“Let the earth hear the words that I utter; May my discourse come down as the rain.”
This week’s torah portion, Ha’azinu, begins with an aged Moses seeking to have the Israelites understand what he has learned about God and about them. He hopes that if they can receive his wisdom with openness and can allow themselves to be nourished like plants receiving water; they will become more generous, more loyal, more grateful and will become a sacred community. Moses wants to be heard—so he says “ha’azninu,” listen, or more literally, “give ear”.
Every one of us has similar hopes—that others will pay attention to what matters most to us, that what is in our hearts will be received with openness and will cause others to be moved to generosity, loyalty and understanding. Like Moses, we fear that others will not listen, that they will turn away. We, too, want others to feel that our words and our presence will be as needed and as pleasant as the dew or as rain on parched fields.
When we are in the Sanctuary, within our communities, within our schools and perhaps even within our families, there are many reasons why we may feel that others are not paying attention, not finding our discourse meaningful, and many reasons why we may feel despair over ever being heard and included. Ironically enough, the very words meant to call us to attention, to bring us together as a community—ha’azinu—listen—shema—hear –may cause some people who are deaf or hard of hearing to feel automatically marginalized. Of course, those who are deaf communicate and pay attention and, of course; there are many ways of listening and of receiving wisdom and spiritual truth. Yet, when words of prayer and text seem to link the capacity to hear with spiritual attunement and necessary accommodations are not provided to enable participation by the deaf and those with limited hearing, the result can be a sense of exclusion and of being ignored.
Those of us with disabilities affecting communication sometimes find that others do not take the time and do not provide the accommodations necessary to discover what we wish to share or to make sure we are able to accurately discern what is being said. When we have difficulty remembering or putting our ideas into words quickly because of cognitive disabilities we feel disregarded when little effort is made to express ideas in ways that we can understand. Whenever others do not seem interested in what we need and what we have to teach, any one of us can feel isolated and left outside of the group.
Immediately after asking that the Israelites “give ear” and listen, Moses follows with metaphors that lyrically express the many ways in which we joyously receive understanding. “May my discourse come down as rain, distill as dew, like showers on young growth.” Perhaps we can view this as expanding our understanding of the different senses and ways of perceiving through which we can come to understand one another and God. We may feel the vibrations of the shofar through our hands and have a sense of the momentous stirred within us. We may read words of prayer through our fingertips as we read Braille—or feel the warmth of community and the communication of hope through the gentle touch of a hand on our shoulders. We may use an iPad or other assistive device or utilize American Sign Language to share our thoughts and needs or we may communicate through blinking our eyes or facial expression. Each of us can listen in unique ways and each of us can share our discourse in unique ways. What matters most is the will to receive what is communicated.
Perhaps this week’s exhortation to “Listen!” can provide us with a special opportunity to develop a more nuanced understanding of the many ways in which people actually take in and share their stories and their learning. Perhaps we can listen and hear in a variety of new ways, and in the process can learn more about one another and about building even more attentive, respectful and caring congregations, communities, schools and families.
Rabbi Edythe Held Mencher, L.C.S.W., serves as the Union for Reform Judaism’s Faculty Member for Sacred Community, where she also coordinates the URJ Ruderman Disabilities Inclusion Initiative. She is a practicing psychotherapist and has served on the faculties of the Westchester Center for the Study of Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy and Hebrew Union College’s Doctor of Ministry in Pastoral Counseling program. Rabbi Mencher is the major author of Resilience of the Soul – Developing Spiritual and Emotional Resilience in Adolescents and their Families, a program guide focusing upon how Jewish communities and tradition can help adolescents and their families develop positive ways of managing stress and difficult emotions.