Take an extra second to listen, and your words will be holy


Exodus 25:1-27:16

Numbers 28:9-15

Isaiah 66:1-66:24

Taking the time to listen, to be attentive to those around us, has the God-given power to transform our relationships and ourselves. Throughout the Book of Exodus we are invited into different modes of speech and of listening. Some we see destroy worlds, while other modes bring healing and wholeness.

Notice the contrast in Exodus between Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, and Pharaoh. The verb most frequently used in connection with Pharaoh is to speak. He talks incessantly. Not once in the Torah does he listen. As a result, his heart is hardened.

Jethro, by contrast, listens. He hears of everything that had happened to Moses. He sits as Moses tells him all that has occurred. Only then does he begin to speak. And his words are words of blessings: Praised is God who has done all these amazing things.

Jethro then observes Moses. He watched what he does and see the burdens Moses places upon himself. He offers advice only after watching and being attentive. Moses is able to accept his father-in-law’s advice because it is given after listening, watching and noticing.

The word “listen” appears for the first time in connection with Moses after Jethro listens to him. Up until now, he has mirrored the behavior of Pharaoh of speaking and of needing to be in control. Now, the compassion and attentiveness of Jethro enable Moses to listen as well as he mirrors Jethro’s behavior. Only now are Moses and the people ready to hear the Ten Commandments from God.

In our own lives, we take too little time to listen. Often, our moments of listening are really moments in which we are waiting to speak. How often have I begun speaking before the other person is even finished? How often have I assumed that I knew what the other person was going to say?

Listening is itself a commandment. The Torah says, Hear O Israel. The choice to listen is the choice to care. I care for you, therefore I suppress my own ego needs and give you gift of my full attention.

I suggest the following. Before any interactions, whether at work or with family or friends, take a breath. Formulate an intention. One such intention might be: “I intend to listen, to be attentive and caring of the person in front of me. Only after I have understood will I begin to speak.”

At the moment you are ready to speak, take another breath. Give the person in front of you another moment of attention to see if they are ready themselves yet to listen. In recent years I have started to allow a longer pause before I speak. I am amazed at the confidences, fears and joys that people have shared with me because of that extra moment of attentiveness and listening.

We are in the midst of building the Mishkan, the movable Sanctuary that the Israelites took with them on their journeys. That Sanctuary served a purpose of clarifying speech through listening. I have clarified butter on a few occasions. Clarifying butter means to remove the milk fats and leave behind a clear oil that can be used in cooking. Without the clarifying process, the milk fats smoke and burn.

Similarly, speech contains truth and dishonesty, ego and integrity. When we fail to make the time to listen, to be attentive to those around us, our words smoke and burn from the ego and dishonesty. Our words hurt those around us. By contrast, when we make time for listening and for prayer, we clarify the intent of our words. We listen and then speak, allowing words that are holy and pure to come forth. The Mishkan did this for us in ancient days; prayer and listening must suffice now.

Pharoah is around all the time: speaking, talking, posting on blogs and yelling at us on cable television. But Jethro is around as well — quieter, perhaps, but remaining a force of compassion and healing. If we can learn from the example of Jethro, we will surely bring healing and love into our current relationships, and teach others a new way that can heal the world itself.

Rabbi David Booth is the spiritual leader at Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto. He can be reached at [email protected].