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The Act of Listening

  • The Act of Listening

    Sh'mini, Leviticus 9:1-11:47
D'var Torah By: 

Chapter 10 of Leviticus provides us with an extraordinary example of human growth. At the beginning of the parashah, Moses exercises his leadership by overseeing the ordination of Aaron and his sons and then supervising the sacrifices for which they are responsible. Moses's energies are focused on ensuring that the commands he received from God are followed. When Aaron's sons offer "alien fire" and die by a fire God sends to consume them, Moses responds as a leader intent on sharing his own perspective and understanding. He takes their sudden death and turns it into an object lesson for Aaron and, by extension, for all the people (Leviticus 10:1-3). Throughout the first part of this chapter, neither Aaron nor the people challenge Moses's directives or interpretations.

In the wake of the terrifying sight of his sons' deaths, and after hearing Moses's words, Aaron becomes silent. In silence, he hears Moses's instructions about how he is to mourn. In silence he watches his sons' bodies as they are removed from the sanctuary. Moses's voice continues to direct the action. When the sacrifices are completed, Aaron does not partake of them as God had commanded him, the High Priest, to do. In anger, Moses rebukes Aaron for not following the ritual as proscribed (Leviticus 10:16-18).

Aaron hears Moses's chastisement and realizes that Moses has made incorrect assumptions about him and his motives. Rather than respond by changing his behavior or apologizing, Aaron chooses to clarify for his brother the factors he considered when making his decision. Aaron breaks his pattern of compliance with all of Moses's directives-and speaks. He says, "See, this day they brought their purgation offering and their burnt offering before the Eternal, and such things have befallen me! Had I eaten purgation offering today, would the Eternal have approved?" (Leviticus 10:19).

Aaron's words make clear that his decision not to partake of the sacrifice was not a lapse on his part. While well aware of the command, he also faced a dilemma. Aaron wanted to act in a way that was pleasing to God, but the future result of that action was not apparent. Yes, as High Priest, he was commanded to partake of the sacrifice. But, as a mourner, the identity that was closest to him emotionally, he could not eat. Turning to his brother, Moses, for understanding, Aaron underscores how his desire to please God — to act in ways that would gain God's approval — guided his decision and subsequent action (or, in this case, inaction). Aaron hoped his choice would make him rise in God's estimation.

The chapter concludes with the next verse, Leviticus 10:20, which is short but open to a variety of interpretations. It begins with the words, "And when Moses heard. . . ." All of a sudden, the man who has been giving orders, speaking and directing the actions of others, is now silent. He is listening: listening to his brother, listening to his brother's experience and to his brother's perspective. And through this act of listening, really listening, Moses understands that his assumptions were incorrect. He understands that while he had only been able to see one option, Aaron had seen others. By listening, Moses is able to move from a position of harsh judgment, viewing Aaron and his actions unfavorably, to one of understanding his brother's decision and accepting his brother's choices.

Moses's ability to change and grow is indicated in the second half of the verse, which doesn't lend itself to an easy translation. Its use of an unspecified male pronoun in the phrase v'yitav b'einav can be translated as: "And he [Aaron] or it [the decision] was pleasing in Moses's sight"; or "He [Moses] approved of him [Aaron] or his action "; or " He [Aaron] or the actionrose in Moses's estimation." However this is translated, Moses comes to understand his brother's behavior and motivation in a new way. He is able to change his perspective and, with that, his emotional response as well. He not only accepts and approves of what his brother did, but also changes his value judgment.

Listening, really listening, is a truly demanding and complex activity, which offers the listener an opportunity for growth. When we truly listen to someone, when we hear not only the words, but also their importance to the speaker on an emotional level, we are transformed. By reflecting on another's words, we come face-to-face with who we are, and the assumptions and judgments we bring with us. And like Moses, when we listen, we find that, in the end, it is we who change. It is we who benefit from the opportunity to see anew someone whom we have judged harshly in the past. It is we who can move so that others and their actions can "rise in our estimation" and "find favor" in our eyes.

Rabbi Nancy H. Wiener, D.Min., is clinical director of the Jacob and Hilda Blaustein Center for Pastoral Counseling and adjunct professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City. She is also the rabbi of the Pound Ridge Jewish Community, a Reform chavurah, in Pound Ridge, New York.

Aaron's Very Loud Silence
Davar Acher By: 
Nancy Bossov

The dynamics described by Rabbi Wiener between the two brothers in service to God, Aaron, and Moses is indeed fascinating. It is a beautiful example of human relationships that don't seem to change much between the ages of four and forty. Imagine two young boys engaged in active play, within and without sets of social, cultural, and communal rules. When one of them commits a breach of these rules, he shuts down emotionally. He is silent. He processes internally, weighing his own guilt, the scales of justice, and the actions of others, and sorting out numerous layers of emotions.

We witness such dynamics each and every day in our schools. It is these students who become silent who both intrigue and concern us most. What are they thinking? What are they feeling? If they are silently processing within themselves, when will they let us in to be their support and guide? As educators, we hope to be able to recognize healthy processing and show appropriate support, as well as look for red flags of unhealthy processing and pleas for emotional and spiritual help.

Ramban offers two perspectives on Aaron's emotional reaction to his sons' fate. First, Ramban defines vayidom as "he became silent" (Leviticus 10:3). Therefore, he writes, "This means that he had cried aloud, but then he became silent" ( Ramban [Nachmanides] Commentary on the Torah, trans. Charles B. Chavel [New York: Shilo Publishing House, 1974], p. 113). Ramban interprets the silence as a contemplative silence, not one of full acceptance, but rather one of struggle. It is an attempt to understand the mysterious and provocative ways of God. This is a reaction of exceptional maturity and deep insightfulness, when one's emotions, spiritual depth, and great intellect work in perfect harmony.

In the example Aaron and Moses offer us, it takes just seventeen lines (Leviticus 10:3-20) to resolve Aaron's silence. Aaron stands out as an incredible leader, wise man, and strong thoughtful parent. Who knows what one's emotional reaction might be at such a sudden and shocking traumatic event as the sudden death of not one, but two children, caused, in fact, by the God one has served so vigorously one's entire life. Surely there are few greater emotional stresses and conflicts a human being may live through and still continue to function. Aaron is an exceptional model of human strength.

Nancy Bossov, RJE, is an early childhood educator.

4/14/2007
Reference Materials: 

Sh’mini, Leviticus 9:1-11:47 
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 798-823; Revised Edition, pp. 705-727; 
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 615-636