Rosh Hashana 5779: Rabbi Greg Wolfe

The Shofar’s Call to Lean in and Listen!

Rabbi Greg Wolfe
Congregation Bet Haverim
Rosh Hashanah 5779
Davis, CA

Day after day, two psychiatrists leave their respective offices and meet at the elevator when it is time to go home after very full days of therapeutic sessions. One is always completely disheveled and appears worn out from the toll each day has taken on him and the other always has a bounce in his step and appears as fresh as a daisy. After weeks of this routine, the one therapist, in amazement, asks his colleague, “how do you do it?  How do you listen day in and day out to the troubles and problems of your clients and yet emerge so fresh and full of energy?”  The other, equally amazed, responds: “Listen?! You listen?!”

Ah, yes, listening!  Such a quaint notion from ages past! I remember the good ol’ days when people of differing opinions would sit thoughtfully over coffee or a couple of beers and discuss their differing points of view, challenging each other and engaging in honest debate.  But, no matter what, they would always listen to one another with respect, staying focused on the issues at hand, rather than maligning each other’s character. Oh, wait! Maybe that is just the rosy tint of nostalgic fog clouding my memory. After all, many of us also remember the classic ’70’s Saturday Night Live Point-Counterpoint debates between Dan Aykroyd  and Jane Curtain, where Dan would appear to be listening intently to Jane, and then respond (pause): “Jane, you ignorant slut!” So, perhaps, truly listening to those with whom we disagree has been a bigger challenge for us humans for far longer than we may want to admit. Leaning in to truly listen, to step out of our comfort zones and hear another perspective far different from our own, comes hard to us, especially today when our world has become extremely polarized.

We may go through life, day in and day out, having conversations and talking with people about this and that, but how often do we really take the time to listen to one another; especially to those with whom we have strong disagreements? Oh, sure, we hear what people are saying on the surface, but large parts go in one ear and out the other these days as so much white noise. And the dissonant, discordant voices around us seem to be growing exponentially: from angry pundits talking over one another to blustery tweets to social media harangues. So much so, that it is much easier to simply tune it out or turn it off. Who needs it?

So, where are the arenas, public or private, for civil discourse today? They are pretty hard to find. More and more, research shows that people are retreating into their own echo chambers and are only listening to opinions and ideas that reflect what they already believe. And, really, who can blame us? According to a 2014 Pew Research study, American citizens “sustain far fewer friendships with people of different political orientations today than they did thirty years ago. Most of us come into contact with those who think differently than we do less and less, intensifying the ease with which we can dismiss and vilify our counterparts.” (Rabbi Melissa Weintraub, co-founding director of Resetting the Table, in an article here:

The struggle to lean in and listen respectfully to the other side is real; one that I, too, wrestle with constantly, I must admit. I share my thoughts with you tonight/today not as one who has figured it all out, but as a fellow-traveller who is grappling with these challenging issues alongside each of you. It is so easy, isn’t it?: To make that snarky comment, to poke fun, even when it’s mean; to casually deride those who disagree with us; or simply dismiss views inconsistent with our own as out of touch, ignorant, stupid or, even worse, dangerous. This is not to say that we should all agree or accept every position, no matter its coherence or rationality, as equally valid. The principle that I am encouraging us to grapple with is not whether we should agree with each other or not, but how we can disagree with each other with honor and respect. How we can be better at listening to one another, especially when we have greatly differing perspectives, without tearing each other apart or demeaning one another.

But, Rabbi, you might ask, is it really so important that we seek to understand and not undermine each other? After all, you might continue making your case, those people—no matter what side you are on—are the source of the whole problem to begin with and they will never change. So what is the point? But, I ask you, is the goal to “win,” to convince others that you are right? I am advocating something very different. What would happen if we were to approach each other with real curiosity about what the other believes? What would take place were we to invite another to see what we are seeing? What if we would actually listen to and share  the stories that inform each of our perspectives? If we don’t think about this as a competition then maybe we can consider having civil conversations: Leaning in rather than leaning on.

