Listen, will you?


You are driving, looking for an address, when your wife tells you to ask someone. You refuse, but you finally make it to your destination — two hours late. Are you familiar with this scenario?

When it happened to me, we were going to our first Shabbaton in Pennsylvania, got lost somewhere in Cherry Hill, N.J., and barely made it to the hotel before Shabbat.

It seems like an international rule. Men don’t ask for directions. Now we have been saved by the all-knowing GPS. The only problem is, when it starts giving you directions, for God’s sake, you realize it’s a woman’s voice.

In “You Just Don’t Understand” (William Morrow, 1990), Georgetown linguistics professor Deborah Tannen’s essential guide to the different ways men and women communicate, she analyzes the case of a woman who was recovering from surgery at a hospital. She kept complaining and asked to be moved to her home. But after a while she told her husband that she was not comfortable there either and was still suffering. Her husband suggested she should return to the hospital, and to his great shock, she burst into tears, accusing him of not loving her and wanting her out of the house.

What happened here?

The ailing woman wanted her husband to empathize with her, not offer solutions. Tannen explains that when women are faced with a problem, they first seek understanding and compassion, to know that the other side commiserates with them and listens to them. But men equate the inability to solve a problem with weakness, so when men are in the same situation they feel that they must solve the problem.

This communication gap is demonstrated very sharply in this week’s parsha. When Rachel, Jacob’s beloved wife, sees that her adversary Leah keeps delivering one child after another, she turns to him with an impossible request: “Grant me children or I will die.” The enraged and perplexed Jacob answers: “Can I replace God? He is the one who prevented you from having children.”

Rachel then goes on to offer him her maidservant as a surrogate mother and the issue seems to have been settled, but the sages of the Midrash don’t let Jacob off the hook that easily. They read into that conversation much more than meets the eye. Jacob, they say, was punished for his behavior by the sibling rivalry that tore his family apart and eventually humbled his children from Leah, as they had to bow down to Rachel’s own son, Joseph.

Let us reconstruct the full exchange.

Before Rachel comes to speak to her husband, she is engulfed in feelings of sadness and frustration. She has no children, whereas Leah, the once rejected wife, now has a seat of honor as the mother of Jacob’s growing family. She feels estranged and alienated. She doesn’t see in her husband’s eyes the same sparkle that was there before. She then tries to convey her emotional turmoil to him. If I have no children, she says, I am dead. She either threatens to commit suicide or she is saying that she is as good as dead, without her husband’s love and outdone by Leah.

What Jacob should have said was something like, “I know how you feel.” Sure, she would retaliate with: “No you don’t. You have your children, and you’re not a woman so you will never know what it means to be barren.” But to that he could have answered: “You are right, but I remember how my mother’s eyes would fill with tears when she spoke about her sterility.”

Then he could have segued into her thoughts on what should be done, and she would probably say that he should pray for her, spend more time with her, or (as she eventually did) consider adoption or a surrogacy.

Instead, Jacob got angry.

Angry? With your beloved wife? A woman in distress?

Yes, because he felt threatened.

Here is a problem he cannot solve; a baby he cannot deliver. And he answers accordingly: “This is not my role; it is God’s role.” And as if this was not enough, he adds: “He has not granted you children.”

Now, Jacob might have emphasized the word He to indicate that it is God’s responsibility and not his. But Rachel hears the emphasis on you, and understands that he is not concerned because he has his own kids, it is you — Rachel — who has a problem.

What a terrible misunderstanding and miscommunication. And what an important lesson to all of us, especially men, to be better listeners and to try first to understand our conversational partner and only then offer, if applicable, a solution.

Haim Ovadia is the rabbi of Congregation Magen David of Beverly Hills (magendavid.org), a Sephardic Orthodox synagogue. You can reach him via e-mail at hovadia@gmail.com.

Listening with our ‘third ear’


Sometimes you hear something that you get right away and then you forget it; other times, you hear something that you don’t get right away, but then, when you “get it,” you can’t forget it.

Recently, I heard something that I didn’t get right away.

It came from an Orthodox married couple who live in the hood and who invited my kids and me for Shabbat lunch. At first, I was mostly focused on a display of Mediterranean salads that could have been photographed for the Museum of Modern Art.

Once I started paying more attention, however, I noticed that my hosts were talking about something called the third ear. It sounded like worn-out hippie schmaltz – this notion of tapping into our “third ear energy” to bring more harmony into our lives, and to the world.

I was hearing that the third ear is really our hearts, but that we need to teach our hearts to think, so that we can listen through it. The result is what’s called “thoughtful emotion,” an emotion that lets us safely open up to new experiences.

It sounded really cool, but it still reeked of spiritual schmaltz. I wasn’t getting it – I needed more. A few weeks later, at the Temple Bar in Santa Monica, I got more.

I got a little music.

