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I Chose Silence: The Attribute of Sh'tikah

(Rosh Hashanah 2014/5775)

For nearly a year, I have been involved in a Mussar and Mindfulness practice where I narrow in on a spiritual trait or a middah for a month through study, writing, ritual and meditation.  Not unlike photography, it is taking a subject, in this case, my life and applying different filters, focal points and angles to reveal and enhance my ability to see myself and behaviors. Mussar illuminates my values and when lucky, if there is both the combination of discipline and grace, my choices and behaviors begin to align more and more with those values.

Also not unlike photography, it is fraught with the same obstacles of creating art.  Mussar has been a wilderness journey of inadequacy, clumsiness, arrogance, and self-loathing, which are the parts of me I have come to know as an expression of my resistance or shame.  I call these my inner-Israelites complaining each step on the way. “Feed me! Give me water! Leave me here to die!” But with a little attention, gentleness and humor, I move forward. And after a year, I see these parts of myself as tourist traps within that are on the path to a truer part of myself, an awareness of the present moment and the Divine connection in that moment. It’s an arrival to insight, a discovery of my essence: The Promised Land of now.

I chose not to take a sabbatical from Mussar when I took one from work this summer. Our Tikkun Middot/Mussar group at CBH was working on the attribute of “silence”/sh'tikah in July.  So, I studied that middah every morning in Israel. I began my day reviewing and meditating on a brief text like a teaching from a medieval poet and Rabbi Shlomo Ibn Gabriol who taught “In seeking Wisdom, the first step is silence, the second is listening, the third is reflecting, the fourth practicing and the fifth teaching” or 18th century Rabbi Menachem Leffin “Before you open your mouth, be silent and reflect: ‘What benefit will my speech bring me or others?’” (Good thing I had already studied the attribute of humility, in order to answer honestly.)  I would close this morning ritual with a short silent meditation on a focus phrase: “Wisdom walks through the doorway of silence.”  And then I would head to breakfast with my fellow colleagues ready to listen and to be judicious with my speech.  Before bed, I would try to write if I was not exhausted.

This practice was its own safe room during my time in Israel. In the chaos of the war or the intensity of the reactions, I felt myself leaning into silence as a way to still myself and not become buried in the rubble of reactions or emotions, my own and others. Silence felt like the right choice, after all, I was in the Middle East, a place where people like to talk.  I was also with rabbis (another group that does its share of talking) to hear from Israelis and Palestinians reflect on many sides of the conflict.

There was something powerful in silence like a nourishing well within me.  It strengthened my speech when I chose to talk. And so I was sad for my focus to turn elsewhere at the end of the month.  Of course, I would be reminded that while I may have a mussar curriculum, life has its own.  And I would need a refresher course on silence and listening, less than a month later back home in Atlanta.

It was a beautiful August day, just hot enough. After a long walk up the driveway, I entered my friends’ stately home for a political fundraiser. Those of us invited were leaders of interfaith work in Atlanta. We gathered close together in the living room to hear the candidate; I looked around and saw a robust group of women and men from all parts of Atlanta, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, gay and straight, young and old folks.   I wondered if the candidate knew how precious this was...for all of the talk of diversity; rarely were we so closely huddled together.  It only dawned on me well into the speech that there were no other rabbis in the room--and since I have given up the politically incorrect and just plain inaccurate game of Semitic profiling, I realized that there were few if any other Jews there. No one else had donned a yarmulke. Ok, Ok...there was this guy in his 50s with a thick Jersey accent that was likely both Jewish and gay… Some radars you just can’t control.

When the speech was finished, I walked over to a friend and chatted briefly. Most of the others were surrounding the candidate for a handshake and a selfie.  I turned around and there was a young Muslim woman whom I didn’t know walking deliberately towards me.  Our head coverings gave away our identities.  She asked immediately, “Are you a rabbi?”  I nodded, as I watched her body language to see if a handshake was appropriate as I gave her my name.  I was picking up an as of yet unexpressed purpose.  I was smiling and she was not, instead she inspected my face; I sensed that this was not just a social introduction. I asked her which Masjid she was affiliated with, which felt like the interfaith equivalent of the awkward college days where people relied on “What’s your major?” as ice breakers.  

“I am not affiliated with a masjid here. I am visiting a family friend for a few months.  I am visiting from East Jerusalem.”

“I was just in Jerusalem this summer.”

Silence. Her voice was quiet, the room was boisterous and I misheard her say, “I am Muslim”, which I found confusing because I thought we had established that.  So I said, “I’m Jewish.”  In that moment it was like stepping onto a suspension bridge over a rocky valley. I was preoccupied with looking below and being too cautious. But her face communicated that I had already made a terrible misstep.

“I know.” she said curtly conveying that was not the answer to the question.

