Listening to the Heart

Beth El Montgomery County Sisterhood/Zhava Shabbat

Resnik Memorial Lecturer, Shabbat Sh’mot

Martin Luther King Weekend, January 16, 2021


Shabbat Shalom. I deeply appreciate the honor that has been bestowed on me by Sisterhood/Zahavah as your Resnik Memorial Lecturer. I send a special Shabbat Shalom to my friends, colleagues, and acquaintances who are on Zoom. It’s been too long since I’ve seen each of you.


We are a month shy of the last time I gave a public, in person talk. A woman who, in her own words was considerably older than me, pulled me aside and asked: Are you going to upset me?


I laughed.


She said: I don't know why you're laughing, I'm serious.


I said: I'm laughing because I know you're serious and I also know that that's something God put on your heart. So, you probably should be prepared to be upset.


She looked me in the eye. After a few moments she sighed, and said: I don't know who you are, but I guess I need to be like Bette Davis and be prepared for a bumpy ride.


As she walked away, I was debating as to whether or not to correct her when she said: And don't bother correcting me I know what I'm saying. We both laughed.


Chances are you’ve already noticed a voice making commentary as I speak. Over the last 10 months, many of us who were not previously acquainted, have become acquainted with a new aspect of ourselves: that voice in our head. If it hasn’t done so already, it’s quite possible that you will hear that voice talking back at me or speaking badly about me, puzzling about what I’m saying, or something tame. It’s all okay if that happens. My invitation to you is to allow that part of your mind to say whatever it is it wants to say while you continue to listen to my voice.


Love. Light. Redemption. Torah. That is the order of our morning service. There is a prayer at the end of the Amidah that is one of the few personal prayers in our liturgy.


אֱלֹהַי, נְצוֹר לְשׁוֹנִי מֵרָע, וּשְׂפָתַי מִדַּבֵּר מִרְמָה, וְלִמְקַלְלַי נַפְשִׁי תִדֹּם, וְנַפְשִׁי כֶּעָפָר לַכֹּל תִּהְיֶה. פְּתַח לִבִּי בְּתוֹרָתֶֽךָ


My God, guard my speech from evil and my lips from deception. Help me ignore those who would slander me. Let me be humble before all. Open my heart to your Torah.


Most of us don't read it or read it so quickly we really don't take it in. Yet, I see it is our guide for how we are to be with each other and in the world with others. Here’s my paraphrase:

· I bring my best self to all efforts, especially my generosity, lovingkindness, compassion, and sense of justice, regardless of the behavior of others.

· I will be as honest with others as I am with myself.

· I will note my assumptions, assessments, and opinions, yet not hold them as true.

· I will listen to the feelings that arise in me as I listen to another, and allow compassion, above all, to guide my response.

· I will remember I have nothing to prove and will allow the process to stretch me and those traveling with me.


I use this paraphrase as guidance for many of my discussions, mediations, and my own brand of trainings. When I'm working with non-Jewish groups I don't reference the Amidah. I just give them the plain text. I'm sure several of you have noticed that these are personal statements as opposed to group statements, and that’s intentional. Over the years I've realized that group groundings only work if everybody in the group adheres to them. If one person breaks with the guidance then everybody feels like they have permission to break with the guidance. These personal statements make it clear that each of us is responsible for our behavior, including our response to another’s behavior we judge as bad. If I break that guidance, with the wisdom in the room to aid me, I have the opportunity to see my offense, differently and what is needed for repair.

My God, guard my speech from evil and my lips from deception.

So here's the deal: there's really no way for me to tell you about Training The Heart To Listen in the 6 minutes that remain of my time. So, I’m inviting you into a couple of very truncated exercises to give you a taste of it.


Exercise One: What is your vision of the perfect world that is blissfully awaiting the day the Mashiakh arrives? Allow whatever feelings or visions to arise. I’m going to snap my fingers you have seven seconds to bring that vision, those feelings to mind. (snap) (snap)


Exercise Two: Who do you need to be in order to bring about a world blissfully awaiting the Mashiakh? Again seven seconds. (snap) (snap)


I have no doubt that was frustrating, and since we are not in the room together, it’s a little hard to debrief. So, I’m going to share my responses.


