The Sacred Art of Listening
The Sacred Art of Listening
And Pharaoh said to Joseph, "I have had a dream, but no one can interpret it. Now I have heard it said of you that for you to hear a dream is to tell its meaning." Joseph answered Pharaoh, saying, "Not I! God will see to Pharaoh's welfare." (Genesis 41:15-16)
The image we often have of Joseph is that of a spoiled child who speaks his mind without regard for those who might be hurt by his words, a self-centered and pompous individual. The content of his dreams and the way he reports them to his brothers reflect Joseph's inflated self-worth and lack of compassion for his brothers' feelings.
Yet we also witness a gradual change in Joseph's personality, beginning soon after his brothers throw him into the pit and continuing through this week's parashah. Joseph is humbled by his experiences of the pit; both the desert dungeon of sand and soil and the Egyptian subterranean prison awaken in Joseph a sense of power and, at the same time, powerlessness. Only by learning from the critical events that trigger these experiences can Joseph change and regain control of his life.
The text hints at two lessons that transform Joseph from a self-absorbed youth into a mature adult who is ready to act on behalf of the community. The first lesson is to listen with compassion and understanding; the second is to be humble in the presence of God's wisdom.
Pharaoh acknowledges that Joseph's reputation is based on his ability to interpret dreams. Joseph hears and is then able to tell the meaning. In earlier Bible stories, the emphasis is on Joseph's use of words in the retelling of his own dreams. Now, Joseph must first listen and then choose his words carefully. As an interpreter, Joseph understands that if his explanation is acceptable to Pharaoh, he will be rewarded with the permission to continue his life in freedom. But should Pharaoh reject the meanings, it is back to the pit for Joseph.
While Pharaoh praises Joseph's abilities, Joseph does not let the compliments go to his head. Instead he is quick to attribute his interpretation to God's wisdom rather than to his own. In fact, it is God who solves Pharaoh's problems and assures Joseph of success. The younger Joseph would have taken the kavod, the "honor," on himself and been quick to sing his own praises. Joseph has progressed from the pits of his existence to the heights of his future as a thoughtful and mature adult. He has learned that God is the source of his life and wisdom.
As Joseph listens to Pharaoh's praise, Joseph attributes his own talents to God. "And Pharaoh said to Joseph, 'I have had a dream, but no one can interpret it. Now I have heard it said of you that for you to hear a dream is to tell its meaning' Joseph answered Pharaoh, saying, "Not I! God will see to Pharaoh's welfare'" (Genesis 41:15-16). Joseph recognizes that it is God who fulfills the dreams and ensures the safety of the people during the famine.
The text does not come out and announce that Joseph is a changed person who has learned to listen to others and truly hear what they have to say. Rather, it is through Pharaoh's words and Joseph's response that we understand the changes that have occurred.
Today, we face the same challenges that Joseph encountered. Learning to listen and, by extension, learning to hear and understand are part of the maturation process. There are individuals we tune out, either because we do not think they have anything worthwhile to say or because we are preoccupied with our own thoughts and projects. Sometimes we brush people off without a second thought, or we respond so quickly that our answers have little to do with the rest of the conversation.
Listening requires integrity, the desire to understand and interpret. Most of all, it requires patience. When we listen intently, we hear the nuances and connotations of the words. We can also derive meaning by paying attention to the speaker's body language, what is written in his face or in her eyes. Listening combined with hearing entitles us to ask for clarification before rendering an opinion. Listening and hearing require that we take the time to combine what is said with prior knowledge.
Ultimately, Joseph tries to alleviate his brothers' anxiety by attributing the trials he encountered at their hands as acts of God. "God has sent me ahead of you to insure your survival on earth, and to save your lives in an extraordinary deliverance" (Genesis 45:7). Instead of touting his personal success stories or ascribing guilt to his brothers, Joseph turns to God as the source of his knowledge and his role in Pharaoh's court.
May we be given the opportunity to learn how to listen and hear while appreciating the gifts with which we are blessed.
BY THE WAY
- Human beings were endowed with two ears and one tongue that they might listen more than speak. (Abraham Hasdai, thirteenth-century translator and philosopher, Barcelona, quoted in Harvey Fields, A Torah Commentary for Our Times [New York: UAHC Press, 1990], p. 102)
- A major complaint of adolescents is that nobody listens to them. The habit of listening, and of expecting to be listened to, needs to start early. If we are distracted, our children will perceive us as half listening and they'll stop talking to us. That's one sad consequence of our accelerated lifestyle, but there are so many others. Amid all the hurry it's hard for children to learn essential life skills: vegging out, contemplating life, relieving boredom by entertaining themselves, and feeling a general sense of peace and contentment. If kids are not taught to reflect on things, how can they weigh issues, actions and consequences? Plato said it best: "The unexamined life is not worth living." Examining one's life takes time. (Wendy Mogel, Blessing of a Skinned Knee [New York: Penguin Group, 2001], p. 210)
- Happy the generation whose great leaders listen to the small, for then it follows obviously that in such a generation, the small will listen to the great. (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh HaShanah 25b)
- How does Hasdai's statement about two ears and one mouth apply to Joseph? How does it apply to Pharaoh?
- As Joseph went through his adolescence, he too complained that no one listened to him. How did he overcome his inability to listen as well as to be heard?
- Do you think that the generation of the famine, both the Hebrew sons of Jacob and the native Egyptians, believed that their leaders listened to them? Do you see any parallels to that situation today? Please explain why or why not.
Rabbi Joan Glazer Farber, R.J.E., served as the assistant director of the Union for Reform Judaism's Department of Lifelong Jewish Learning, and as the director of Adult Learning.
Mikeitz, Genesis 41:1-44:17
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 264–277; Revised Edition, pp. 267–283;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 233–258