Ethical will: Listening

We find ourselves on the eve of the 2020 U.S. Presidential election, and voices across the world on both ends of the political spectrum are declaring that all we know as humankind will come to a devastating end if their preferred candidates don’t win.

What befuddles me is that I personally know well-intentioned and well-educated people with diametrically opposed political views, equally certain that the other side is utterly misguided (at best). The people I am referring to are my close friends, family, and mentors; they are among the most upstanding human beings that I have known. How can one side’s assessment be entirely wrong and the other side be right? How can they all be so sure of themselves?

Worse, both here in Israel and in the USA where my mother and brother still reside, it feels to me as though nobody has any interest in listening to those with whom they disagree politically.

And, regardless of who wins this election, I can’t imagine any scenario in which people on opposite sides of the aisle start heeding one another’s concerns.

I have truly never felt so disheartened.

I considered expressing my sentiments in a poem or a blog post, but instead I’ve decided to add a page to this ethical will of mine. This feels to me a productive use of my anxious energies.

While I follow U.S. politics very closely, having lived in Washington D.C. for three years after earning my graduate degree in public policy, I do not believe that I have anything valuable to contribute to the political discourse. Also, given the political climate, making any such attempt seems pointless, and I’m disinclined to churn out words simply for the sake of producing content.

Therefore, taking a 30,000 foot view, as they say, I would like to focus instead on my perspective on the root cause of the breakdown in our national and international discourses…

What follows is my personal attempt at lemonade:

In Jewish tradition, Moses was the greatest of our prophets, meaning that his relationship with God was closer than any other’s. Deuteronomy 34:10 reads:

וְלֹא-קָם נָבִיא עוֹד בְּיִשְׂרָאֵל, כְּמֹשֶׁה, אֲשֶׁר יְדָעוֹ יְהוָה, פָּנִים אֶל-פָּנִים. And there hath not arisen a prophet since in Israel like unto Moses, whom the LORD knew face to face;

Famously, Moses protested to God that he was not fit to be His prophet. Why not? Because, as Moses himself put it, his lips were uncircumcised (Deut. 6:30):

וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה: הֵן אֲנִי, עֲרַל שְׂפָתַיִם, וְאֵיךְ, יִשְׁמַע אֵלַי פַּרְעֹה. And Moses said before the LORD: ‘Behold, I am of uncircumcised lips, and how shall Pharaoh hearken unto me?’

‘Uncircumcised lips’ has been interpreted in a number of ways throughout the centuries, but, most fundamentally, it meant that Moses could not speak well. Despite this (and some suggest: because of this), he heard God’s voice more clearly than anyone in history.

This may be contrasted with the prophet Jeremiah’s criticism of the ancient Israelites (Jer. 6:10):

עַל-מִי אֲדַבְּרָה וְאָעִידָה, וְיִשְׁמָעוּ–הִנֵּה עֲרֵלָה אָזְנָם, וְלֹא יוּכְלוּ לְהַקְשִׁיב; הִנֵּה דְבַר-יְהוָה, הָיָה לָהֶם לְחֶרְפָּה–לֹא יַחְפְּצוּ-בוֹ. To whom shall I speak and give warning, that they may hear? Behold, their ear is uncircumcised, and they cannot attend; behold, the word of the LORD is become unto them a reproach, they have no delight in it.

In fact, this theme of the Israelites not heeding God and His prophets went all the way back to the start of Moses’s own endeavor to serve as God’s prophet. In Exodus 6:12, Va’eira, Moses complained as follows:

וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה, לִפְנֵי יְהוָה לֵאמֹר: הֵן בְּנֵי-יִשְׂרָאֵל, לֹא-שָׁמְעוּ אֵלַי, וְאֵיךְ יִשְׁמָעֵנִי פַרְעֹה, וַאֲנִי עֲרַל שְׂפָתָיִם. And Moses spoke before the LORD, saying: ‘Behold, the children of Israel have not hearkened unto me; how then shall Pharaoh hear me, who am of uncircumcised lips?’

