The New Shul

Rabbi Wasserman’s Message on Yom Kippur

[This drashah was given on Oct. 5, 2022]

Four times on Yom Kippur, we stand before the open ark and sing the poem “Sh’ma Koleinu – Hear our Voice.” I think that it is one of the most raw and wrenching prayers in the whole Yom Kippur liturgy (and that’s saying something). “Hear our Voice,” we say to God. Not “hear our words, our well-considered, well-articulated thoughts,” not “hear our polished arguments for why you should forgive us,” but something deeper and more visceral: “Hear our voice.

The Jewish mystics taught that each of us has a voice that comes from a place that is deeper than words. That voice is the expression of our deepest human longings, which language can never fully contain. It coveys what’s in our heart in ways that words can’t fully capture. And so, when we say on Yom Kippur, “Shma koleinu – Please, God, hear our voice,” I think that what we are really saying is “Please, God, listen to my voice as opposed to my words. Please, God, don’t put too much weight on what I say. Listen, instead to the cry behind my words, the cry that comes out of my deepest self, which words fail to express.

“Shma Koleinu” is a visceral, urgent plea. But it is also an implicit challenge to ourselves. Because in asking God to listen to our voice rather than our words, we remind ourselves that, as images of God, we are called upon to do the same thing for each other. In our relationships with other human beings, it often happens that we too must be prepared to listen to their voices, not their words.

What does that mean? Sometimes it means that, when a person has no words, when they do not know what to say, we have to listen through the silence for the voice that cannot yet express itself. We have to listen so deeply, even to what our ears cannot hear, that we teach that person that they do in fact have a voice, that they do have something to say. We have to hear that person into speech.

For parents, that is part of the routine job description. It’s one of the most important ways in which parents teach their children that they matter in this world, that they have a voice, that they can make an impact on others. Parents teach their children all of that by listening patiently to them, even when their children don’t know what to say, listening for their voice in such a way that, slowly, the child discovers what they need to say, and in the process learns that their words are important, that they matter to another person, that what they have to say is worth waiting for.

We human beings never outgrow the need to be heard in that way. At times when we can’t find words to express ourselves, it’s a blessing to have someone who will hear us into speech, someone who will listen deeply for our voice, even though we have no words, until those words at last emerge.

That is particularly true in times of crisis. The Torah tells us that, when Aaron the priest lost his two sons Nadav and Avihu, both on the same day, “Vayidom Aharon.” Aaron was silent. Some of the commentators explain that Aaron was so overwhelmed with loss that he became like a stone, cold and dead inside. He had no words because his heart was closed. He felt utterly alone, barely like a human being at all.

There are times when all of us feel that way. Experiences of loss or heartbreak, disappointment or disorientation, injury or failure, can reduce us to silence, like Aaron. They can make us feel cut off from those around us, alone, empty inside, with nothing to say.

And what we desperately need at those times, when we have no words, is to have someone in our lives who will still listen for our voice, someone who is not afraid of silence, who won’t rush to fill the void with words of their own, but who is capable of being with us in the silence, listening patiently in a way that makes it possible for us to slowly find our words again. We need someone who will gradually draw our voice back out in the world, and in that way remind us that we are still alive.

So when we speak of listening for the voice, as opposed to the words, that is one thing that we mean – listening for the voice at times when there are no words, and in that way hearing other people into speech.

But that’s not all that we mean by listening to the voice as opposed to the words. Sometimes we are called upon to hear another person’s voice, not through the barrier silence, but through the barrier of language itself.  Sometimes, when people feel alone and unheard, the problem is not that they have no words, but that they’ve seized on the wrong words, words that cut them off from others, that prevent their voice from breaking through. Words can be powerful tools for expressing what is in our hearts. But sometimes they do the opposite. They hide what’s really in our hearts. Like static on the radio, they obscure our true voice. They drown out what we really need to say, and make it hard for anyone to hear us. When that happens, when our words obscure our deeper voice – even from ourselves – we find ourselves just as alone as if we had no words at all – maybe even more so. At those times, what we desperately need is someone who will listen through our speech, who will not be thrown off and distracted by our words, but will be capable of putting those words aside and listening to what is behind them.

