Listen, Really Listen

March 6, 2021

Author(s): Rabbi Wes Gardenswartz,

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Parshat Ki Tisa—Shabbat Parah
March 6, 2021 — 22 Adar 5781
Listen, Really Listen
by Rabbi Wes Gardenswartz
Temple Emanuel, Newton, MA


One fine afternoon I was listening to Fresh Air on NPR, and the interview totally drew me in.  Terri Gross was interviewing a woman who did something out of her ideals and idealism.   It was self-sacrificing.  It took her time, a lot of it.  It exposed her to danger, a lot of it.  What was so compelling to me about the interview was that she had to explain that her mother, herself a person of high ideals and idealism, objected to what her daughter did, for reasons of her own principle.   In fact, the mother loathed what her daughter did, and told her so.

             The daughter is a woman named Rosa Brooks, a tenured law professor at Georgetown who learns that the DC police department has this program where civilians can get trained to become police officers.   Police academy for civilians is a lot.  A lot of weekend hours. A lot of evening hours.  It is rigorous.  But  after the demanding program is concluded, these now trained civilians are given a badge, a gun, a belt, a uniform. They are given a partner who is a seasoned police officer, and together they patrol the streets.

            Here Rosa Brooks has this cushy tenured job.  She faces motivated students in a law school classroom.  Why would she leave the safety of her classroom to patrol streets?  By the way, when she became a police officer, she was assigned the single most dangerous neighborhood in DC.  Why do this?

            Because she wanted to understand the world from a police officer’s point of view.  She writes a book about her experience, and at the outset she names the tragedies that have been lightning rods for our country: Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, all African Americans killed while under police custody.   She acknowledges these tragedies, and

she wants to know: what does it feel like to be a police officer?  How does a police officer

experience the world?

            That is where she met fierce resistance from her own mother.

Rosa Brooks’ mother is Barbara Ehrenreich,  a pioneer in immersive journalism:

learning about a different world by living it from the inside, and then writing about it.   Ehrenreich wrote a book called Nickle and Dimed, in which she lived off of what she earned at low-paying jobs at Walmart, Wendy’s, Merry Maid.  How does a person who makes a few dollars an hour find housing, clothing, and food and live within that budget?  Ehrenreich’s writing is an expression of her progressive political values. Rosa Brooks grew up in a family where picketing and marching for liberal causes were just what the family did.  Rosa Brooks was literally named for Rosa Parks.

            So when Rosa Brooks told her mother that she wanted to become a DC police officer, her mother said:  If you want to become a police officer so that you can infiltrate the police department from the inside and write an expose about systemic racism, I approve.  But if you want to become a police officer to actually do the work of a police officer, I loathe the idea.  You are joining the enemy.

            Rosa Brooks does what she does out of her ideals and idealism.  Her mother Barbara Ehrenreich objects out of  her ideals and idealism.  I bring this issue to you now because the first seder is three weeks from tonight. 

            A seder is supposed to be the space where there is a lively conversation among the generations, parents and children, grandparents and grandchildren, who disagree, and there is no end of things to disagree about. 

            I’ll give you just one example.  There are 10,000 more where this came from.  But this week I listened to the New York Times Daily podcast about Texas after the storm.  What was it like to live without heat, light, wi fi, or running water?  And what was the aftermath like?  The podcast tells the story of three women of color whose homes became uninhabitable. One mother and her three sons have to sleep in a bus that the city provided because the bus was heated.  The point of the podcast was that the storm in Texas did not affect all citizens equally. The poorest communities, communities of color, were the first to lose their power and their water, and the last to get it back.  Issues of race, justice, equity seem to be a theme in our nation.  These are the questions of our time.  How, if at all, do we engage these questions at our seder table?

            One alternative, and it is very tempting, I am very tempted to follow this alternative, is to avoid these unpleasant conversations entirely.  If ever there were a season for an easy, uncomplicated seder, this is that season.  After all we have been through, let’s just do a nice, easy seder. No conflict. No hot topics.

            As tempting as that is, there is one big cost to nice and easy, and that cost emerges from a powerful teaching of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.

Rabbi Sacks tells of the time when he initiated a conference at Hebrew University on the future of Jewish peoplehood.   The greatest Jewish thinkers and speakers came together.  Halfway through the second day, even though he had initiated the conference, Rabbi Sacks and his wife Elaine left the conference.  He could not take it anymore.  This makes no sense! Why would the rabbi leave the conference he had summoned?  His answer is:  Everybody was talking. Nobody was listening.

            Rabbi Sacks puts it this way: “When we speak, we tell others who and what we are.  But when we listen, we allow others to tell us who they are.”  To truly listen is an act of humility.  It is to say to the other person: it’s not about me.  It’s about us, which means I need to do tzimtzum, self-contraction, so that I can make space for, and better understand, who you are, what makes you tick.  Rabbi Sacks translates “shema yisrael” not as hear oh Israel, or even listen Israel, but rather listen, really listen.  Listen, really listen because it takes work to get beyond ourselves to the other person we are trying to listen to. 

            A seder where we studiously avoid all hot topics has an easiness and a loveliness all its own. 

            But a seder where we talk about the hard issues that matter by listening deeply to one another, with no agenda, with an open mind, without the desire to persuade, that is a seder where we give each other  the blessing of deep listening.

            Which brings us back to Rosa Brooks, who becomes a police officer because she wanted to listen, really listen to the world from a police officer’s point of view.  The more she learned,  the more complicated the reality of being a police officer became. Two principles, each true, are  in constant tension with one another.

            On the one hand, police officers deeply internalize that their mission is to protect and defend, and that they are to be humble and careful and reserved in their use of power.

            On the other hand, police officers are also taught that any person on any day they meet on the street could kill them  At police academy she saw heartbreaking videos of officers getting shot and killed in the line of duty.  And the teacher at the police academy would ask the class the question: what might the police officer have done differently to still be alive, and to still be available to his or her family, today?  Watch the hands.  Always watch the hands.  The hands are what can kill you.

            Her book is about this constant tension that plays itself out every day—protect and defend bumps up against they can kill you, watch the hands, watch the hands.   

            Hence the title of her book: Tangled Up in Blue.  Tangled up by the complexities of real people.  Rosa Brooks could not write the expose her mother wanted her to write.  Reality was too

complicated.   Her fellow officers did want to protect and defend.  That was true. And they did want to stay alive in a world where any person on any day might end their life.  That was also true. That kind of complexity does not make for an expose.

            But that kind of complexity is what you get when you listen, really listen, to the world, the worry, the woes, the dreams, of somebody else. 

            The first seder is three weeks from tonight.  There is a lot to talk about. And it’s complicated. Can we listen, really listen to one another? Ignoring all the hard issues is sorely tempting, but listening deeply is a precious gift that we can give to one another. Shabbat shalom.