March 29, 2001
Learning to Listen
Parashat Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1 - 5:26)
Abraham Joshua Heschel would begin his lectures with a startling announcement: "Ladies and Gentlemen, a great miracle has just happened." People would immediately sit forward, eager to know what happened. "The sun just went down," he'd say. They would stare at him, wondering if he'd lost his mind. Some would laugh, others would shake their heads. Then he would begin to describe the inner life of the religious person. What does it mean to be religious? How does a religious person sees the world? He'd challenge the audience: What have you lost when you lose the capacity to wonder at a sunset? What sort of person are you when you're no longer surprised or impressed, no longer compelled to stop and notice the sun setting? What do you lose when life becomes so dull?
"Wonder, or radical amazement," Heschel wrote, "is the chief characteristic of the religious man's attitude toward history and nature. One attitude is alien to his spirit: taking things for granted, regarding events as a natural course of things. As civilization advances, the sense of wonder declines. Such decline is an alarming symptom of our state of mind. Mankind will not perish for want of information, but only for want of appreciation. The beginning of our happiness lies in the understanding that life without wonder is not worth living."
Jewish prayer is a spiritual discipline for regaining wonder each day. One hundred times a day we are instructed to stop and recite a bracha recognizing the miraculous in each moment of life. Twice I've had cancer surgery. Twice I've been through chemotherapy. I remember the healing process. I prayed that I would never forget the feeling of each small victory -- to sip water without pain, to get out of bed and walk around, to see the sunshine on the day I was released from the hospital. In those circumstances, the most mundane and common events become the most momentous gifts. And I prayed that no routine, schedule or hurried deadline would erase the sweet victories of those moments. God speaks to us in such moments: moments of joy, triumph, redemption, closeness, promise. We hold these moments close and call them to mind when we need strength, courage, inspiration. Prayer is a way of realizing and recognizing the power of moments. Prayer is a way of holding moments, preserving and cherishing them. Prayer saves moments, allowing us to visit them when we are dry, lonely and empty.
How do you begin and end your day? At day's end, most American adults watch the 11 o'clock news: 30 minutes of murder, rape, corruption, desolation, destruction, sports and weather. Good night! We awaken with a clock radio pounding the day's news into our heads even before our eyes have opened: murder, rape, corruption, desolation, destruction, traffic, sports and weather. Do you know why you're depressed?
Sanity, if not spirituality, demands that we learn to lie down and wake up differently -- not with the hopelessness of daily news, but with a few moments of meditation and reflection. Recollect the passions that brought us to this point in life. Reconnect with our deepest values. Evaluate where we are in life, and where we're going. Listen to the voice of the soul. Stand, if for but a few moments, in the presence of God, before sitting on the freeway on-ramp for half an hour.
Our Torah portion begins with the words: "The Lord called to Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting" (Leviticus 1:1). According to the medieval commentator Rashi, the verse specifically mentions the Tent of Meeting to teach that God's voice, though it was a voice powerful enough to smash mountains, stopped at the edge of the tent and could not be overheard beyond. But this was no miracle.
God's voice could not be heard because no one except Moses knew how to detect it amid the noise of daily life. Only Moses knew how to listen for God's voice. Vayikra -- God is still calling us today. But few of us can hear amid all the noise. Prayer teaches us how to listen.