A Listening Heart – OR – How To Be “Right”

This is the sermon that I delivered on Kol Nidrei 5782 – 2021.

I don’t know about you, but I like to be right. I like to know things; I like to win debates; I like to teach other people what I know.

And I don’t think I’m alone. Everybody likes to be right. You can see that all around you – in our classrooms, our workspaces, at our board tables and our dinner tables (especially when we debate politics or religion). You can see it in our national political conversation during this election season. You can definitely see it on social media: Have you ever gotten yourself into one of those debates on Facebook or Twitter, and you just couldn’t stop posting because if you did you’d be letting the other person win?

We all like to be right.

We come honestly by our obsession with being right. Our society places a high value on knowledge and on articulate communication. In fact, that’s what we look for in leaders: we ordain rabbis based on what they know and how well they can explain it; we value teachers and lawyers and professors for their ability to make a cogent argument. We require our political leaders to display knowledge on a whole variety of issues – we even put them on stage together to hash it out.

The psychologist Adam Grant writes that “we typically celebrate great… leaders for being strong-minded and clear-sighted. They’re supposed to be paragons of conviction: decisive and certain.”[1]

In many ways, we are in the habit of measuring the worth of a person by what they know and how often they get it right. And we believe, therefore, that the more right we are, and the more we can convince others of how right we are, the happier we’ll all be.

If only the other side would just hear me out. If only the other political party would just listen. If only the anti-vaxxers, the pro-Palestinian activists, the Ultra-Orthodox, the Alberta oil industry, the Liberals, the Conservatives, my coworkers, my students, my children, my spouse or partner – if only they would listen to me, then we could all be happy.

But the thing is, it’s not making any of us happy.

We live in a time of incredible isolation and polarization. And our obsession with being right isn’t making us any happier. And we know it, too. Anyone who’s ever out-argued a friend knows that winning an argument doesn’t actually feel that good. Anyone who’s ever engaged in one of those social media debates knows that there’s very little exchange of ideas going on there. Anyone who watched Canada’s party leaders on stage together last week knows that an hour of soundbites doesn’t make for real dialogue. And anyone who reads up on the Israel-Palestinian conflict knows that you can be right without the other side have to be wrong.

Deep in our heart of hearts we know that knowing the most and arguing the best isn’t the route to happiness or fulfillment or connection.

There must be another way to be right.

The Rabbis of the Talmud have a story that speaks to this idea. They tell that once, about nineteen centuries ago, there was a drought. Food and water were becoming scarce, and people were getting scared. So the great sages gathered in the hopes that if they combined their prayers, God might hear them and bring the rain.

In that community there were two great leaders: Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva. And the sages were sure that if anybody could make the rains come with their prayers, it was one of those two.

So first, Rabbi Eliezer came to the bima. The great Rabbi Eliezer, known for his wealth; for his deep knowledge; for his unbending assuredness in halachic matters. He began to pray and sing and wail and beat his chest. The Talmud says that he uttered 24 prayers that day – but to no avail. The rain didn’t fall.

Then, his colleague Rabbi Akiva came down to the bima. Akiva was a poor man, a shepherd, known for his kindness and his chesed – his caring for others. And he began to pray as well – using words that no one had ever heard before:

אָבִינוּ מַלְכֵּנוּ , he said – O God who is our Parent and Ruler.

אֵין לָנוּ מֶלֶךְ אֶלָּא אָתָּה – We have no Sovereign but you.

אָבִינוּ מַלְכֵּנוּ לְמַעַנְךָ רַחֵם עָלֵינוּ – O God, for Your own sake, have mercy on us.

Rabbi Akiva finished that short prayer and waited in silence. The sages waited with him, watching to see what would happen next. Then they began to hear the sound of drops on the roof. The rabbi’s prayer had brought the rain.

You may be wondering: What did Rabbi Akiva do? What was so much better about his prayer that God heard it and sent the rain? The Rabbis of the Talmud have the same question – which is why the next thing that happens in the story is that a voice comes from heaven to explain. It says:

לֹא מִפְּנֵי שֶׁזֶּה גָּדוֹל מִזֶּה – It wasn’t because one because the one sage was greater than the other.  אֶלָּא שֶׁזֶּה מַעֲבִיר עַל מִידּוֹתָיו וְזֶה אֵינוֹ מַעֲבִיר עַל מִדּוֹתָיו – Rather, it was because the one (Rabbi Akiva) was willing to get over his own righteousness. And the other one wasn’t.[2]

So, according to the Talmud, Rabbi Akiva’s effectiveness had nothing to do with the words of his prayer. It had to do with this character trait: מַעֲבִיר עַל מִדּוֹתָיו – the willingness to “get over his own righteousness.” And what that means, according to the commentators,[3] is that he was humble; he was willing to overlook the wrongs of others; and he was willing hear out arguments and opinions that he didn’t necessarily agree with.