You see, the man who was doing the Kiddush, the blessings and the dvar Torahs at the Shabbat table is a reggae-African-roots rocker named Maimon Chocron, and he’s the lead singer of a band called Mongoose. The woman, who waxed passionately about the third ear and who created the culinary panorama on the Shabbat table, is his wife, Jennifer.

At the Temple Bar, she was again in schmooze-hostess mode, but this time, instead of a few Shabbat guests, there were a couple-hundred Mongoose fans.

Yamulkes, beards, dreadlocks, miniskirts, other rockers, a few wigs – I even saw some Caucasian Americans. In a tight space that could have doubled as an underground blues bar in Mississippi, the crowd rocked to the mystical rasta rhythms of the 10-piece Mongoose band, which featured two African American vocalists, a bassist named Ronnie “Stepper” McQueen and Maimon, in his Charlie Chaplin hat, working the crowd.

Everyone was there to hear Maimon’s new collection of songs, which are in a CD titled – take a guess – “Third Ear.” Nothing on this night seemed obvious.

After songs on “Coming to Pray” and memories of hell (“1945”), and the occasional interspersing of Hebrew lyrics, Maimon would belt out a festive riff in Arabic that I recall hearing at my parents’ parties in Morocco. There was a soulful love song, and a song on police terror. And, out of nowhere, a whimsical song in French about a Chassidic rabbi. Just when you thought you had Maimon figured out, he’d tickle your ear with something odd and delicious.

I started to get it. Maimon was listening with his third ear. He didn’t pander to please, but neither did he perform to please himself. His thoughtful heart knew just what to give to keep the crowd alive and guessing. Maybe it was his way of getting the crowd to listen with their own third ears – and hear something new.

When I got home and went over the lyrics from his CD, I started to get it even more. His songs were imbued with “thoughtful emotion.” Open up but don’t fall. Bend but don’t break. Make a prayer, but don’t forget to see that everything around you is a prayer, too.

But get this. There is no song called “Third Ear,” not even a mention of it in the CD liner notes. That’s either an enormous blunder, or brilliant marketing. If you ask me, I think they figured out that the surest way to kill a movement is to call it a movement – and then hype it.

For now, the Chocrons are letting the hype come to them. Although they’ve lived in the hood for many years, their gigs have been mostly in Santa Monica, where Maimon and the Mongoose band had a four-year run in a local club and developed a fan base affectionately called the Mongooseheadz. If things go as planned, they hope to be performing soon at The Joint, a hard-edged music bar in the heart of the hood, across the street from that other icon of edgy street life – Eilat Market.

My favorite part of this story is when I asked them how they came up with the phrase “third ear.” I was expecting a story about some mystical revelation that bubbled up during a meditation with jasmine-scented candles and Chassidic chants. Instead, they told me it came from the friend of a girl who was visiting from Texas. Honest. Someone they barely remember gave them an idea for how to name their new music, and possibly a lot more.

It’ll be interesting to see if this “third ear” idea catches on. When you see Maimon and Jennifer’s laid-back enthusiasm, you get the feeling that if a small group of followers get turned on by their music and spread the message a little, that’ll be OK with them. And if a few Jews reconnect with their Judaism through this path, that would be even better. I just hope they write a book soon; I can think of many of us who could use another ear.

But this obsession with making things bigger and more popular is my problem, not theirs. One of the things you learn when you live in a cozy hood is that not every great idea needs to go global, not every movement needs to go mainstream.

Sometimes, a small movement for a small group of people is just fine, even if we don’t “get it” right away.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Meals4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.

yeLAdim


Mighty Glad to See You!

It was great seeing so many of you at the Israel Independence Day Festival on May 7 (we hope you enjoyed the fans). Be sure to check out our yeLAdim page on June 30, as we will be printing many of the essays you wrote for our 20th anniversary!

Kein v’ Lo:

Parental Spying?

There’s been a lot of talk in the news about people listening to other people’s phone calls, and some people say parents need to check what their kids are doing online and who they are chatting with — because not everyone on the Internet is telling the truth. Should parents be allowed to do that?

The Kein Side:

  • A lot of kids don’t talk to their parents, and the parents want to make sure their kids are safe from drugs, alcohol, bullies and other things that can hurt them.
  • It is your parents’ house, and you have to live by their rules — when you have your own house, you can have your own rules.

The Lo Side:

  • Parents need to trust their kids — otherwise how will the kids ever learn to be responsible for themselves?
  • It is invasion of privacy to listen to their phone calls and look at someone’s things when they aren’t there.

We want to know what you think. E-mail your thoughts to kids@jewishjournal.com, with the subject line: Parents.

We’ll publish your opinions on a future yeLAdim page.

Pages & Picks

This month’s pick is the very cute “Kvetchy Boy” by Anne-Maire Baila Asner — the latest from Matzah Ball Books.