The Torah offers us a powerful example of that in the story that we read on the first day of Rosh Hashanah, the story of the birth of Isaac. After a lifetime of childlessness, Sara miraculously had borne a son. It should have been a time of joy and magnanimity for her, having finally had her dream come to reality. But almost immediately, Sara turns vindictive instead. She demands that Avraham send away his older son, Ishmael, and Ishmael’s mother Hagar, who had been Sara’s servant. Sara makes that awful demand even though it had been her idea for Avraham to have a child with Hagar in the first place.

The Torah tells us, “Va-yeira hadavar m’od b’einei Avraham al odot b’no – Sara’s demand was evil in Avraham’s eyes, on account of his son” Ishmael. Avraham does not want to listen to his wife because her words are cruel and harsh. Not to mention shocking, coming at a time when Sara ought to be at her most generous. How could Avraham not feel bitter at what Sara is insisting that he do?

But then God intervenes and says to Avraham: Kol asher tomar eilekha Sara sh’ma b’kola – All that Sara says to you, listen to her voice.”

As Rabbi Jack Reimer points out, God doesn’t say to Avraham, “Listen to Sara’s words.” Her words are the problem, and if Avraham pays too much attention to them, he will miss the point of what his wife is trying to express. So God says to Avraham, “Listen to her voice.” Listen to the voice of a woman who has endured a lifetime of humiliation due to her childlessness, and now, even at her moment of triumph, can’t really take in the good news. Listen to the voice of a woman who has felt so small and insignificant for so long that she can’t find it in herself to meet the moment, to rise above her own competitiveness and vulnerability. Don’t listen to the words, Avraham. Listen to the voice behind the words, the voice of Sara’s suffering.  Then you won’t condemn her. Then you will understand.

We are all like Sara at times. Life is hard, and often we respond with words that are hard as well. At those times, the greatest gift that someone else can give us is to listen through our words, to hear the deeper voice behind them. When God says to Avraham, “Shma b’kola – listen to her voice,” God is challenging Avraham – and by extension challenging all of us – to be that kind of listener. When people are in pain and they say harsh and unkind things, we’ll often miss the point if we pay too much attention to their words. Often, it’s best to let their words blow past us, to tune them out like static, so that we can hear the deeper voice behind them. By listening in that way, we may help that person to heal.

So sometimes, listening to the voice and not the words means listening for the voice because there are no words, listening through the silence. And sometimes listening to the voice and not the words means listening for the voice by choosing not to engage with the words. In our relationships with the people around us, we are often called upon to listen in both ways.

But there is also a third way in which we are called upon to listen to the voice as opposed to the words. As hard as the other two ways are, this one is even harder.

This third way of listening is not about our personal relationships and how we handle them. Rather, is about our responsibility in the public sphere, as citizens of a democracy. It is not about listening through silence, because political discourse is anything but silent. Nor is it about letting angry words pass by, so that we can focus on the voice behind them – because, in the public sphere, we often can’t ignore destructive words that people say. We can’t afford to let those words pass unchallenged. We have a responsibility to refute and reject them.

What does it mean, then, in the public sphere, to listen to the voice, rather than the words? It means that, even as we push back against destructive rhetoric with all our might, even as we refuse to validate it or to let it pass, we have to, at the same time, try to understand – even try empathize with – the people who say it. We have to listen for the voice, even as we fight with all our might against the words.

Today, we face an extreme example of that obligation. We face a flood of public rhetoric today that we cannot let pass because it threatens our democracy. Important voices openly declare that only their side can legitimately win elections – that, if they don’t win, it can only mean that the election was unfair. They mislead and they deceive. They actively attempt to undermine the trust and confidence that make democracy work.

We have an obligation to push back against that kind of rhetoric because it is so destructive to the democratic process. We have to actively refute it.

