I’m often troubled by the thought of what we should have heard but missed.
There’s a cruel scene in tomorrow’s Torah. Rachel, who’s childless, turns in pain to her husband Jacob: ‘Give me children or else I die.’ He answers sharply: Do you think I’m God, who’s withheld from you the fruit of the womb?
The rabbis blame him doubly: Is that how you answer someone in pain? And why, just because you’ve got offspring through Leah, rub it in by stressing ‘from you’?
Rachel hurts. Sometimes people who hurt say things we fail to hear. Sometimes we react to the edge in their tone but miss the sorrow underneath. Sometimes people who’re suffering don’t say anything to us at all, and we don’t stop to listen. Sometimes we keep ourselves at too great distance for their voices to carry that far.
The Talmud describes a town which built a surrounding wall with thick gates. The prophet Elijah, who used to visit Rabbi Joshua ben Levi there, stopped coming. When he eventually returned, the rabbi asked why he’d been gone so long. He replied: I don’t go to places which insulate themselves from the cry of the poor.
The infinitive absolute has no grammatical equivalent in English: in Hebrew it’s the doubling of a verb for emphasis. The Torah has one verse in which this construction is used three times: God says ‘If you oppress, oppress them, and they cry out, cry out to me, I will hear, surely hear their outcry.’ Perhaps ‘hear’ is doubled because we humans too have to listen beyond what first strikes our ears, to the meaning, the spoken, the half spoken and the unspoken, beyond.
This is more than any of us can manage. Some kinds of listening can’t be delegated. Who should be hearing Rachel’s pain, if not Jacob? Sometimes listening needs to be shared: in a community we need to hear each other, but no one of us has the sensitivity, or capacity, to hear everyone. Sometimes it’s the responsibility of society as a whole to hear za’akat dalim, the cry of the poor.
These matters concern me at every level. Rabbis, like doctors, are not immune to the feedback: ‘You make time for lots of others, but where are you for your own family?’
Sometimes there are members of our community we don’t hear. During lockdown, the familiar channels through which we learn what’s happening to each other, at Kiddush, parties, shivas and in the shops, are mostly closed off. I worry about what we’re not attuned to in these semi-enclosed, shutdown months. Please help us understand! And I apologise for what we’ve missed.
Sometimes there are wider collective issues, markers, memorials which we haven’t registered. I’m conscious that 1st December is World Aids Day; I’m grateful to Laurence Jacobs, congregant and trustee of The Jewish Aids Trust, for informing me. ‘As always, the Jewish community, the first faith community to step up to the mark, makes me very proud,’ he said: everyone who dies of AIDS was someone’s child, sibling, partner; it’s not just across the world (where it’s killed 35 million people), it’s in North West London too. World Aids Day matters ‘to increase awareness, fight prejudice and improve education.’
I appreciate that head and heart are often full. One wants to put one’s hands over one’s ears: ‘Leave me alone, I can’t take any more.’ We need silence too, to retreat in our spirits to the tranquil waters for which the Psalmist longs. We need the quiet, or maybe it’s truly music, which calms the throbbing voices in the mind. That’s why I often walk or run at night, to be stilled by the gentle voices of the trees.
Quiet and prayer deepen the heart. We need them so that we can be more heedful listeners to life and show as little indifference, and give as few cruel answers, as possible.