Listen First, Talk Later

Tal Ben Shahar is an expert on happiness. The Israeli professor has lectured for nearly 20 years on Positive Psychology - the idea that what we choose to spend our time doing and how we choose to think directly impacts how we feel. In his latest book, “Choose the Life You Want: The Mindful Way to Happiness,” he writes that “Every moment of our waking life we face choices whose cumulative effect on us is as great, if not greater, than the effect of big decisions. I can choose whether to sit up straight or stooped; whether to say a warm word to my partner or give her a sour look; whether to appreciate my health, my friends, and my lunch, or to take them all for granted; to choose to choose or to remain oblivious to the choices that are there for the making.”

Being aware of these choices, Ben Shahar teaches, is the path towards happiness.

One incredibly frequent choice we have as social creatures is the choice between Rushing to Give Advice on the one hand, and Listening with empathy and openness on the other.

In his book, Ben Shahar notes that:

“The most common characteristic associated with great leadership is charisma…It turns out, though, that charisma is overrated, and…a more important characteristic of great leaders is their ability to listen.

In the early 1970s, Robert Greenleaf coined the term “servant leadership” after noticing that the great leaders throughout history spoke and acted as servants. Biblical leaders such as Moses and Jesus were depicted as servants, as were more recent political leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King…According to Greenleaf and other leadership scholars, one of the core characteristics of servant leaders is that they listen first and talk later. In fact, to become a servant leader, Greenleaf argued, a person has to go through "a long arduous discipline of learning to listen [so that] the automatic response to any problem is to listen first."

Our Torah portion this week puts on display that long, arduous process of Moses learning to listen with empathy and openness. In Sh’mini we find the story of Nadav & Avihu, Aaron’s sons who offer an improper sacrifice and are immediately punished with death. In what should have been a festive celebration for the completion of the Mishkan/Tabernacle, the first verses of Leviticus Chapter 10 shockingly and startlingly transport us to a scene of destruction, sadness, and mourning.

And immediately following Nadav & Avihu’s death, Moses turns to his brother Aaron–who just lost two sons, who was utterly blindsided by God’s wrath–and offers a theological explanation for his nephew’s death. It’s like Moses telling Aaron, “God never gives you more than you can handle” or “At least you have other children” or “They’re in a better place now.” To these inane attempts at comfort, the Torah tells us that “Aaron was silent.” (More on what not to say to someone that’s grieving here)

Soon thereafter, Moses again rushes to give advice to Aaron and his other sons Itamar and Eleazar. He sternly insists they not mourn and then rebukes them for not carrying on with their sanctuary duties as usual. Aaron, a mourning father, is forced to step in on his other sons’ behalf to remind Moses that carrying on, as usual, would be improper.

We see so clearly in one chapter of Torah the painstaking choices Moses made to rush to advice over and over, doing damage to his loved ones along the way. Until, in the very last verse of the chapter, the Torah signals Moses learned, Moses grew, Moses reached the end of that arduous path to discipline. The chapter ends, וַיִּשְׁמַ֣ע מֹשֶׁ֔ה. Moses heard, perhaps for the first time with empathy and openness, וַיִּיטַ֖ב בְּעֵינָֽיו and agreed with his brother.

Learning this discipline, to listen first and talk later, is so difficult. But the Torah, in using Moses, underscores that it is always possible. We can’t ascertain precisely how old Moses was when this scene takes place, but he was somewhere between 80-120. He was already a servant of God for decades, and he still hadn’t honed this elusive skill.

As a young leader, I deeply relate to this difficulty, as someone whose mind moves quickly and feels awkward in silence. But I think we all find ourselves at this intersection, and more often rush to give advice instead of listening with empathy and openness. 

We want our words to comfort and help those we love and care for: our children, our spouse, our family, our friends. We want our words to make their lives easier. But so often we overestimate the power of ourselves and fail to listen empathically to those who are hurting.

So the next time you find yourself at this intersection, I want you to pause for a moment. Think of Moses, who at first overestimated his own power to comfort his brother with words, but learned through trial to listen.  And before you choose your path forward, reflect on this teaching from our tradition (Vayikra Rabbah 16:5): “A single word is worth a sela (coin), but silence is worth two.”

Shabbat Shalom.

Alex KressComment