In other words, what made Rabbi Akiva great wasn’t that he was smarter than anybody else, or more articulate, or had more knowledge. It was that he was willing to listen to others; and therefore why God was willing to listen to him.

Judaism teaches that wisdom is defined not by what you know, but by being aware of what you don’t know. Rabbi Akiva was a great leader because he knew he had something to learn from others.

That’s a really old Jewish idea. Last year, some of us studied the book of Proverbs together in Shabbat morning Torah study. Proverbs is Judaism’s great book of wisdom. It’s full of ancient wise sayings that are meant to teach us how to live our best, most fulfilling life.

What struck me most in our study of Proverbs was how it starts, this verse that’s meant to be an introduction to the entire book:

[4]יִרְאַ֣ת יְ֭הֹוָה רֵאשִׁ֣ית דָּ֑עַת – The awe of God is the beginning of all knowledge.

It’s a fascinating idea to me: that knowledge or wisdom begins with a sense of awe. We might think of wisdom is knowing a lot, but awe is actually the opposite of that. Awe is that sense of being amazed by something that’s much greater than yourself.

You know that awesome feeling when you look up at the night sky, or when you hold your newborn in your arms? Moments of awe are moments when we recognize how vast and amazing the universe is and how small we are. That’s the beginning of knowledge because it reminds us how much we don’t know.

So part of the work of Jewish life – and truly, human life – is cultivating that humility, that knowledge that we have a lot to learn. That means opening ourselves up to what we can learn from others. And that usually means asking a lot of questions.

The renowned physicist Isidor Rabi, who won the Nobel Prize in 1944, was once asked what made him want to be a scientist. Here’s what he said:

My mother made me a scientist without ever intending it.  Every other Jewish mother in Brooklyn would ask her child after school, ‘Nu? Did you learn anything today?’ But not my mother. She always asked a different question: ‘Izzy, did you ask a good question today?’ That difference made me a scientist.

For Dr. Rabi, the practice of asking questions helped open his mind. Helped him learn how to learn. That made him a successful scientist.

The psychologist Adam Grant says that this is a recipe for success not just in science but in pretty much everything we do. In his book, Think Again, he cites study after study to show that the most successful entrepreneurs, leaders, artists, and CEOs, are the ones who ask a lot of questions, who listen to other people’s opinions, and who are willing to change their minds.

For example, he writes that according to a psychological study, “what differentiated [eminent scientists like Linus Pauling and Jonas Salk] from their peers was their cognitive flexibility, their willingness “to move from one extreme to the other as the occasion requires.” The same pattern held for great artists and… architects.

Same thing for political leaders. An independent ranking of US presidents showed that

only one trait consistently predicted presidential greatness: intellectual curiosity and openness…. [Great presidents] read widely [about a variety of topics] and were interested in hearing new views and revising their old ones.[5]

Adam Grant concludes that this is our recipe for being our best: “We live in a rapidly changing world where we need to spend as much time rethinking as we do thinking.”[6]

There’s a lot in Judaism to reinforce the idea that wisdom begins with listening and asking questions. In fact, two of our most important Jewish rituals are about listening. The Passover Seder, which is meant to be an exercise in questions and discussions. And the Shema, where we literally cover our eyes and remind ourselves to listen.

So, built into Judaism is a constant reminder that we are at our best when we open our ears and our minds to what others have to say. That’s true even when what they have to say is hard for us to hear.

You might think that given our ancient tradition of questioning and debate, we Jews would be pretty good at listening to others. But the reality is, we’re no better at it than anybody else.

One of the reasons that human beings have a hard time hearing what others have to say, is that we have a tendency to root our security and our identity in our knowledge and opinions. So we have a tendency to hear a disagreement as an attack.

What are the ways that you define yourself? By your profession? Your family relationships? Do you define yourself by your Jewishness? Your nationality? Your place on the political spectrum? Your support for Israel, or for social justice, or the environment?

Our sense of self is tied up with the things that we believe about the world. So when people question those things, it can feel like an attack on our identity.

In fact, listening to others is just about the hardest thing there is: it means quieting our own egos. It means quieting the voice telling us that we already know everything we need to know. It means quieting our internal story that says that changing your mind is a sign of weakness.

Because the thing is, being willing to change your mind is actually a sign of strength. It shows that we are capable of growing.  And it carries incredible transformative power.

I have two examples of that – one is corporate and the other is much deeper.

Here’s the corporate example. In the year 2005, executives from Apple corporation came to their boss, Steve Jobs, with a strange new idea: they suggested combining the iPod – an incredibly popular product – with a phone. Steve Jobs immediately and adamantly refused. For about a hundred reasons: he didn’t want to deal with the phone companies; he didn’t think people would want a device like that. Only after 6 months of convincing did he finally open himself up to the possibility that there could be another way of thinking about it.

