai). Aviva Zornberg says this implies G!d hears their inner ideas and inner life.
In his book Seven Thousand Ways to Listen, Mark Nepo talks about listening to what’s not said, to what’s underneath the noise and pain. We can listen for subtleties that just barely break the surface but indicate something deeper underneath the surface, like the beautiful image he describes of the ripples caused by a salmon swimming in a river.
Indeed, the words that someone speaks just represent the surface. It may be a reaction. It may be a completely inadequate expression of the yearning or desire beneath the surface, unless we create the space and the safety to allow those deeper expressions to come out. This is how we engender trust and connection, whether in the workplace, as I have tried to do in leading teams, or personal life or other contexts.
This is, of course, what we do in hashpa’ah (spiritual direction). We offer the sacred listening that draws out the story that needs to be told, as my blessed teachers would say. For me, nature also elicits this type of listening.
Our country is in need of listening, deep listening, sacred listening, where we hear the voice of the words. I don’t know if this has ever existed in this country, but wouldn’t we be blessed if we could say to our political adversaries, “I hear your voice. I hear your inner needs. I acknowledge them. Now, please, hear my needs.”
We may not agree, but we’ll have been heard. And then we could say what’s a little more health care, between friends.