The Importance of Listening

Did you know that Sitting can be harmful to your health? An analysis of 13 studies of sitting time and activity levels found that those who sat for more than eight hours a day with no physical activity had a risk of dying similar to the risks of dying posed by obesity and smoking. People who sit for long periods of time – for example, at our desks, in front of a computer, watching television – are more prone to increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist and abnormal cholesterol levels. Yet, research also shows that 60 to 75 minutes a day of moderately intense physical activity countered the effects of sitting for eight hours. That’s the good news. The bad news is that few of us get 60 to 75 minutes a day of moderately intense physical activity. The Mayo clinic suggests other things we can do – take a break from sitting every 30 minutes, walk with your colleagues for meetings instead of sitting at a desk, stand up while on the phone or watching television. The message is – the impact of movement, even moderate activity, can be profound.

As we move toward the conclusion of the Book of Exodus, we encounter what to us appears to be the  rather strange ceremony of the ordination of Aaron and his sons into the priesthood. The Torah instructs Moses to take the blood of the ram of ordination, which has been slaughtered, and place that blood on the ear of Aaron and his sons, on the thumb of Aaron and his sons, and on the big toe of Aaron and his sons. Commentators have long tried to make sense of this ritual. Philo, a Jewish philosopher who lived during Roman times in Alexandria, Egypt, understood this ceremony to be symbolic of the ideal human being. The blood was placed on the ear to symbolize the person whose ear heard the suffering of others; upon the thumb to symbolize that the person would take action; upon the toe to symbolize the righteous path that this person would follow through life. In other words, the ideal human being was not one to sit around, to stay put, to be inactive. The ideal person would be listening, doing, acting, moving forward.

Rabbi Nachman of Breslov once said, “If you are not a better person tomorrow than you are today, what reason do you have for ‘tomorrow’.”  We ought not to sit and be complacent. “Tomorrow” is there so that we can grow and improve ourselves. “Tomorrow” is there so that we can help others to improve their lives. We should strive to be advancing and to be helping others to do the same.

There is a famous verse in the Psalms that describes a person who invests his or her time and energy in meaningless endeavors. These people are compared to a lifeless idol. The verse goes, “They have mouths but do not speak, eyes but do not see, ears but do not hear, noses but do not smell. They have hands but cannot feel, feet but cannot walk, nor can they make a sound in their throats. Those who make them will be like them, as will those who trust in them.”

To seal your mouth so that you do not speak up; to close your eyes so that you do not see; to block your ears so you do not hear; to bind your hands and feet so that you do not take action – this is indeed a type of spiritual death, a way of being in the world that is static, inert,  lifeless, unmoved and unmovable, like those gods fashioned out of wood or stone.

Last week I spoke about Judaism as being a religion of “listening”, “paying attention,” “heeding”, of understanding, a religion of focusing on what is truly important in the world. The word that encompasses these meanings – Shema – is not only the first word of our most important prayer, it is a word used in the Book of Deuteronomy no less than 92 times! It is no coincidence, therefore, that the ordination of the priest begins with placing the blood of the ram of ordination on his ear. All action begins with hearing, with understanding our own needs as well as the needs of others. But we need to learn what to listen for, and what values we should pursue.

It reminds me of the story of two men who were walking in a very busy city. There were cars honking, busses rumbling, people talking on their cell phones, street musicians playing, policemen blowing their whistles, jackhammers pounding away at construction sites. Through this cacophony of sounds, one man points to a tree across the street from where the two are walking. “Do you hear that beautiful songbird in the tree over there,” the first man asked his fellow.

The second man looked at his friend in disbelief. “No way you possibly hear a bird singing in all of this noise,” he exclaimed. The first man looked at his friend. “Let’s go see,” he said. They crossed the street and looked up into the tree and sure enough, there was a bird there chirping away.

“That’s impossible,” said the second man. “You must have super-human hearing to have heard that.”

“Not at all,” said the first man. “Let me demonstrate.” He took a coin out of his pocket, held it straight out, and let it drop on the sidewalk. At the first plunk of the coin hitting the pavement, all the cars stopped honking, all the musicians stopped playing, all the whistles fell silent, all the jackhammers stopped pounding, all the buses stopped rumbling and all people stopped talking on their cell phones. They all turned to see where the coin had fallen. “See,” he said, “it all depends on what you are listening for.”
Judaism teaches us what we ought to listen for. That listening, in turn, ought to spur us to action. The Torah tells us that Abraham was singled out so that he and his descendants can keep G-d’s way by doing what is just and right.  Note the emphasis of doing, of action. As our sages say, we are not obligated to complete the task, but neither are we permitted to ignore it. Sitting can be detrimental to our health, both physically and spiritually. May we always be on the move.

Shabbat Shalom