When we utter a rebuke, can we hear ourselves?

Ki Teitzei

Deuteronomy 21:10–25:19

Isaiah 54:1-10

Does anybody listen? Does anybody care? In the minefield of human relationships, it is only natural that these questions occasionally cross our minds. When we try to communicate with others, we often don’t feel heard.

As a rabbi, I find that I spend a good portion of my day listening to others. When I was in rabbinical school, I studied with a wonderful teacher by the name of Jacob Weisberg who posed these very questions. In fact, he wrote a book titled, “Does Anybody Listen? Does Anybody Care?”

In the organizational world, Weisberg has spent a lifetime helping people understand the challenge of, and the wisdom in the art of, compassionate listening. His gifts have helped remind so many of us of how important listening is and how to actually do it.

I couldn’t help thinking of my teacher when I read this week about the wayward and defiant son, the ben sorer umoreh. “And the parents of this son shall say to the elders of his town, ‘This son of ours is disloyal and defiant; he does not hear our voices.’ … The men of the town shall stone him to death” (Deuteronomy 21:20-21). Can the wayward and defiant son listen or care?

The cryptic Torah text does not exactly fill in all of the blanks for us. Under what circumstances should a parent take this terrible action? What about the age of the son? (Or gender of the child, for that matter.) One of the questions the Talmud raises on this particular text is “What if the son can’t hear his parent? Is he truly considered disloyal and defiant at all?” In other words, should this action of bringing the child forward ever take place? Is a child who cannot open herself up to what her parents are saying a deserving candidate for this harsh course of action laid out in the Torah?

In response to the Talmud’s question, the commentator Mipi HaShmuah asks: “What about when a parent can’t even hear his or her own words of rebuke?” Even as the words are coming out of the parent’s mouth to the child’s ears, the parent can’t even absorb what he or she is saying. What blocks the parent’s ability to hear these words?

When one offers rebuke to another person, he or she must be able to hear these words of rebuke. If we expect the person who is doing wrong to change his behavior, then we must heed our words as they come out of our own mouths.

In the end, the rabbis legislate this case out of existence. According to rabbinic law, it is actually impossible to carry this punishment out under any circumstances. But nonetheless, this insightful commentary led me to ask: How do I shape my words in the presence of another human being? Am I really able to hear what is coming out of my mouth? What tone of voice am I using? What is my nonverbal message that is being conveyed to the other person?

We all know that how we speak, our tone of voice and our body language constitute a great part of our success or our failure in communicating with others. But boy, is it hard to do it right.

I hear Weisberg’s gentle voice, and I hear what he would say about the wayward and defiant son and the frustrated parents. He would passionately advocate for what he calls “active listening” — the art of truly hearing what others say by using specific techniques during the course of a conversation. But what our commentator adds to this is the need for applying those active listening skills to ourselves — to our own inner voice and our outer voice — in order to effectively and lovingly rebuke others. In this way, we will actually “hear our voices and heed our voices.”

As the High Holy Days near, we can all use a tune-up when it comes to our listening skills. After all, nearly half of the communal wrongdoings mentioned in the machzor, the High Holy Days prayerbook, pertain to communication — how we speak. Listening goes hand in hand with speaking. It is through doing both well that we honor each other.

Rabbi Susan Leider
Rabbi Susan Leider

Rabbi Susan Leider is the senior rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon. She can be reached at [email protected].