After all, listening is so central to Judaism! The Shema—Listen, O, Israel—is THE prayer that occupies a place of supreme importance in our tradition! This prayer is usually the very first one that every Jewish child learns. Despite this centrality of listening for our people, expressed through the shema, however, I am not sure that Jews are any better than anyone else at listening. In fact, we might even be worse. In the Torah, God often reminds us that we are a stiff-necked people, a reflection, clearly, of our stubborn nature and our sub-par listening skills. In fact, given our Jewish proclivity to argue without listening all that well to the other side, the following story about Henry Kissinger, though perhaps apocryphal, is illustrative of my point: Kissinger, famous for his shuttle diplomacy, came to the US in 1938 at the age of 15, yet still speaks with a very thick German accent. An acquaintance once asked Kissinger’s brother why he, the brother, had no trace of a German accent whereas Henry sounded like he’d just bounced in from Munich. The brother replied that ‘unlike Henry, I listen to other people.’”

It is quite possible that our tradition emphasized the shema and listening—not because we were so good at it—but in order to better develop and hone our abilities to listen!. We might think of the shema not simply as a prayer, an affirmation of God’s oneness, but a spiritual challenge, a ritual exercise provided by our tradition to become better listeners. Perhaps, the shema’s purpose is to actually remind us what a blessing it is to truly listen: to listen for God in our lives, to listen for the hints of holiness and unity that bind us together, to simply listen to each other. This is truly an idea worth praying for!

During the High Holy Days, the value of listening is actually trumpeted! The very blast of the shofar is actually a call to listen. Each year we anticipate the stirring notes emanating from this ram’s horn. And the mitzvah is to listen to its sound: We say in our blessing, “baruch ata.. “lishmo’a kol Shofar!” (Blessed are you, God, for the mitzvah to listen to the sound of the shofar)  The mitzvah is not to blow the shofar or just see the shofar, but rather to hear its unique sound, its piercing message. The mitzvah is in its auditory power; the power to startle, to awaken, to help us listen. But to what is the shofar calling us to listen? It occurred to me that, if listening is relational, if listening is responsive, then the call of the shofar may be inviting us to step out of our insulation and isolation, and to lean in and to listen to what is beyond ourselves. Listening heightens our sense of connection with others and the world around us. This year at Rosh Hashanah, I hear new meaning in the ancient call of the shofar; a call that resonates deeply with the needs of our divided world. Let us hear in the call of the shofar a wake up call to listen, in the deepest sense, to the voices that feel “other.” An urgent call to stretch ourselves just a bit more to truly hear one another. To just listen. A first step toward trying to understand.

Now, dissension in the Jewish community is not a new thing. Certainly, and I am sure that this will come as a shock to you, we know these disagreements to be true even in our own community here at Bet Haverim.  We Jews have never had a uniform approach to life and therefore we know a few things about acrimonious disagreements…whether it was debates between the Hassidim and Mitnagdim (those who were vehemently against them), the students of Rabbi Hillel and those of Rabbi Shammai, or the Jewish rationalists who opposed the kaballistic mystics. So, we can be pretty confident that stark differences will continue among us. So, maybe there is something we can learn from our history that is instructive for us today, within our Jewish world and beyond.

I want to share with you two radically different Jewish stories from our tradition that offer insight into the powerful choices we have for dealing with those with whom we dramatically disagree.

The first story comes from the Talmud (Bava Metzia 84a) and revolves around the relationship between two shining stars in the rabbinic firmament, Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, known as Reish Lakish, and Rabbi Yochanan. Rabbi Yochanan was known not only for his great intellect but also his radiant beauty. Before becoming a rabbi, Reish Lakish had a dubious background and had been a robber or perhaps a Roman gladiator. Their first encounter takes place at a swimming hole where Rabbi Yochanan was bathing. Struck by his handsome good looks, Reish Lakish is immediately drawn to Rabbi Yochanan, who tells his new friend, “If you think that I am good looking wait until you meet my sister! If you agree to study Torah with me and become a scholar you will be able to marry my sister.”  Reish Lakish takes him up on the challenge, marries his sister, and goes on to be a great Torah master in his own right. The two of them become a constant and beloved chevrutah, study companions, who, however, hardly ever agreed with each other.

The talmudic story continues, as related by Rabbi Alana Suskin: One day, while Rabbi Yochanan and Reish Lakish were studying, after many years of their close partnership, they had a different kind of argument: They were arguing about at what stage different kinds of weapons can become subject to ritual impurity. The two of them differed in their opinion. But this time, Rabbi Yohanan responded not with an argument, but with an insult, alluding to Reish Lakish’s shady past: “Well, a robber understands his trade.”  Instead of appealing to reason, Rabbi Yohanan tried to win the argument by hurting his opponent, calling up his past to embarrass him.

