Torah Thoughts – Parashat Mattot

By Rabbi Amy Eilberg, July 29, 2005


This weekend I will travel to Seattle to take part in what promises to be a remarkable meeting. The program is sponsored by the Compassionate Listening Project, a non-profit organization dedicated to teaching skills to heal polarization, cultivate compassion for “the other,” and build bridges between people, communities and nations in conflict.

The project has brought hundreds of Americans to Israel and the Palestinian territories to listen to the grievances, hopes, and dreams of people on all sides of the conflict, including religious, political and grassroots leaders, settlers, refugees, peace activists, citizens, soldiers, and extremists. The program has also brought together groups of Jews and Germans seeking to create healing relationships in the shadow of the Sho’ah, and has sponsored a variety of local reconciliation efforts when communities have been torn by inter-group conflict. Compassionate Listening offers the simple yet life-altering truth that deep, non-judgmental listening can transform enemies into friends and hatred into shared compassion for the human condition. So different from the kind of adversarial style that so often characterizes communication even among friends, compassionate listening asks that we attend to the human being beneath the political view, recognizing the human needs that may have given rise to a particular religious or political dogma. In order to recognize the full humanity of another person, compassionate listening requires that we momentarily set aside our own deep-seated needs to change the other, to prove the rightness of our own position, or defend our own views as perfect and uncontrovertible. If we are to listen in this way, we must take pains to work with our own anger, pain, and self-righteousness rather than act out of our pain to try to defeat the other. When we are able to listen in this way, the humanity of the “other” is revealed, and we find ourselves in a caring relationship with another fellow traveler along life’s journey.

This week’s parasha begins with an important text about the quality of speech and listening. The Torah insists that when a person takes upon himself or herself a vow or oath, the pledge must be kept. As we know, the Torah teaches that language is sacred and binding, and that words create realities, from the very creation of the world to the conduct of relationships. The passage continues with a set of laws governing vows made by women. If a woman living in her father’s house or her husband’s house takes such a vow, her father or husband may annul her vow if he does so within one day of learning of the obligation she has taken on herself. The passage is deeply disturbing, as it gives men power to overrule a woman’s own chosen words, without giving women the same power over the words of the men in their lives.

Years ago I learned to move beyond the obvious injustice of this piece of law, and understand it as a vector pointing toward a deep, egalitarian vision of the place of language in intimate relationship, applying in our day to men and women alike. Many times each day we speak words that cause pain to ourselves and others. We regularly pledge allegiance to positions that arise from our own woundedness rather than from our best selves, and we regularly oblige ourselves to conform to distorted mental narratives that restrict our freedom and ensure that our attention will be focused on ego needs rather than on the greater good. It is one of the greatest gifts of intimate relationship that our partners, friends, and loved ones can lovingly challenge our speech, asking whether our words express the best of who we are, and whether the guiding stories in our minds direct our energies toward the greatest good.

When someone listens to me lovingly, he or she can challenge the wisdom of my words, even confront me when I have violated my own divine essence by acting out of unconscious pain or mindless hatred. In fact, when someone offers me the exquisite gift of deep, respectful listening, the pain and anger within me may dissolve on its own, for this kind of open-hearted listening has great power to heal.

Speech has the power to create and to destroy. And listening with an open heart can move pain toward healing, hatred toward understanding, and make enemies into friends. May we learn to listen well, for the good of all.

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