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authentic listening
middot silence torah authentic listening

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authentic listening

Written by  rabbi russ resnik

art-looklistenOne of the current terms of religious discussion that I’ve grown to suspect is “spirituality.” I’m tired of hearing people say, “I’m not religious; I’m spiritual,” which often means I don’t have any outward signs of religious or transcendent life, but, trust me, I possess many lofty sentiments. In this sense, spirituality refers to something that can’t be measured and might have little bearing on how we actually live. Mussar, of course, is a great remedy to this sort of spirituality. The middah of silence might easily be drawn into collusion with this kind of spirituality, but Mussar restores the balance, usually by drawing upon the wisdom of Scripture.

So, when Hashem appears to Isaac and reiterates the promises that he first made to Abraham, to bless him and give him the land in which he is dwelling as a sojourner, Hashem reminds Isaac that Abraham “listened to my voice and kept my charge: my commandments, my laws, and my teachings” (Gen. 26:5). Many translations render “listened to my voice” (the literal Hebrew) simply as “obeyed.” And it’s clear in this text that Hashem isn’t commending Abraham just for having a good sense of hearing, or even just for paying attention. In other words, he’s not commending Abraham’s spirituality, but his obedience. Listening that is authentic and true entails obedience. And conversely, obedience depends on listening.

Creativity is a wonderful thing, but in the realm of Torah, real spirituality starts with hearing the voice of Hashem (most commonly through the words of Scripture) and acting accordingly. And listening, in turn, inevitably requires silence. You can’t hear what I’m saying as long as you’re blabbing away—and vice versa, of course. We can’t hear the voice of Hashem, which is always the spark-plug of obedient action, unless we quiet our own voice and all the voices around us. Practicing silence has great value in itself, but for it to transcend the bounds of contemporary spirituality, it must lead to hearing the voice of Hashem and obeying.

If you find it difficult to practice silence, try redefining it as listening. Quiet things down so you can hear what really matters. Silence is not just a passive act, shutting down my own noise and the noise produced by others; not an end in itself, as it might be in some forms of spirituality. Rather, silence is active listening for the voice of the Lord, listening which inevitably shakes up our status quo and moves us to obedience.

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