Yom Kippur, 5774

Temple Sinai, Reno, NV

Listen Oh Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.

Sometimes I read it this way: Come on already, Israel, listen! Adonai, the One we call our God, Adonai is one! Adonai, our God, and GOD who goes by a multiplicity of names throughout the world— is One. There is only One. Adonai is our name for God; God’s Oneness transcends all names.

The Shma reminds us of the basic paradox intrinsic to Judaism, or for that matter, any religious or spiritual paradigm: we affirm our own name for the divine even as we recognize that our way is simply our way. There is no room for division in the human yearning for and learning of God. We proclaim our name while joining our struggle for God—the true meaning of Yisrael—with the universal human struggle for oneness. Furthermore, the avenue for bridging the separateness of human experience begins with a simple charge, to listen.

It’s a funny thing, isn’t it—getting someone else to listen. Especially people in your own community and family. I don’t just listen for my health. I listen to those I trust, to those with whom I have a relationship. I listen because I care about the person in front of me. I listen because it’s my duty. But as those closest with me could tell you, I rarely listen because I genuinely am seeking to understand. How often do I begin formulating my next question while the other person is talking? How often do I jump to injecting my own biography, sometimes with purpose, yet often without, just for the sake of relating. Or how often do I agree with someone prematurely—or disagree—when I haven’t fully taken the time to understand where they are coming from.

The context of what people say—the surface details—are often only the visible layer on a lake of depth and journey below the surface. Yet how often do we dive down with someone, to get to know the quality of the water within their lake, or the sludge on their water’s bottom. Deep sharing happens with time, with relationship, but most of all with trust. When we take the time to understand someone—whether in the context of a discussion with your spouse, or someone else– when we listen for the sake of seeking to understand—worlds open up—diving goggles are gifted—and a symbiotic relationship can be born.

Empathic listening links two people together, it could not happen without two people and their biographies facing one another. It is not reflective listening. It is not active listening. These can be useful skills but simply mirroring back to someone what they are saying, or listening intently to every detail can just as easily get in the way of genuine human interaction as support it.

On Yom Kippur, we are involved in re-affirming our relationships—with God, with mitzvot, with each other, the community and the Jewish people.

Yet any victory in these realms of human relationship must always begin on the inside. This is the secret of prayer—let prayer-time be soul-exploring deep-diving in the lake of who you are. Any victories on the outside must begin with inner listening, public victories with private ones—and with facing our greatest sorrows, disappointments, fears, hopes, and dreams.

It means re-connecting with our purpose on this earth—what baggage don’t I need, what can I let go of to re-focus me in this purpose? It means empathic listening with ourselves. Our purpose, according to Buber, is synonymous with godliness. He writes:

“Turning means something much greater than repentance and acts of penance; it means that by a reversal of his whole being, a man who had been lost in the maze of selfishness, where he had always set himself as his goal, finds a way to God, that is, a way to the fulfilment of the particular task for which he, this particular man, has been destined by God.”

Yom Kippur reminds us of our great responsibility connected to the lineage of Jewish inheritance. God is avinu and malkeinu—our father and our king, our intimate guide and family member with whom we have a special relationship; and the universal king, ruling over all humankind. If the Jewish people are to be a light unto the nations, how can I, as one member of this covenant contribute by fulfilling my unique purpose? What is standing in my way, internally and otherwise?

Our sages teach us: “It is the duty of every person in Israel to know and consider that he is unique in the world in his particular character and that there has never been anyone like him in the world, for if there had been someone like him, there would have been no need for him to be in the world.”

So how do we listen? Sometimes the most incessant buzzing sound, the thing we are running from, or most annoyed with, is the place to start. Sometimes it will lead us to deeper truths. Sometimes by focusing on it, we can hear its cry and let it go.

Rebbe Nachman of Breslav told a story of a real-life king who heard a buzzing noise in his head. This buzzing noise rang incesantly. For a short time, the banging of metal workers whom he positioned by his throne day and night was loud enough to drown out the noise. But after a short while, he would get used to these external sounds, and then the buzzing noise returned. Finally, he summoned all the experts in his kingdom to the palace and said, “whosoever can solve the buzzing noise in my head shall be greatly rewarded.” After none of these suggestions worked, he sent for a rabbi, who was said to be a wise and humble man. The rebbe came and recommended that the king stay up with the buzzing noise all night long. To listen to it.” And the buzzing noise finally went away.

Yom Kippur, as the culmination of the days of awe, invites us to listen—not just to the sound of the prayers and the shofar at the end of the day, but to the inner, still small voice in us, the one we so often put off or ignore for more so-called “pressing things.” Tonight, as we petition God to listen to us, as we remember and remind God of our sacred bond, we first of all must come clean with ourselves. Who have I been this year? What have I been holding on to that I no longer need, what fat can I cut-out that may have been protecting me, but in fact, is preventing me from heeding the cry of my inner-most soul? If I can listen to myself I can listen to God, to you, and You can listen to me—and I can learn to listen to my loved ones—who need me to be present when I hear them—to build trust, and re-open pathways. I invite you all to join me in deep listening on the inside, to discover what we need to let go, as we make room for a new call to service this year. And may we extend that same quality of listening to others in order to reignite our personal relationships this year. Gmar chatimah tov, may you be sealed for a year of goodness. Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Bair