As we approach Thanksgiving and the holidays that follow, there is a natural association between the fullness of the season and giving back. Volunteer opportunities abound and the demand is enormous as food drives, shifts at shelters and requests for cold weather clothing mount. This is a time when we often feel a heightened sense of action both as Jews and citizens of the world. We work to engage our children in worthy charitable causes and to teach them to see tzedakah as an integral part of their lives both now and when they are old enough to make independent choices.
Jewish tradition holds charity to be one of the utmost expressions of spirituality, defining it as a moral obligation. We learn that the benefit we reap by giving to the poor is so great that the beggar who receives our charity is, in fact, giving us the gift of being able to perform tzedakah. It is an astonishing, counter-intuitive reversal of fortune. Judaism also gives us clear instruction to listen. After all, we recite the shema to remind us to listen to G-d’s words and obey the commandments. Truly, this is the essence of active listening for the hearing implies the doing.
Now we draw a powerful parallel: active listening extends beyond our connection to G-d and mirrors our relationship to fellow human beings. Alongside the undeniable, critical importance of being physically there at a pantry, protest march or nursing home – the doing — we must task ourselves with being mentally there at intangible, less obvious, completely unorganized moments – the listening. When we observe that the unfriendly person might simply be shy or that the angry person is full of hurt, we lay the ground in our minds and hearts for approaching them and understanding who they are and what they need from us. Is it not a gift to grant someone the opportunity to be heard and to be seen without judgment or hasty conclusions or superficial advice?
Listening is not a donation, though, and can create in the listener an undefinable sense of risk or discomfort. It can be more challenging to answer someone’s cry for the warmth of friendship than it is to heed the call for a warm coat. Just as the recipient of the coat will now wear it continually throughout the winter, the person who needs to talk to someone will need to do so continually. Listening is not a shift that ends and neither should it be an act of charity. When we train ourselves and our children to develop extra perception and a keen eye and ear for the individual who is lonely or overwhelmed, misunderstood or in crisis, we become transcendent in our giving.
So, we ask, “If I sit beside someone who is alone or reach out to someone whose actions I question, when will I be done?” The answer is, well, you might not be. Just listen deeply and hear what the other is saying. And it is you who will be the real recipient.