Kvetchy Boy joins his friends Noshy Boy, Shluffy Girl, Klutzy Boy and Shmutzy Girl in bringing Yiddish expressions to young Jews (don’t worry, each book includes a glossary of words) and teaching everyone about being a better person:

Even at his birthday party, Kvetchy Boy kvetched and kvetched.

“This ice cream made my cake soggy. I hate soggy cake,” said Kvetchy Boy.

“But Kvetchy Boy,” said Noshy Boy, who loves to eat. “The cake tastes even better that way.”

Kvetchy Boy didn’t agree.

If you haven’t seen your favorite Yiddish expression yet, don’t worry — there are more books on the way, including some for grown-ups like “Mrs. Mitzvah” and “Bubby” and “Zaida Kvelly.” You can even buy T-shirts with the different characters on them!

For more information, visit

A Prayer for Victims of Hurricane Katrina


Are You watching, God?

Have You seen the innocent swept away?

Are You listening, God?

Have You heard their cries?

Be with them, God.

Be their strength and their comfort.

Let them know You are near.

Work through us, God.

Teach us to be Your messengers on earth.

Wake us up, God,

Show us how to help.

Use us, God, shine through us,

Inspire us to rebuild the ruins.

Open our hearts so we can comfort the mourning.

Open our arms so we can extend our hands to those in need.

Shake us out of our complacency, God.

Be our guide,

Transform our helplessness into action,

Our generous intentions into charity,

Turn the prayers of our souls into acts of kindness and compassion.

Amen.

Rabbi Naomi Levy is spiritual leader of Nashuva (www.nashuva.com). She is the author of “Talking to God: Personal Prayers for Times of Joy, Sadness, Struggle, and Celebration” (Doubleday, 2002)

 

Learning to Listen


Abraham Joshua Heschel would begin his lectures with a startling announcement: “Ladies and Gentlemen, a great miracle has just happened.” People would immediately sit forward, eager to know what happened. “The sun just went down,” he’d say. They would stare at him, wondering if he’d lost his mind. Some would laugh, others would shake their heads. Then he would begin to describe the inner life of the religious person. What does it mean to be religious? How does a religious person sees the world? He’d challenge the audience: What have you lost when you lose the capacity to wonder at a sunset? What sort of person are you when you’re no longer surprised or impressed, no longer compelled to stop and notice the sun setting? What do you lose when life becomes so dull?

“Wonder, or radical amazement,” Heschel wrote, “is the chief characteristic of the religious man’s attitude toward history and nature. One attitude is alien to his spirit: taking things for granted, regarding events as a natural course of things. As civilization advances, the sense of wonder declines. Such decline is an alarming symptom of our state of mind. Mankind will not perish for want of information, but only for want of appreciation. The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living.”

Jewish prayer is a spiritual discipline for regaining wonder each day. One hundred times a day we are instructed to stop and recite a bracha recognizing the miraculous in each moment of life. Twice I’ve had cancer surgery. Twice I’ve been through chemotherapy. I remember the healing process. I prayed that I would never forget the feeling of each small victory — to sip water without pain, to get out of bed and walk around, to see the sunshine on the day I was released from the hospital. In those circumstances, the most mundane and common events become the most momentous gifts. And I prayed that no routine, schedule or hurried deadline would erase the sweet victories of those moments. God speaks to us in such moments: moments of joy, triumph, redemption, closeness, promise. We hold these moments close and call them to mind when we need strength, courage, inspiration. Prayer is a way of realizing and recognizing the power of moments. Prayer is a way of holding moments, preserving and cherishing them. Prayer saves moments, allowing us to visit them when we are dry, lonely and empty.

How do you begin and end your day? At day’s end, most American adults watch the 11 o’clock news: 30 minutes of murder, rape, corruption, desolation, destruction, sports and weather. Good night! We awaken with a clock radio pounding the day’s news into our heads even before our eyes have opened: murder, rape, corruption, desolation, destruction, traffic, sports and weather. Do you know why you’re depressed?

Sanity, if not spirituality, demands that we learn to lie down and wake up differently — not with the hopelessness of daily news, but with a few moments of meditation and reflection. Recollect the passions that brought us to this point in life. Reconnect with our deepest values. Evaluate where we are in life, and where we’re going. Listen to the voice of the soul. Stand, if for but a few moments, in the presence of God, before sitting on the freeway on-ramp for half an hour.

Our Torah portion begins with the words: “The Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting” (Leviticus 1:1). According to the medieval commentator Rashi, the verse specifically mentions the Tent of Meeting to teach that God’s voice, though it was a voice powerful enough to smash mountains, stopped at the edge of the tent and could not be overheard beyond. But this was no miracle.

God’s voice could not be heard because no one except Moses knew how to detect it amid the noise of daily life. Only Moses knew how to listen for God’s voice. Vayikra — God is still calling us today. But few of us can hear amid all the noise. Prayer teaches us how to listen.