Here, again, we see Moses’ concern regarding his ‘uncircumcised lips’, but in Exodus this greatest of all prophets is underscoring something beyond his own human limitations: Moses is highlighting the Israelites’ failure to heed him.

The Sefat Emet (Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, Poland, 1847 – 1905) deftly tied these two strings of thought together, and the renowned modern-day Torah scholar Aviva Zornberg (1944-) explicates the Chassidic Rebbe‘s teaching for us as follows:

Moses refers to his lips as ‘uncircumcised’ because “Speech… normally creates listeners… it is the listener who creates the act of speech… As long as there is no one to listen to God’s word, language impotently stutters” (The Particulars of Rapture, p. 84).

Simply, if we truly hearken to one another, we will find ourselves able to express ourselves more eloquently; and I have been finding this to be particularly true during children’s formative years:

The more we make a sincere effort to listen to our daughters and sons, the more articulate they will become.

43 thoughts on “Ethical will: Listening”

  1. This is an excellent D’var Torah. I feel like I have learned something new around the meaning of uncircumcised and around what it means to circumcise one’s heart.

    Also, I agree with you that the biggest political crisis we have in the US right now is a listening crisis. As in a complete inability to listen to anyone whose view is different.

    I feel no optimism for this election because I just feel like this the country is so broken. I’ve also never felt so disheartened. It’s so sad.

  2. What an insightful post, Ben. I love learning new things every day. It could be just one word, or someone’s story. Your post teaches me something new everytime! Have a great day💐❤️

  3. I am now 70 and both my daughters are in their 40s and when we speak I feel that they are more mature, thoughtful and discerning than I was at their age! My eldest studies the bible regularly.

  4. I really appreciate this beautifully articulated study into the attributes of Moses. I need time to dwell on your meditation.
    Thank you for sharing.

      1. You welcome, I need some time to work though all the links. But this note on listening is truly inspiring. Uncircumcised lips is a powerful phrase and to think a man of the law spoke of himself in this way. I also remember reading that the Apostle Paul wasn’t an eloquent speaker, he preferred the letter to address people.

  5. It is a beautiful post, too absorbing. Your way of explaining is marvellous. First time I came to know about ‘Uncircumcised lips’ . Thanks 👍

  6. In fact it makes me think of the words of the prophet Isaiah “Here am I, and the children the Lord has given me. We are signs and symbols in the land.” 8:18

      1. I want to add that it just seems really unfair of God to after He has refused to accept Moses’ plea of “I am uncircumcised in tongue” to make him go to Pharaoh that many times before there were results. I am so tired of saying “let my people go”. Just say in’.

  7. Two tohoughts. It always shocks me that your father and my younger brother were both born in 1948.
    Second, the 30000 foot view of this election … Not this time. Sometimes there really is a right and wrong, and this is one of those times. Our country will be far worse off if Trump wins. Our task is to engage the Trumpists and try to defeat them.

    1. Peter,

      I love and respect you, but I don’t see it the way that you do. Your views only represent 1/2 of the input that I receive from trusted and honorable sources.

  8. I find this happens to me. One minute I am declared articulate and the next minute when I am faced with someone who is not listening I begin to stutter and stammer and eventually just choose silence. I am surrounded by children who cannot speak because no one is listening.

  9. This is so true. I also worry about the polarising of opinion, which seems to be occurring in many countries, possibly driven by social media. As you say, people are unwilling or unable to listen any more. Relatedly, they are unable to believe their opponents are acting in good faith; the assumption is that “They” are either stupid or wicked to think as they do.

  10. I have to say that I drink your words like fine wine and love everything you say. I also admire your methods when teaching your young daughter maths. Your erudite mind, all the languages and original thoughts can be only admired, probably, standing to attention. Excellent post. Thank you.


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