Reish Lakish was understandably insulted and basically responded: “So, you think you have helped me so much! Before, as a robber, I was already a master.  I didn’t need you to make me a master (or, in Hebrew, a rav, a rabbi) When Rabbi Yohanan attacks his connection to the Jewish people by questioning his origins, Reish Lakish responds by also questioning that connection. He asks, “If you insult me by telling me I don’t belong and I’m only here because you simply are tolerating me, then perhaps I really don’t belong.”

Rabbi Yohanan, rather than trying to repair the hurt that he created with his words, deepens them by doubling down, claiming that he feels more insulted, and boasts that he, Yohanan, after all had been the one to bring Reish Lakish into divine service. Basically saying to Reish Lakish, “where would you be without me?!” At this point, the hurt was so great that Reish Lakish falls ill. Yohanan’s sister comes to Yohanan and begs him to make peace with his old chevruta-study partner, but he refuses, and Reish Lakish dies.

The Talmud tells the end of the story in this way: “When Reish Lakish died, Rabbi Yohanan fell into deep grief. Said the Rabbis, ‘Who shall go to ease his mind? [to be his new chevruta] Let Rabbi Eleazar son of Pedat go, whose disquisitions are very subtle.’ So he went and sat before him; and on every dictum uttered by Rabbi Yohanan he observed: ‘There is a Baraita [a rabbinic teaching] which supports you.’

Yohanan complained, “Are you as Reish Lakish? When I stated a law, Reish Lakish used to raise twenty-four objections, to which I gave twenty-four answers, which consequently led to a fuller comprehension of the law; while you say, ‘A Baraita has been taught which supports you’ do I not know myself that my dicta are right?” Thus he went on rending his garments and weeping, ‘Where are you, Reish Lakish, where are you, O son of Lakisha;’ and he cried until he went out of his mind. Thereupon the Rabbis prayed for him, and he died.”

In stark contrast to this example, we have the frequent stories describing the idealogical and practical conflicts that arose between the students who followed Rabbi Hillel and those who followed Rabbi Shammai. Despite the fact that these two schools of thought hardly ever agreed with one another, they were able to maintain positive relations with each other over the years.  Maybe something akin to the modern example of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Antonin Scalia, who spent 23 years on the Supreme Court together, invariably opposing one another’s positions at every turn. Indeed, one was an arch-conservative Italian Catholic and the other a Jewish liberal, daughter of Russian immigrants. Yet they were the greatest of friends who respected each other professionally and went to the opera together, celebrated together and travelled with each other’s families. A rabbinic colleague recently wrote: “After Scalia died, Ginsburg spoke publicly about how their disagreements made her better. How her world was richer, and how she grew as a person and a judge because of their friendship. Had she decided to ‘unfriend’ him the moment his arguments challenged or offended her, her world – and ours – would have been smaller, impoverished, less.’” (Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback,

In Yevamot 14a of the Talmud, there is a major dispute between the Houses of Hillel and Shammai over who could marry whom, threatening to tear the Jewish community apart by creating a profound rift between the disciples of the two great masters. But in the end the community remained in tact. Though they were incapable of  agreeing on this, and many other, critical issues of their day, neither school refrained from intermarrying with the other. This is to teach you, the Talmud says, that they showed love and friendship towards one another, thus putting into practice the Scriptural text, “Love ye truth and peace.”

Today, Jewish law almost always agrees with the school of Hillel. The Talmud (Eruvin 13b) explains why: A heavenly voice declared: “The words of both schools are the words of the living God, but the law follows the rulings of the school of Hillel.”

So why does the law follow the rulings of the school of Hillel? The Talmud explains that the disciples of Hillel were gentle and modest, and studied both their own opinions and the opinions of the other school, and humbly mentioned the words of the other school before their own.

Here we have two very different models of how to deal with our opponents. In one, friendship and respect is maintained even in the context of vigorous and very heated debates. The school that “won out” did so not because they were more right, but because of how they comported themselves during their disagreements. They were kind, humble and generous in their approach towards those with whom they disagreed.