I dream a world in which every human being is able to live happy, healthy, and productive lives doing exactly what they feel called to do. There is no poverty, no hunger, no designed class of have nots. Plenty of water, food, education, income, friendships, family… We are free to worship in the open without fear. The list goes on…


Who do I need to be to bring about such a world? I need to be in relationship to, and unafraid of, my feelings; own that I am a child of the Holy One, Blessed be the One, as I own that I am the child of my earthly parents. I need to be patient, especially when I don’t want to be, and strive to always be kind because I don’t know another’s battles. Most importantly, I never know in the moment, and rarely know later, when my kindness makes an important difference for someone. As Maya Angelou said, people may not remember what you said but they will remember how you made them feel.


The question remains, who are you? Who do you need to be to aid us in creating the time of awaiting the arrival of the Mashiakh? What do you have to give up to be, or grow into being, that person, now? What do you have to learn to be, or grow into being, that person, now? Regardless of age, it’s not too late. Are you ready to grapple with being both a victim of White Supremacy with its displays of anti-Semitism and an accomplice of it as someone who considers themselves not racist, but may not actively Anti-racist?


This past Thursday, Professor Susannah Heschel was one of the panelists for a discussion titled "Civil Rights to Anti-Racist." She shared that it disturbs her how many Jews like the picture of her father, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and Dr. King. She doesn’t want you to like it. She wants you to be challenged by it. Rabbi Heschel said: Racist people forfeit the right to worship God. Dr. Heschel said she wants Jewish communities and synagogues to grapple with what it means to worship our God in a racist country.


Light. Love. Redemption. Torah. The ideologies and beliefs that stormed our Capitol, and abetted the storming of the capitol, are after us who are not White Christian. As for the Jews who were there, I’m still grabbling with that.


“Those of you who have studied Sh’mot may already understand that Pharaoh, the human God leader of Egypt, is a metaphor for oppressive systems, institutions, and ideologies such as White Supremacy and other caste systems. Each has its hierarchy of isms. Each entity within such systems yields situationally to get relief from the immediate pressure it faces. Then, it comes back harder and/or in a new arena because its primary purpose is to maintain the systems, institutions, and ideologies that support its existence.


“Over the next few weeks as we move through Sh’mot, we will…be reminded, that the journey to true freedom is not easy; that we must do internal as well as collective work…it is precisely because freedom takes work that we must persist in the work it requires. Our choices are mostly not either/or. They are mostly both/and or yes/and. I believe the more we embrace paradox, we will see possibilities and imagine solutions which were previously unavailable to us. Or, were available but seemed too fantastical for serious consideration. The limit to the success of our ideas will always be our willingness to be stopped by our own or another’s ‘no.’”[1]

Light. Love. Redemption. Torah.

In Va-eira, The Eternal says: “I will take you to Me as my people, and to you I will be Elohim. You will know that I am The Eternal your God[2].” Torah, and the rest of the Tanakh, is at minimum our spiritual history. In the name of Rabbi Me’or Einayim, I say we are each other’s Torah. The Torah tells us that 600,000 Jewish souls left Egypt (Yes, there are problems with that number and stay with me.) He goes on to say that each of us Jews living today contains a portion of one of those original Jewish souls. And, just like the Torah scroll itself, if one of us is missing the community is not complete.


What if we decided our communal relationships are more important than being “right?” That everybody has a right to feel welcomed and embraced by the community, and that the community is obligated to embrace and welcome everybody?


Can people go too far in terms of what they say or how they behave? Absolutely! That’s why we have redemption.


Love. Light. Redemption. Torah.

Torah. Redemption. Light. Love.


יהיו לרצון אמרי פי והגיון לבי לפניך, אדוני, צורי וגואלי.

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable to you, be acceptable unto you. Adonai, my Rock, my Rock and my Redeemer. Adonai, my Rock and my Redeemer.


Shabbat Shalom!


Endnotes: [1] “Va-eira Summary and Commentary” sabrinasojourner.net [2] My translation.


© Sabrina Sojourner 2021