Posted on November 21, 2010 by Tamara Frankel
Today, I am inspired to write by two of my dear friends and beloved chevrutot (learning partners): Merissa Nathan Gerson and Dana Adler. Thank you Merissa and Dana!
Last week’s parsha, Vayishlach, is filled with a lot of difficult questions and interactions. To name a few: Yaakov wrestles with an angel and is consequently given a new name “Israel”; Yaakov meets his brother Esav after many years of hiding from Esav’s wrath for stealing the birthright; Yaakov’s only daughter, Dina, is raped by a Hittite (one of the Canaanite nations) man named Shechem; Shimon and Levi massacre Shechem and his city avenging Dina’s assault; Yaakov’s beloved wife Rachel dies in childbirth on the way back to Bethlehem. One of the threads that runs through the parsha is Yaakov’s uncertainty about his future; he cannot be sure that his family is safe, that he will settle (peacefully) in Canaan without external threats or internal familial feuds and that God will always be with him. Yaakov feels vulnerable and alone for much of his life, although he is almost always surrounded by other people, by divine “messengers” and sometimes by God Himself!
What are we to make of Yaakov’s anxiety? How can we relate to and learn from the obstacles he encounters?
In my evening Chasidut (Hasidism) class, our teacher Levi Cooper taught us about the concept of Shmirat HaOznayim (loosely translated as Guarding One’s Ears). Levi explained that in some Chasidic groups, particularly those who follow Rabbi Uri of Strelisk (1757-1825), there is an idea and practice of protecting one’s ears — not exposing one’s ears to speech or sound that could potentially cause spiritual damage. This practice of Guarding One’s Ears is especially difficult because unlike our eyes or mouths which we can shut, we cannot exactly block out what we hear.
In learning about this Chasidic teaching of Rabbi Uri of Strelisk (or Rav Uri, as we like to call him), my mind wandered to the difficult emotions and experiences that Yaakov carries with him, particularly hearing the news of his daughter, Dina’s rape, heeding his mother’s command to leave town since Esav discovered Yaakov’s usurping the birthright, listening to and wrestling with the divine messengers in the night and many more!
Continuing this Chasidic teaching, Levi explained to our class that Rav Uri recognized that we cannot always protect ourselves from hearing difficult words and harsh experiences. And so, when a person hears something “heavy, something that could be potentially damaging to one’s soul (I don’t really want to expand on that but try to think of that damage in its broadest sense), s/he should turn to God and pray. That person should pray that whatever s/he heard should be cleansed so that those sounds or words do not remain seared on his/her soul.
Sometimes we experience things in life which are incredibly painful, frightening and/or counter to the way we want to see the world. And we are all entitled and encouraged to share those stories with others whom we trust and who will love us regardless. And what about the listeners, those who bear witness to the painful experiences of others? We too are disturbed and upset by those stories.
And so, in an effort to maintain safe and appropriate lines of communication open between those of us who experience pain and those with whom we choose to share that pain, I think we can learn tremendously from Rav Uri, encouraging those of us who are wounded or upset by what we’ve heard to ask God to heal us and cleanse us so that we are not harmed spiritually by what we have heard. This does NOT mean that we ask God to erase what we have heard; we want to remain emotionally and intellectually sensitive to that pain and hardship. But I think Rav Uri intentionally chose the language of “damage on the soul” to teach us that we do NOT want those stories to scar us spiritually and cripple our ability to do good in the world and to find God in others and in the world.
Returning to the parsha, as we listened to the Torah reading on Shabbat and its recounting of the suffering and distress Yaakov experiences in his lifetime, and as we listen to the experiences and trauma of others….
May we listen well while we protect our ears!