“Oh, I am sorry, I thought you said I am Muslim.  What did you…” before I could finish, she repeated herself, a bit more loudly, “I knew Mohammed.”  And then she continued with her eyes locked on me as we stood close in proximity, “Did you hear about the boy who was murdered and burned alive?”

The air began to leave the room.  I thought, "I understand now, she does have something she wants to deliver."

The spiritual author Mark Nepo in his book 7000 Ways to Listen urges us to listen because it is what “stitches the world together” and that “listening is the doorway to everything”.  I was unsure if I wanted to be stitched; I was far more aware of the needle than the thread and the only doorway I wanted to pass through was out the front door. But I continued “Mohammed Abu Khdeir?’ I asked.  “Yes, what a horrible loss.  I am so sorry.”

I was aware that knowing his full name might bring a surprise and softness.  It didn’t.  “He was my neighbor.”  She stretched out her palm and pointed on her hand where her house was and where his house was. They lived diagonally from each other. “Our families would eat at each other’s homes. He was a really happy boy and they murdered him.”  There were no tears, but an unwavering direct tone tinged with anger. People were laughing around us oblivious to our conversation.  I felt isolated on this bridge but I said “I arrived in Israel two days after he was killed.”

A woman approached us and for a mere second, I think I’m about to be relieved, but instead her eyes were inquiring too.  I was a Jew exposed. Overhearing us, she added, "I speak with Mohammed's mother.  We spoke last night.  Do you know that she can't sleep?"

I moved my head with a no.  A loss of words.  I realized that she wanted an answer but there was no answer.  I can’t really focus on words when there is such a demanding expectation. I felt inept, ashamed and what may have been resentment at this imposition.  If it were a family member, I would’ve blurted out, “Just tell me!”  But I remained silent.  Unsatisfied with my nonresponse or with whatever my eyes were communicating, she rephrased her question.  "Do you know why she can't sleep?"

For a moment, I felt like I was being suffocated like the time when I was five playing football outside our apartment and both Keith Henderson and Jeffrey Gelderman tackled me.  They pinned me so tight I could not breathe.  Air.  All I wanted was to be rescued from this conversation. In a twisted way, I thought why can’t I be back in Israel right now, at least an air raid siren might rescue me.

That thought inappropriately funny, cynical and quite sad popped me out of this concern for my safety.  It delivered me to what it was like to be in Israel during a war, committed to listening to people from a deeper place and where my silence was not restraint but an invitation. How could I be less concerned about my own safety with sirens going off in Israel than listening to a single difficult conversation? It became clear; it was all about my will. I want things nice and comfortable.

An early realization in studying Mussar is that when examining a trait there are a cluster of other traits that emerge on the periphery.  In looking at silence, I discovered that a kindred spiritual trait was Noseh Ba’Ol  im Chavero, Bearing a Burden With the Other.  Alan Morinis, founder of the Mussar Institute, points to the Joseph story in the Torah as a primary text of this trait.  When Joseph was imprisoned, he saw the faces of his fellow prisoners, “Why are you looking so sad today?” He listened to their dreams. This set off a dramatic chain of events.  And it is this act that was seemingly a selfless one that led Joseph to his own freedom and the rescue of his family from famine.  In bearing their burden, Joseph’s burden is lightened as well. It began with an act of listening.  Encoded in this story is that one of the best ways to connect with another is to just listen. Miraculous things can happen for both the one listened to and the listener.

For Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, who has written extensively about the healing and wholeness of listening with her cancer patients, she teaches doctors that bearing the burden of another through listening has brought as much healing as medicine; it is medicine.  She offers, ‘A loving silence often has far more power to heal and to connect than the most well-intentioned words.’  “...[N]ot the sort of silence that is filled with unspoken criticism or hard withdrawal… [but] the sort of silence that is a place of refuge, of rest, of acceptance of someone as they are. We are all hungry for this other silence. It is hard to find. In its presence we can remember something beyond the moment, a strength on which to build a life.”

When I was in Israel listening to a mother worry about her son’s safety in the Operation Protective Edge in Gaza; I chose this kind of silence.  Or when we were in Gush Etzion, the place where Naftali Fraenkel, Gilad Shaer and Eyal Efrah had been kidnapped.  We heard from a settler who discussed the terror and then the grief that ran through the community.  I chose this kind of silence. When a Palestinian human rights worker revealed the kind of harassment, disruption and humiliation that she, her villagers, and the Palestinian people endure.  I chose this kind of silence.  It was a witness.  Even when she looked at us and said, “I used to be committed to nonviolence but I see no other way than violence.  This is how oppressed we are.  At the end of the day, if it is either your life or mine; it will be my life.” I chose silence.

