Listening and Hearing: It's How to Learn Our Stories
As we restart the cycle of reading Torah, I am reminded of the importance of stories. Stories give shape to events, memories, feelings, and insights. They reveal character. Stories can define a people’s mission and sense of self. Referencing a shared story is a kind of short-hand and can reinforce the emotional impact of the event – positively and negatively.
An episode entitled “Darmok,” from Star Trek: The Next Generation brilliantly showcases the power of just such a shared story. It features an alien whose entire language consists of names of stories told about his planet’s heroes and history. Only when Captain Picard comes to understand the references do the alien’s words make sense. Our human connection to this type of communication is so universal that this episode has been a consistent fan favorite for 25 years.
Like the alien’s language, the Torah is full of family stories -- our family’s stories, yours and mine. How we retell these tales, including which details we stress and which we omit, reveal new insights about each of us. Each retelling of our story continues to shape our collective identity.
Biblical stories also can bring new meaning to one’s prayer life. We know there are Biblical references sprinkled liberally throughout the siddur, the prayer book. The notes on the bottom of the pages of Mishkan T’filah, the newest Reform prayer book, alert us to the origins of some of these references. But why did the original writers choose these specific references and why did they position each one in the place in which it is still found today?
Rabbi Mark H. Levin’s Praying the Bible: Finding Personal Meaning in the Siddur, Ending Boredom & Making Each Prayer Experience Unique offers an emotional charting of the prayer book, explaining the coded messages our sages left us by placing specific references where they did. For example, “Adon Olam,” a famous hymn, contains many Biblical references. In the stanza referring to God as our Redeemer, the poet says “V’hu nisi umanos li, m’nat kosi b’yom ekrah.” (You are my standard bearer and my refuge, my cup (portion, benefactor) when I call on You.)
Even those who are not Biblical scholars can see and hear the connection between the words of “Adon Olam” and these words from Psalm 23:
You spread a table for me in full view of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup runneth over.
The author of ”Adon Olam,” through precisely-chosen words, invokes Psalm 23, a poem that brings comfort to those in distress. By using the same language, associations we have with the psalm are transferred to “Adon Olam.” “My cup” becomes code for “God will comfort and provide for me when I am in dire distress.”
Levin’s book uncovers these treasures hidden in plain sight. But, like Captain Picard, we only understand the language when we know the context, the stories to which these quotes refer. Until we feel the meaning of Psalm 23, the words of “Adon Olam” lose some of their power and emotion.
How can we learn these stories and thereby connect more deeply to our prayers and to each other?
We can best learn these stories by enhancing how we listen and how we hear Torah. In fact, listening is sacred work. It is God’s work, and we praise God daily in the Amidah prayer as the “God who hears prayers and supplication.” Like gratitude and patience, listening can become not only a skill, but a practice as well. Listening can become our sacred work.
As we begin a new year, may we become (even) better listeners – to each other and to our sacred texts. May we hear others and feel heard, and from these encounters, gain renewed energy, clarity, comfort, and hope.