We all know that the iPhone was revolutionary – it has transformed communication for the entire world. But Steve Jobs didn’t know that in 2005. He just knew what he knew. He thought he was right.

But in the end, it wasn’t what he knew that changed the world. It was when he opened his mind to what he didn’t know.

Here’s the second example. My mentor and friend Rabbi Judy Schindler tells about a friend of hers named Jihad. Rabbi Judy first met Jihad at a Muslim-Jewish women’s dialogue group. Judy is a rabbi, a Jew, a descendant of Holocaust survivors. Jihad is a Palestinian born in 1948. Apparently she got her name because her father was off fighting against the establishment of the state of Israel when she came into the world. 

In her TEDx talk, Rabbi Schindler describes her initial internal reaction to hearing Jihad’s story for the first time:

I experienced her telling her story as a personal attack on our people. My first reaction was to become defensive – to counter her pain with mine: “You do not understand. Our Jewish world was also in turmoil. The Holocaust stole six million of our brothers’ and sisters’ lives – a large segment of my personal family tree. Israel was our only place of sanctuary, our historic home…. It was the only haven we had.”

But despite her internal struggle, Rabbi Schindler willed herself to hear Jihad’s words. After that first program they exchanged phone numbers, then they met for coffee, and slowly but surely they established a connection. Today they are friends. They march together for social justice in North Carolina, and they share pictures of children and grandchildren by text.

Rabbi Schindler says: “Today I know Jihad. I better understand her voice and her pain.”

There is nothing harder than hearing out the other – especially when it requires us to question our own assumptions or when it rocks our own sense of self.

And yet, there is no greater reward in this world than the connection and the transformation that can come of listening to each other.

That’s true at every level of human life – from the international to the very, very personal.

It’s true when it comes to fuelling social change: the #MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission; these are all areas of our national life where we are beginning to think differently, specifically because we are allowing others’ voices to be heard.

It’s true when it comes to solving ethnic conflict – like in the case of Tag Meir, a coalition of Israeli Jews and Palestinians who travel together to visit victims of hate crimes. And who are beginning to break through the wall of dehumanization between their peoples.

And it’s also true on a personal level – when it comes to our own lives and our own relationships.

Every one of us has conflict or disagreement with people that we love. Every one of us struggles to hear those people out. Because their words are uncomfortable; or because we disagree so vehemently; because their criticisms hurt. Or simply because we know we are right.

But the collateral damage of being right is a loss of connection to the people we love, while the benefit of hearing each other out is a deepening of that connection.

Think about what it feels like to really hear out a friend that you disagree with. To try to take their perspective and understand why they believe what they believe – even if their views are polar opposite of your own.

Think of what it feels like to truly listen to what your partner or sibling or loved one is saying during a moment of conflict. Not to defend; not to be forming your rebuttal before they’re even finished talking. But to ask questions and try to understand their feelings.

Think of what it feels like when we focus on connection rather than on getting our point across.

When we listen deeply to others – when we seek to understand them, their experiences, and their positions, then we are more likely to learn from them and to connect with then. And ironically, they are more likely to learn from us as well. We think that in order to be heard we have to talk. But it turns out that real relationships are built on connection – not on opinions. So in order to be heard we actually have to listen.

Our tradition tells that at the beginning of his reign, a young King Solomon was struggling to know how to rule the people. They are a stiffnecked people, these Jews, and it’s not easy to be their king. So one day, in the midst of prayer, Solomon cried out: “My God!” he said, “I am only a young man. I have no experience as a leader, and yet I find myself in the midst of this numerous people. What do I do? How shall I lead them?”

Solomon heard God’s voice, with an offer of support: שְׁאַ֖ל מָ֥ה אֶתֶּן־לָֽךְ׃ – “What shall I grant you?” asked God. “Anything. You just have to ask.”

And Solomon responded with words that would change his life, shape his kingship, and influence the course of Jewish history: וְנָתַתָּ֨ לְעַבְדְּךָ֜ לֵ֤ב שֹׁמֵ֙עַ֙ – God, grant me an understanding mind. Grant me a heart that knows how to listen.[7]

On these High Holy Days, and every day of our lives, may we also strive for a lev shomea – a listening heart.

In this polarized world, may we work to hear others’ words. May we always be ready to learning new things, and open our minds to ideas that are different from our own.

Like Rabbi Akiva, may we be willing to maavir all midoteinu – to move through our own sense of righteousness and rightness in order to build connection, in order to focus on each other’s humanity.

And may those connections lead us to Tikkun Hanefesh – to an honest accounting of ourselves, our hearts, our souls. And to Tikkun Olam – to the repair and redemption of this world that we all share.


[1] Think Again, by Adam Grant, p. 21.

[2] This story is from B. Taanit 25b.

[3] Petach Einaim on ibid.

[4] Proverbs 1:7.

[5] Think Again, by Adam Grant, p. 27.

[6] Ibid 16.

[7] I Kings 3.

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