May 23, 2024
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Sinas Chinam vs. Ahavas Chinam

Part II

Story I: Sinas Chinam

A true story is told of a young survivor of Vietnam who called his father, letting him know that he was safe in California, awaiting the flight that would take him on the last leg of his journey home. He also related that he had a huge favor to ask of his parents. It seemed that his best friend, a fellow soldier in combat, was severely injured, losing an arm and a leg, after stepping on a mine. Unfortunately, he had no family to whom he could return. The young man requested that his parents take in his friend as well. Unfortunately, his father was quick to answer that it would be a big mistake. He explained that if they took him in, on the outside it would seem to be an act of kindness, but in reality it would be hypocritical. This is because he knew they would begin to resent his presence, and that his neediness, would intrude on their lifestyle and make them miserable. The young man tried to advocate for his friend, letting his parents know what a wonderful, smart and charming young man he was and that they would certainly grow to love him. His father could not be persuaded, finally resorting to the argument that it was the responsibility of the government to take care of handicapped soldiers. The young man’s father attempted to temper the harshness of his decision, by telling his son he could visit his friend as often as he wanted. The son thanked his father and ended the conversation with a broken heart. A few days later, the parents received a message from the local police informing them that a soldier who had returned from the army took his life that morning, by jumping off a roof. When the father asked the police officer why he was receiving this phone call, he replied, “We think that young man is your son and we are asking you to come and identify the body.” When the parents came and saw that the young man was indeed their son, the depth of their grief escalated even further when they realized their son had lost an arm and both legs and that he was the soldier he begged his parents to take in.

The above story is an extreme example of the power of the words we use and the importance of really listening to the messages we hear, even in relatively minor situations. We can all relate to second guessing the manner in which we relayed a phone or text message and wished we could take it back. This story also deepens our understanding of the message in last month’s article regarding the caution we must take against using our words to destroy, rather than create. In Parshat Ki Teitze we learned that the exceedingly harsh punishment Miriam received for speaking lashon hara, was because it was judgmental in nature. This is because there is only one judge and we are meant to accept God’s children as they are.

Our Rabbis and commentators tells us that that the word shema, literally translated as listen, is one of the key words in our Jewish ideology and is repeated 92 times in sefer Devarim. Rabbi Jonathan Sachs believes that it is one of the words that are not translatable in English or any other language. This is because it is the “beating pulse,” the defining characteristic of our culture. Viewed through this lens, really listening is the opposite of blind obedience. According to Rabbi Sachs, and others, in listening in the manner the Torah expects of us, one has to be prepared to move out of one’s comfort zone and enter the mindset of another. Current theories in psychology and education calls this active or selective listening. The Torah adds this making a case for the truth that is the very act of considering the perspective of the other, without judgments, is the missing link, the source of conflict, and the disconnect in so many relationships. And it is also a critical element in flipping the coin of sinas chinam, to ahavas chinam. Rabbi Sachs explains:

Hashem wants us to listen, not just with our ears, but with the deepest resources of our {hearts, souls} and minds. If God had simply sought obedience, He would have created robots, not human beings with a will of their own. Indeed if He had simply sought obedience, He would have been content with the company of angels, who constantly sing God’s praises and always do His will.

Indeed, the consideration and respect for the other begins in the holy marital relationship we have with Hashem, which is intended to serve as a metaphor for our relationships with our spouses, children and mankind at large. It is no surprise that these Torah thoughts are consistent with all of the state of art theories and practices in relationship therapy. The reason Hashem, who needs nothing from us, asks for so much is because he wants us to understand that it’s not about the neediness of the other, but about coming out of ourselves, loving the other and craving to do for the other because we love them so much. This is the only antidote for egotism and narcissism. Rabbi Sachs also shares the sentiment we spoke to in previous articles that: “The bridge between self and other is conversation: speaking and listening.” Indeed, in a modern world that is run by the credo of TMI—too much information—I believe we have lost the art of developing deep relationships. We have no patience to let the other in, to let them know who we really are or to learn what they are all about.

Interestingly, Rabbi Sachs acknowledges the contributions of Sigmund Freud, in the area of considering the other. In fact, as I learned in my studies as a psychoanalyst, Freud was the first to speak to the idea that there is another buried deep inside us. He also understood that the tendency to judge or the failure to accept the other inside of us, is at the very core of the psychological condition he coined as neurosis. While he called psychoanalysis the “speaking cure,” Rabbi Sachs is spot on when he says it is “better described as the ‘listening cure.’ This is because ‘active listening’ is in itself therapeutic.” Moreover, it is active listening, which speaks to the idea of empathy, really listening and hearing one’s pain; It is listening, not from a posture of superiority or pity, but from someone who knows that: B’chasdei Hashem, but for the grace of God, this could easily be me. Once achieved, this posture is a sure barrier to avoiding the traits Hashem abhors, judgmentalism, arrogance and anger. Indeed, taking the time to listen with respect, and acceptance, is also the key to using our words to create rather than destroy.

This is because while there are a host of issues that lead to conflict, the one that poses the greatest barrier to conflict resolution is the belief of each participant that he or she is right, and has not been heard. In this hurried world, we fail to hear the pain of the suffering and compound it by issuing judgments, to justify our own apathy. Victor Frankel, in his seminal work, “Man in Search of Meaning,” admitted that the greatest emotional pain for the victims of the Holocaust came once they realized that the world knew what was happening, but did nothing about it. And even worse than that, I believe there were those who defended this apathy by playing the game of blame and shame, accusing the victims of doing nothing to help themselves and walking into the gas chambers like helpless sheep. On a much lighter level, this is the posture we take when we respond with disrespect or insulting words like “Get a job,” to those who are already crushed by being in the position of begging.

Story II: Ahavas Chinam

Rabbi Sachs tells the story of a conversation he had with a friend when he told him that he was planning to visit Amos Oz, the very famous secular novelist. His friend was quite shocked and sarcastically asked: “Are you hoping to convert him?” Rabbi Sachs relates that in his two hour encounter with Oz “a genuine friendship flourished, between the secular Jew and the very frum Rabbi.” While Rabbi Sachs made it a point to say that spiritually they were still worlds apart, they really listened to one another. This was very important to Rabbi Sachs, who “felt the presence of a deep mind….. who has wrestled in his own way with what it means to be a Jew.” With this simple act of sustained listening, I believe that Rabbi Sachs felt and empathized with Oz’s angst. Moreover, because of the Rabbi’s acceptance and willingness to listen, a relationship was forged and opened up the possibility of the Rabbi’s having an influence on his new friend; something we all can learn from in our own relationships.

As we prepare for the Yomim Noraim, a time when we beseech Hashem to listen to our prayers, let us do everything possible to avoid conflict in our homes, shuls, and community listening deeply to the messages coming from hearts and souls of those in pain, without judging them. In doing so, as we learned last month, we too can achieve the goal of not only “making someone’s day,” but “making someone’s life.”

By Renee Nussbaum


Renee Nussbaum, is a practicing psychoanalyst, with training in Imago and EFT. She also facilitates a Chevrusah in Cyberspace on the weekly parsha, edited by Debbie Friedman. She can be reached at [email protected].

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