I recently heard this nice thought; “listen and silent have the same letters”. I’m not sure who is the author of this statement but it surely reflects two approaches in how we relate to others.
Some peoples silence is a simple tactic to get the other person to finish talking so they can fully have the stage when it is their turn to respond.
For others, they are actually listening, taking in what the other person is saying trying to internalize and relate or at best sympathize.
In this week’s Torah portion, Moses encounters the Burning Bush. An interesting thing happens. Moses turns to see the burning bush, G-d calls out to him and says “Moses, Moses”, Moses responds “here I am”. Then G-d instructs Moses to remove his shoes.
Listen to the events, the exchange here. Moses is interacting with G-d; seeing the Burning Bush, responding to G-d’s calling to him. Now listen to the next verse.
“G-d says, I am the G-d of your father, the G-d of Abraham, the G-d of Isaac and the G-d of Jacob. And Moses hid his face; for he was afraid to look upon G-d”.
What happened in this verse that suddenly causes Moses to hide his face? He was interacting a second ago with G-d and now he suddenly stopped!
Our Sages say that G-d was offering a gift to Moses. G-d was telling Moses that as he will experience the suffering of the Jewish People in the coming days, months and years and will pained for them, he will cry out for meaning and explanation. Now, G-d was offering Moses a glimpse behind the curtain to understand the meaning for Human suffering.
G-d was offering Moses to see and understand the fires both literal and figurative that will burn, hurt and at times consume his people.
At that moment, Moses turns his face away. Moses doesn’t want to see that which is behind the curtain. He knows that is he looks behind the curtain, he will never again be able to truly listen, to truly empathize. As long as we can put meaning to another’s suffering, we can never fully feel for them.
When it comes to our own suffering, we can choose to make meaning from it. Our Jewish tradition encourages us to look into our own character, our own shortcomings and find meaning in our suffering or pain to motivate us to better ourselves. Perhaps our character is in check and things are good. Then our tradition tells us to see our suffering and pain as a propulsion to push us forward. This is true for our own struggles, but when looking at another, unless you are G-d, or unless G-d has given you direct information (as G-d did at times with the Prophets) our only perspective should be one of crying out and calling out to G-d to remove the suffering, to heal the pain.
This is what Moses, the greatest leader, teaches us as he he is being called upon to guide and lead the People from Egypt and through their travails in the desert. Open your heart, listen to the other person, truly empathize and in some way simply listening will alleviate a bit of the pain.