(Ki Tavo, Deuteronomy 26:1-29:8)
By Rabbi Adina Allen
In this week’s parsha, Moses sets two paths before the Israelites as they prepare to enter the land. If they heed God’s word, the Israelites will be blessed in every way possible and will be established as am kadosh, a holy people to God. If, however, they do not heed God, they will be cursed in every way imaginable. Their communities will be torn apart, their cities ravaged, their flocks decimated, their spirits broken, their hearts to be forever consumed by terror and dread.
Introducing these two paths to the Israelites Moses says, “If you listen, listen to the voice of Adonai your God” all blessings will follow, however, “if you do not listen to God’s voice” then every curse will ensue. From this choice of words we can understand that listening, more than any other action, is the essential practice for living a life in service to God and is at the heart of what it means to bring blessing into the world.
What is the voice of God and what does it mean to listen to this voice?
On first read, these verses seem to portray God’s voice as that of a dictator who will punish us if we don’t obey. In this read, to listen to God is to heed an abuser who holds power over us in order to force us to follow his will. There is a good reason why this view of God, though unappealing in some ways, is held by so many. In this read, the path we are meant to take is clear and is given to us, thereby relieving us of the burden of discernment. We either follow and are good, or disobey and are punished.
If, rather, we think of the voice of God as the sacred intuition within each one of us, we hear these lines differently. In this read, the listening that is being asked of us is a constant practice in each moment. It comes not from on high but rather from within. Though perhaps appealing on the surface, the challenge here is that this sort of listening requires continual engagement to find the path of blessing in each moment. The imperative of this view is that there are myriad right possibilities. Each of us hear certain aspects of God’s voice and the full truth requires all voices.
Amid such a divisive and challenging time in our country, the act of listening feels as essential as it does impossible. On all sides of the political spectrum voices are shouting to drown out those whom they see as threatening their existence. The higher the stakes, the louder we speak. We scream at one another at protests in the streets, in comment feeds on Facebook, and across the dinner table. The more threatened we feel, the more hopeless and hateful our speech becomes. So consumed by our own views, so entrenched within our own positions, we refuse to listen. It is times like these when listening to the other is most challenging that it is most crucial.
In my own experience, when I am not listened to I observe the chasm between me and the person with whom I’m speaking deepen and the chance for human connection diminishes. Ralph G. Nichols, founder of the International Listening Association explains why. “The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best way to understand people is to listen to them.” Listening is the root of authentic relationship. In the framework of philosopher Martin Buber, listening is what allows us to develop an I-thou, rather than an I-it relationship. He described listening as “Something we do with our full selves by sensing and feeling what another is trying to convey” so we may remove the barrier between us.
In his book Seven Thousand Ways to Listen, author Mark Nepo describes listening as “a personal pilgrimage…we are asked to put down our conclusions and feel and think anew.” To put down our conclusions so that we might feel and think anew is exactly our task during this season of change and transformation as we approach the High Holy Days. And during such an intense time in our country, it’s never been more vital.
In this season we make teshuva, repair, ben adam l’makom—between ourselves and the Divine—and ben adam l’havero—between ourselves and our fellow humans. We are called to this task by the sounding of the shofar. Remarkably, the mandate is not to blow the shofar, but to hear its sound. The act of hearing the shofar is meant to awaken our capacity to listen. The shofar’s cry calls us to scan our year and search our souls for those times in which we failed to listen.
This is a year in which the teshuva we’re being asked to make is not only for the ways we’ve failed as individuals, it is for our collective failure to hear the complex and challenging voice of the Divine as it comes through each one of us. The strands of suffering, disenfranchisement and hopelessness that are demanding to be heard are those that have been denied for centuries. The stakes are high and the task is daunting. Will we listen? Our futures are inextricably bound, and curse and blessing hang in the balance.
Entrepreneur and artist Rabbi Adina Allen is the Co-founder and Creative Director of The Jewish Studio Project — an arts-based nonprofit in Berkeley, CA that blends traditional Jewish learning with a creative arts studio. She is a 2014 graduate from the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College and one of the authors in the new Hebrew College High Holiday Companion (published in August 2017) available now for study and reflection during the High Holidays.
Learn more about the Rabbinical School of Hebrew College at our fall Open House and Day of Learning, Ta Sh’ma (Come & Hear) on November 6. Info and registration.