By Rabbi Michael Kushnick
This week we conclude the Book of Leviticus, the third book of the Torah, with parashat Behukotai. The very first verses of this parasha provide us with a rather interesting description.
The Torah says, “If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant you rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit. Your threshing shall overtake the vintage, and your vintage shall overtake the sowing; you shall eat your fill of bread and dwell securely in your land. I will grant peace in the land, and you shall lie down untroubled by anyone. I will give the land respite from the vicious beasts, and no sword shall cross your land… You shall eat old grain long stored, and you shall have to clear out the old to make room for the new.”
The structure of this passage seems odd. The text appears to be out of order. At first the Torah mentions blessings related to eating, then it is interrupted with the blessing of peace, then it returns to the blessing of eating and food. It seems that the Torah should have just continued with all the blessings related to food and eating and then moved on to the blessings of peace. Why would the Torah split the blessings of food and insert in the middle a blessing of peace?
Many of our great rabbis debate this very question. A 17th-century commentator proposes that the Torah needed to insert the blessing of peace here so that those listening to the blessings would be able to continue listening to the entire blessing. He said that everyone knows that without peace in the land all of the blessings related to food would be meaningless. Without peace one may not enjoy the bounty of food. As the listener heard the blessings, they would be so distracted trying to anticipate if peace would be included that they would be unable to hear the full blessing.
For this reason, the Torah broke up the blessings of food. The Torah understood human reactions, that when we are involved in a conversation we are always trying to anticipate the next statement. When we are engaged in a conversation and try to anticipate the next statement or are preoccupied trying to determine if a specific word or phrase is going to be said, we shut ourselves out of the conversation. We are not fully present and do not really listen to the other party. We see this all too often in our everyday disputes, and the Torah was worried about this behavior.
The blessings associated with following God’s commandments were too important to be missed because someone was worried about peace. Instead of placing the blessing of peace in the logical place, the Torah inserted it in the middle of another blessing so that we understood the destructive power of anticipation.
A number of years ago I participated in a rabbinic improv comedy event for the Jewish community. I, along with the other rabbis, had no prior experience with improv so we spent some time before the show practicing. The entire experience was very difficult. As we experimented with different improv games, the individual who was coaching us kept telling us to listen to what our partner said. At the beginning of the rehearsal, every skit would quickly become derailed and the director kept pointing out that one partner did not listen to the other and therefore all the responsibility to continue the scene fell on one person. It was no longer a shared skit. We all learned that we were thinking about the next line that we were going to say, before our partner spoke. We were not in dialogue with each other; instead we were anticipating each other’s responses and were trying to control the scene. Once we were able to truly listen to one another and respond to their last statement, our skits became funny, not because we were individually funny but because we were in true dialogue with each other. Improv comedy is all about active listening and not anticipating. This is no different than each and every interaction of our lives. Being able to fully listen to one another is the key to every relationship and conversation.
God knew that anticipation was a human behavior but that is not what we should strive for. We need to be better. How can we accomplish what we want in life if we are constantly changing our statements to compensate for others’ anticipation? How can we improve if we do not truly listen?
As listeners we must strive to listen more carefully to others. We need to stop thinking about the next statement or our next response. When we do that, we will be able to listen more attentively to each other. We bless God as the one who hears our prayers, shomaiah tefillah, so too may we all be blessed to hear each other.
Rabbi Michael Kushnick serves Congregation Anshai Torah in Plano. He is a member of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.