Rabbinic Reflections: Listening within

Responses to my column last month have made me think deeply about listening. I said before we need to listen to others first rather than try convincing them by talking first. That kind of listening, though, is really not enough. We also need to listen to ourselves.

The reality is that we can’t hear someone else when our souls are making turbulent, unfiltered noise. I implied a month ago that we needed to hear the “real suffering in our society, real fear, and real investment in possible solutions,” because instead of listening we had been yelling at each other. Since then, we have replaced yelling at each other with yelling louder. At this point, we would do well to listen to ourselves.

It is extraordinarily difficult to listen carefully enough to ourselves, to hear what is really going on within. Typically, our days move so fast, our phones “notify” us so often, and our responsibilities to others keep us from making the time and space to listen well. Instead, many today rely on therapists; others might blog. The results are helpful but passing.

Jewish tradition offers an unusual solution: talking, or rather talking to oneself non-stop for 20-30 minutes. It is called hitbodedut (pronounced: heet’boh’deh’doot). Literally, hitbodedut translates from Hebrew into “self-isolation.” Rabbi Nahman of Bratislav (1772-1810) taught this technique as a form of conversation with God, best done in the woods or a private room, in the spirit of a child pleading with a parent about all one’s concerns, woes, and dealings. Even when not thinking of God as an interlocutor, the technique works.

The key is to keep talking. With all the noise in our lives, we need to hear ourselves and hear ourselves and hear ourselves until we start to say the things that show who we really are. Once we get past the trivial or superficial; once we get past the challenges, joys, and agonies of the moment; once we get to how we feel at root about our place in the world; then we can hear.

Our public discourse has been full of chattiness, victories and crises of the moment, and increasingly the underbelly of it all. We have done a national hitbodedut, and what we are hearing should give us all pause. In terms both revolutionary and reactionary, we should hear blame as really showing our feeling a lack of agency. In terms racist, bigoted, and xenophobic, we should hear nostalgia as losing not the deals in life but of our own value. In terms not quite trusting, bored, and uncompromising, we should hear dismissal and disqualification as misogyny we have not yet overcome. In terms escapist or apathetic, we should hear quitting as the ultimate expression of privilege.

As humans, we are deeply complicated. As earthly creatures, we are rooted in old habits that die hard. God also created us, though, to be partners in creation, to fix what is broken and to continue the process of discovery, problem-solving, and completion. If we are going to make any progress, if we are going to work together, we are going to have to listen within to what it is deep down that holds us back individually. If we can surface what it is within us that makes us immune to change, we might just be able to be more articulate about what we really want and to listen to others’ articulation more carefully. Perhaps then, we can rise above not just to “our better angels” but to the divine within. Our world is waiting; go try hitbodedut and see.

About Rabbi Jeremy Winaker

Rabbi Jeremy Winaker is the executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Hillel Network, responsible for West Chester University, Haverford, Bryn Mawr, and other area colleges. He is the former head of school at the Albert Einstein Academy in Wilmington and was the senior Jewish educator at the Kristol Hillel Center at the University of Delaware for four years. Rabbi Winaker lives in Delaware with his wife and three children.

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