Let me be clear, I heard many things that upset me, angered me, that evoked questions or that I did not agree to, but I still chose to listen.   If there was any chance that the listening had the potential to be healing, why not?   Because it is hard?  How can I expect people to put aside grievances around the world if I cannot even open up to a contrary and challenging position.   For a moment, I could step inside another’s interior and see the view from their porch, so to speak, allowing my understanding and empathy to grow. Isn’t this what the world needs alongside any political solution that may emerge? It also did not escape me that many of the people were women in a society where women’s voices are not always heard.  To listen was great respect and healing. This was driven home when the Palestinian woman concluded, “I am not sure who oppresses us more, Israel or men.”  I certainly saw the view from her front porch.

I am all too familiar with the shadow side of silence.  I was a part of ACT UP whose motto was Silence = Death.  There is a silence that condones or exhibits cowardice but there is a difference in how that silence sits in your body and is expressed by your eyes. That was not my silence. Like Joseph, I wondered however briefly, if my role was to put aside my beliefs, my will and carry their burden with them: Israelis, Palestinians, colleagues alike.  And since there were others asking questions and bringing challenges, I could offer a willingness to witness their humanity and recognize that no one was the sum total of a single comment. I could sense them in my silence: those who showed self-reflection, thoughtfulness and those who were ideological, hardened and incapable of nuance.  And yet, everyone was in need of healing—even me.

Once my father and I grabbed a meal during a rough patch for me.  Over our salads, he asked, “How are you doing?”  Automatically I said, “Fine”.  He looked at me and said, “You listen to so many people.  Let me listen to you.  I am your father, that’s why I’m here.”  I was moved. It was like what author Anne Lamott meant when she said, “Nothing heals us like…[w]hen people listen to you cry and lament and look at you with love, it’s like they are holding the baby of you.”  

Pain and suffering isolates people. Listening penetrates that isolation.  Mussar master Rav Wolbe reminds us that bearing another’s burden by witnessing and connecting to their suffering can soften their walls.  “It is the key to not becoming habituated and dulled in our spiritual lives. As the years pass ...our once open-hearts can become hardened and closed. Our own spiritual growth requires that we carry the burdens borne by our family, our coworkers, communities and the whole of humanity.”

My Mussar practice uncovered that often the act of listening is carrying the burden of another and it does deepen our connections to the whole of humanity.  It is why when something incredibly complex and layered like war in Israel and in Gaza occurs and we feel in our kishkes like something fundamental is threatened, our own survival, the survival of another or our moral center --or all of them, there is an opportunity to do something that may feel counter-intuitive.  Granted there can be an urgency in regards to what might we do, but even still, in the midst of the maelstrom of emotions and unfolding news there is something valuable in listening.  It is a listening that is not calculating a response or a retort.  It is a listening that is more focused on understanding the person than on positions.  It is a listening that attunes to the takeaways more than to the dissent.

The danger of this kind of listening is the fear that you may lose yourself or worse tacitly support something that diminishes what you have worked for your whole life.  I know within me listening always makes things more complex, yet I feel more connected to the person and to myself.  And for me, it beats the alternative of swapping arguments, trying to will people into submission, overwhelm them with “facts” or accuse them of betraying their people, their moral center or their community.  That rarely helps.  It is counter-intuitive but when you demonstrate real interest in listening, more often than not there’s a receptivity to you and then perhaps your ideas. And remember you are entitled not to listen.  It is valid a choice, but  if you have no interest in listening to what others have to say, you may need to temper your expectations that they listen to you in return.

I looked at the two Muslim women and instead of seeing their judgments of me; I realized they were deeply grieving a terrible loss.  I remembered that just a month ago, I was listening as a practice daily, I realized that I could put aside my opinions, my guilt, my needs to retaliate or battle whose pain was greater and simply listen.  The older woman looked at me and I said, “I can only begin to imagine what Mohammed’s mother must be feeling.  Why can’t she sleep?”  My willfulness was turning into willingness as I listened to her say emotionally, “Every time she closes her eyes, she imagines her son in his last moments.  It haunts her.”  I nodded in understanding.  They spoke as I listened about what it was like for their East Jerusalem neighborhood in the aftermath. How difficult it was to be in the US away from family. I recognized the same anguish when I was in Israel listening to those who knew the families of the three slain boys parents.  I kept listening until they mentioned the three Israeli boys. Then I shared that I stopped at the site where they had been kidnapped and said, “We prayed for them--and we included Mohammed in our prayers, too.  It is how I remember his whole name.”  

As the room thinned out, our conversation came to a close.  We shook hands, all of us a bit more comfortable than we started.  The older woman paused, pulled out her phone and she asked, “Can I get your information? Every few months, I organize a dialogue and I would like to invite you to the next one.


Thank you for listening. Shanah Tovah
 

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