Several years ago, I published a book entitled The Long Way Around: Stories and Sermons from a Life’s Journey. The book was a memoir and the sermons which were inspired by the experiences of my life. Writing the book was a process lasting many years and it was very satisfying to finally see it in print. The book is still available on Amazon.
When I retired from the full-time pulpit rabbinate in 2018, one of my goals was to write another book. I had two different ideas for books and began to work on them. But I turned my attention to other pursuits: the production of a weekly podcast, teaching adult education classes and volunteer work which had become very meaningful. As a result, I limited my writing to the occasional sermon I gave when filling in for another rabbi and relatively infrequent postings on this blog.
Lately, I have begun to feel the “writing bug” again and I have decided, as we say in Hebrew b’Ii neder (no promises), to pursue one of those book ideas that I had considered and see whether a second book comes out of the process.
My idea for the small book is to present and discuss the texts which most significantly inspired me in my work as a rabbi. While important in the rabbinic context, these texts do not only serve rabbis, but I believe they also can be inspirational to everyone as they consider their jobs, their relationships, their thoughts about God and the ongoing questions we all have about how to best live our lives in this world.
The selection of texts is eclectic. Some texts are well known while some are obscure. Some lead to obvious lessons while some yield important ideas only after a significant amount of midrash. Some are from traditional Jewish sources, others come from sources far removed from Torah and Talmud and have their origin in other areas such as movies or popular music. They are united in that each is meaningful in its own way and provided inspiration and meaning to my life as a rabbi, a husband, a father, a friend, a human being.
So, I am going to begin this project and, occasionally, I will share some of the texts and my commentary on this blog. I invite your reaction to these postings and to the idea for the book, in general.
This week’s edition of my podcast features one of the texts that I will include in the book. The text is a commentary on a verse in this week’s Torah portion by Ish Yehudi, the 20thcentury German Rabbi Joseph Tzvi Carlebach. The verse in question is part of the process of consecration of the priests to serve in the mishkan, the traveling sanctuary in the wilderness. In Exodus 29:20, we read that God commanded: “Slaughter the ram and take some of its blood and put it on the ridge of Aaron’s right ear and on the ridges of his sons’ right ears and on the thumbs of their right hands and on the big toes of their right feet.”
It doesn’t seem that this verse would yield significant lessons for life but that is the genius of Torah commentators: finding important messages in the most mundane of texts and Ish Yehudi rises to the occasion with his commentary.
He writes: “The ear, the hand and the foot must be excellent and distinguished in each leader of Israel. The ear to hear the cries of Jews so that the leader can know and understand the needs and wishes of Israel. The hand to give blessing to all. And the feet to be ready to run to help anyone who is in need.”
I love that text for two reasons. First, it is a marvelously creative interpretation of a rather uninspiring text.
But, more importantly, the text teaches us something critically essential: the importance of listening.
I first encountered this text after I had been a rabbi for more than 15 years. I was satisfied with much of the work I had done but I knew that there were aspects of the role of rabbi that I needed to improve upon, but I was searching for a place to start. This verse helped me to realize one of those areas that needed improvement.
While I considered myself sufficiently proficient at being at services and meetings (getting there by my feet) and giving people what I felt they needed (that’s the hand part), this verse made me question whether I was as good a listener as I should be, and the answer was: “no”.
I realized that I wasn’t listening to people as well as I should: cutting off critical discussions because I was needed someplace else, missing subtle verbal clues about what people were really saying to me, not making eye contact and not asking questions which needed to be asked about what people were saying.
So, I was determined to change and while I never came close to being a perfect listener, I did find myself listening more intently, interrupting far less frequently and willing to be late someplace else if the conversation demanded more time.
And the lesson I learned from the commentary of the Ish Yehudi is a lesson for all in every part of our lives.
Truly listening to our partners, our children, our friends, our employees, is one of the greatest gifts we can give and one of the most important responsibilities of a human being. It is also one which we are most likely to take less seriously. So, we all must do better. We must not only be where we are needed (our feet) and do what is needed (our hands) but we must take the time to truly listen to those with whom we are in any kind of relationship to fulfill our responsibility as human beings.
Let us all take that message to heart.
But that’s not the end of the story. The commentary leaves me with one additional thought.
Ish Yehudi mentions hearing the cries of the Jewish people and that is essential for a rabbi and for any Jew.
But God created us with two ears, and I believe that rabbis must use that second ear to hear the cries of those outside of the Jewish community, to hear the cries of anguish from those who are victims of violence, innocent victims of war and of those generally in need. Leaders of the Jewish people have a particular responsibility to hear our people’s cries but that other ear must be attuned to others in the world, and we must respond to those cries as well.
And this applies to all of us. We are inclined not to hear the cries of the “other”. But there is no “other” when there are tears of pain. We can not ignore the cries we hear. This is particularly relevant, as I discuss at length in my podcast, as we consider the war in Gaza.
We must listen and let what we hear inspire our hands and our feet to go and do good work that needs to be done to quiet the cries that we hear.
May we all be better- and more universal- listeners.
I look forward to your responses to the idea of the book (title suggestions are welcome) and your thoughts on this piece.