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Friday, 13 November 2020

Hearing and Listening (Chayye Sarah)

When a word or phrase occurs twice in a sidrah, it gives us an opportunity to comment on it. When it occurs six times within the space of ten verses in a sedrah, it demands attention. This word, meaning “Hear us” or “hear me” is in Hebrew “She’ma’einu,” Shema’eini” and “Shema’uni.” Our Torah portion for this week focusses on truly hearing the other.

The first time we hear this phrase is when the children of Heth invite Abraham to pick any burial place for Sarah. In response, Abraham mentions the phrase as he asks for the cave of Ephron the Hittite. As he hears this, Ephron mentions the word in inviting Abraham to take the cave. Abraham offers to pay, using this word. Finally, in his response Ephron asks Abraham once again to hear him.

At no other time in the Torah is there a negotiation anything like this. Looking carefully at the text, it seems as though Ephron is being extremely generous when he offers the cave to Abraham, but not everything is as it seems. All the Hittites are gathered together and the leader announces that Abraham can take any cave he wants. Abraham picks the cave of Ephron. We can now read the text in two ways at this point. One has Ephron the Hittite extremely frustrated at his land being chosen, the other that he wants to give it away but when suddenly faced with losing it, realizes how valuable it is to him.

In the first reading, Ephron is frustrated but he has to act magnanimously in front of everyone else. His people had already declared that Abraham could take any land he wanted, and Ephron probably agreed with that on the assumption that it would be someone else’s land. When his land is selected, he doesn’t want to give it up. Abraham senses that Ephron is unhappy and offers to pay him money, but Ephron could not possibly accept money in front of his people who offered his cave for nothing! So he could have said to Abraham “What’s a piece of land to me? Feh! It’s nothing, have it.”  But instead he says, “What is a piece of land worth 400 shekels (wink, wink) to me?” Abraham hears the words behind the spoken words, and pays the man the 400 shekels.

In the second reading, Ephron is initially willing in theory to give up his ancestral land but at the point when he has to let go of it, suddenly his attachment to the land – perhaps all his family memories - come flooding back. Suddenly, he sees himself impoverished, he realizes what has value in his life and instead of giving it away, he hesitates, and needs to be convinced financially.

What’s happening in the first reading? People are saying things without actually saying them. In English we might differentiate between people hearing and people listening, in Biblical Hebrew the differentiation is made by the inclusion or exclusion of this verb. To hear something is passive, but to listen to something requires effort. We have a story in which people are not only hearing the words, but also listening to the messages behind the words. When the Hittites offer Abraham a field for nothing, he knows that taking the land for free means that they can claim it back at any point, so he hears the words behind the words, and offers money instead to ensure it is his land forever. Now that Abraham is offering money, though, Ephron cannot openly say that he wants the money being offered, but he can spell out the price that the land should be bought for and leave it up to Abraham to give him the money or not.

For me, one very powerful message of this sidrah is that we all have a responsibility to listen to the words behind what people are saying – to try to find our way to the root of what is being said. But conversely, it also puts responsibility on us every time we speak – that we need to make sure that the words that we say really reflect the feelings we mean. And that is why at the end of the Amidah we pray to God to make the words of our mouths, and the meditations of our hearts, be acceptable to God – in other words, may the words of our mouths and the thoughts in our hearts always be one, and always be Godly.

At the same time, though, when it comes to having other people hear us, even if our words are totally consistent with what we’re thinking, there is still potential for confusion. The same word or phrase can mean very different things to differing people. One example which amuses me is the phrase “quite nice.” In America, when a person says that it’s a compliment, but in Britain when a person says that it’s a negative qualifier – the American “quite nice” is much more positive than the British “quite nice!” In Pirkei Avot (1:11), Avtalyon warns scholars to be careful of their words lest their students misunderstand and be led astray. When teaching halakha, that’s much easier than when having a conversation with someone. In negotiations such as the purchase of the Cave of Machpelah, everyone needs to be sure that they understand each other, hence the repetition of “Hear me” and “hear us” throughout the negotiation. But just saying that isn’t really enough because of how differently people hear words. Real conversation involves more listening than it does speaking. It involves listening to our own words to make sure they mean what we want them to, it means listening to what other people are saying, it involves listening to how our own words are received and it means listening to the words behind the words that other people say. This is why, according to Jewish tradition, we have two ears and one mouth – because we should be listening far more than we should be speaking.

This Shabbat, then, let’s commit ourselves to really listening. Listening to the words of our heart and ensuring that they synchronize with the words of our mouth. Listening to the words expressed by others, and the words within the heart of others. And let us say, Amen.


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