The nature of the other way of engaging our opponents is perfectly summed up by Rabbi Alana Suskin when she concludes that what ultimately killed both Reish Lakish and Rabbi Yochanan was an attempt to silence their partner through humiliation in the supposed pursuit of truth. She writes: “One cannot come to deep understanding with those who agree with you—it is only those who are able to argue with you that can bring you to truth. Those who stand up to you, far from being your enemies, are your truest friends. And in that friendship, it is the best and safest place to struggle with what is most difficult.”

“Truth—especially big truths—cannot be found by silencing the ones with whom you disagree. If you censure and censor those who tell you you are wrong—well, in that way lies only death, and madness.” (Rabbi Alana Suskin

The choice is ours! How will we approach our fragmented world where we are often at loggerheads with one another? Will we strive to follow the path of Hillel and Shammai, fostering respect despite our differences? Or will we succumb to the ways of Reish Lakish and Rabbi Yochanan, becoming mired in personal recriminations that leave only death and destruction in their wake? What gifts of our mind and spirit will we bring to bear to foster healing and understanding within the Jewish community and in our larger world?

This spring, I was privileged to join a few other Bet Haverim partners in an opportunity to experience first-hand the power of listening intentionally to one another. Fifteen of us, who had vastly different responses to the Davis imam’s sermons of July 2017, participated in a six-part Listening Workshop facilitated by Sandra Lommasson and Jean Holsten from the Bread of Life Center in Sacramento. The goal was simply to learn how to listen to one another’s experience; to listen only to understand and not to try to convince. Not so simple, I can assure you.  We learned how easy it is to get triggered and how quickly we make assumptions based on our own perspectives.  There was a moment towards the end of our sessions when it felt like our project would go flying off the rails in disaster. But in our last session there was a beautiful moment where we felt we were just able to transcend our differences and hear one another completely. The journey to that “aha moment” was not easy, it took time and patience and practice, but we were all awed to be able to share in it.

I learned from our experience that people have a fundamental need to be heard. To be understood. We all do. Even if we disagree. Listening, when done well, is so affirming. It melts the barriers that we have erected around our hearts. It opens us up to our shared humanity and we begin to see that there is more that unites us than divides us. What I didn’t understand before, that I better understand now, is how crucial it is to hear the hurt and pain that people are experiencing, how valuable it is to listen and understand the fear and anxiety that arises in people, and how healing it is to create opportunities to bring all sides of a conflict together for honest conversation and listening.

Though, in our workshop, we were a small group, like sour dough starter, we hope to continue to ferment more listening and deeper understandings between people of varying perspectives within our congregation and community. A task force has been formed that is continuing to meet with CBH partners to learn about their experiences and reactions to the imam’s sermons. I encourage you to reach out to Bonnie Berman, our CBH president, to participate. We want to listen to you!

I see that what I learned about our own community can be applied, as well, to our world at large. What became clear to me is how crucial it is that we stop talking only to ourselves, to those we already agree with. The needs of today demand a robust, respectful and honest debate among the various perspectives about all the challenges we face. All of us could benefit from taking a good look at our own openness to hearing the other side. We would do well to embrace the Jewish concept of machloket l’shem shamayim, the idea of heavenly arguments for the sake of a greater good, so that we might move the world forward, nudging us to lean in toward each other just a bit more. Rabbi Melissa Weintraub states so beautifully the importance of coming to the table to listen to one other:
“There may be no more sacred work than finding God in the faces of those with whom we disagree without backing away from our honest disagreements. Trying to extend the widest possible embrace of each other, even while taking in something we find objectionable or painfully hard to hear. Without getting wishy-washy, silenced or compromised, finding a way for both ourselves and those with whom we disagree to come to voice.” (The wisdom from Rabbi Melissa Weintraub’s article were helpful in formulating these ideas.

This Rosh Hashanah, let us listen to the call of the shofar with fresh ears. Let the shofar’s cry arouse within each of us, a desire to truly hear one another in new ways.

Tekiah (with a blast of the shofar): A shout! Let us wake up! Pay attention! Notice our differences.
Teruah (with a blast of the shofar): A knocking! Let us break down the walls that separate us and be curious about one another’s ideas!
Shevarim (with a blast of the shofar): A wail! Let us open ourselves up to uncomfortable and challenging moments of deep listening that can serve as opportunities that will give birth to new understandings.
Tekiah Gedolah (with a blast of the shofar): A deep and cleansing breath inviting us to lean in to hope, building bridges to the other side.

Ken y’hi ratzon!