But at the same time, I believe that we have an obligation to try to understand the impulse that generates that rhetoric – not to validate that impulse but to understand it – and to recognize that, whether we like it or not, that impulse is a deeply human one. Even when we are so polarized that no real dialogue is possible, we still have an obligation to recognize the humanness of those that we oppose.

So let me say a little bit about where I think that destructive rhetoric is coming from. The wave of reactionary anger and resentment that we are experiencing right now in this country is actually a result of all the good that we have achieved in the past two generations. Since the second world war – and especially in the last few decades – American society has become more open, more inclusive, more free. If you doubt it, just consider what it was like to be a person of color a few generations ago, or someone who was LGBT, or a woman who did not want her freedom to be bounded by traditional gender roles. Or think about how far we Jews have come in that time, from the margins of American society to the mainstream. The opening up of America – which has accelerated in the last few decades – has been a tremendous blessing to all kinds of people who had previously felt like outsiders in American society. Today, there is much more room for diversity in the American mainstream than there used to be. We still have a long way to go. But we should recognize how far we’ve come. The opening up of our society, the expansion of our freedoms, ought to be a great source of pride.

But in human history, periods of rapid social change are always followed by periods of backlash. After taking two steps forward, not to mention three or four or five steps forward, as we have in the last few decades, societies always wind up taking one step backward. That is because there will always be people who feel left behind by all that change, who don’t feel at home in the new world that they are being forced to live in, people who don’t see why we can’t just go back to the way things were. And those people have voices too.

Right now, many of those voices have grown radical. They are full of rage and grievance. Many of them have become cynical and bitter about democracy because they know that they can no longer count on popular majorities to deliver the results that they want, and feel they are entitled to. They feel that they are losing battle after battle in our culture wars, and so a certain number of them want to burn the whole system down.

We have a duty to prevent that – and that’s hard enough. But at the same time, we have a duty to do something that is even harder – to remember that those who threaten to dismantle our democracy are human too, and that – whether we like it or not – their rage comes from a real, authentic sense of loss.

You might ask why we are obligated to listen to their voices, even as we push back hard against their words. I would answer that in two ways. First, whenever we dehumanize people – any people – we lose a little bit of our own humanness in the process. We become coarser, meaner, less compassionate. If we were to win the battle for inclusiveness, but in the process lose some of the very openness and empathy that we are trying to defend, that would be a terrible, bitter irony.

The second reason why we have to try to understand those who feel left behind by modernity is that this current wave of rage and grievance will subside eventually.  I’m more optimistic than some others are about the future of our country. I don’t think that our democracy is going to be that easy to destroy – though it probably won’t come out unscathed. I don’t believe that all the social progress that we’ve made will be that easy to roll back. The inclusivity and openness that we have achieved is going to be hard to undo, though we will inevitably take steps backward. And so I think that the reactionary wave that we are living through right now will eventually have to subside – not all at once, but gradually, over time – because, in the end, it will fail. It won’t be able to turn back the clock. I don’t pretend to know how or when things will cool down. We may be in for a very rough ride before that happens. But I do believe that it will happen, that this time of rage is not forever.

And when our culture wars do subside, and the time comes for us to work to knit together our divided nation, it will be important that, in the interim, we did not allow ourselves to dehumanize those on the other side. They are part of our political community as well, and someday we will have to find a way to move on together, agreeing to disagree, as fellow Americans and fellow human beings. That’s the second reason why we have to try to listen to their voice today, even as we reject their words.

Four times on Yom Kippur we ask God, “Shma koleinu– hear our voice.” It is one of the deepest needs we have – to feel heard in that way, even if our words don’t merit it. And therefore it is a great mitzvah for us to attempt to hear each other in that way. Sometimes listening to the voice and not the words means listening through the silence, hearing someone into speech. Sometimes it means letting people’s words pass, so that we can attend to the voice behind them. Sometimes – particularly in this time of political conflict – it means refuting and rejecting hateful words while struggling to affirm the humanity of those who say them. In the coming year, may we be blessed with the strength to hear each other’s voices in all of those ways.