Torah from Around the World #245

Parshat Vayera (Genesis 18:1-22:24)

By: Rabbi Morley Feinstein, Senior Rabbi of University Synagogue in Los Angeles, and Ari Feinstein, 3rd year Masters in Jewish Education student, HUC, Los Angeles. 
Abraham the Empathic Listener

The beginning of Parashat Vayeira is often recalled as the narrative of Abraham bargaining with God, but let’s analyze that perception. After all, the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah are burned down by God, so did Abraham make a successful deal? Instead of thinking about Genesis 18 as the time when Abraham negotiated with God, let us consider an alternative perspective – that Abraham was trying to completely understand God’s point of view before attempting to discuss what God says. In Genesis 18:20-21, God opens a conversation with Abraham by asserting:
זַעֲקַת סְדֹם וַעֲמֹרָה כִּי-רָבָּה; וְחַטָּאתָם--כִּי כָבְדָה, מְאֹד. אֵרְדָה-נָּא וְאֶרְאֶה, הַכְּצַעֲקָתָהּ הַבָּאָה אֵלַי עָשׂוּ כָּלָה; וְאִם-לֹא, אֵדָעָה

 “The outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave! I will go down to see whether they have acted altogether according to the outcry that has reached Me; if not, I will take note.” 

If Abraham was actually trying to bargain, perhaps he might have rushed to dissuade God of that plan, and advise a different action. “Let me go down and check, God, I will tell You if they are behaving like this!” Abraham does not answer in this way, because this type of response does not get to the heart of the situation. After all, God is planning to destroy two entire cities! As Stephen Covey explains in his bestseller The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, “We have such a tendency to rush in, to fix things up with good advice. But we often fail to take the time to diagnose, to really, deeply understand the problem first." This practice of taking the time to listen before responding, to diagnose a problem and understanding the situation deeply before taking action,  is what Covey calls ‘Seeking First to Understand.’ Abraham models this behavior in how he responds to what God has just told him.
וַיִּגַּשׁ אַבְרָהָם, וַיֹּאמַר:  הַאַף תִּסְפֶּה, צַדִּיק עִם-רָשָׁע
Genesis 18:23 “Abraham came forward and said, “Will You sweep away the innocent along with the guilty?”

Abraham’s reaction is to place the problem back in God's court, by asking God a question. The problem is not whether God will actually go down to Sodom and Gomorrah and find out the extent of the sins of the inhabitants. Rather, God’s readiness to destroy innocent life on account of sinners lies at the heart of the matter. Though God never mentions the plan of destroying Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham is able to sense and intuit God’s intention, skills that enable one to be an empathic listener.  The skill of empathic listening is crucial if we seek first to understand, before jumping in and acting.  “In empathic listening, you listen with your ears, but you also, and more importantly, listen with your eyes and with your heart. You listen for feeling, for meaning. You listen for behavior...You sense, you intuit, you feel” (Covey, p. 252). 
Instead of giving immediate advice to God, or attempting to bargain for a different procedure or outcome, Abraham asks a penetrating question to God that demonstrates how deeply and truly he has listened, not just with his ears but also with his heart. Abraham gains moral authority by speaking truth to power, thus enabling him to call into question God’s apparent intentions. 
In Genesis 18:25, Abraham continues:
 חָלִלָה לְּךָ מֵעֲשֹׂת כַּדָּבָר הַזֶּה, לְהָמִית צַדִּיק עִם-רָשָׁע, וְהָיָה כַצַּדִּיק, כָּרָשָׁע
 חָלִלָה לָּךְ--הֲשֹׁפֵט כָּל-הָאָרֶץ, לֹא יַעֲשֶׂה מִשְׁפָּט

“Far be it from You to do such a thing, to bring death upon the innocent as well as the guilty, so that innocent and guilty fare alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?”

Abraham would be unable to challenge God in this way if he had started with this accusatory questioning. Instead, because Abraham demonstrated empathic listening and sought first to understand God, not to challenge God, he is able to come forward and speak his truth to God and His awesome power.  Abraham has made it clear to God that he understands, and now the two are able to begin discussing the underlying issue. Empathic listening helps us understand the other. Because Abraham sought to listen and understand God’s comment, it enables him to fully know that God will not bring death upon the innocent because of the sins of the guilty, and that God truly judges justly.

Listening is a critical skill. It's why the Sh'ma compels us to really pay attention, to heed, to listen. May we remember that God gave us two ears and one mouth to make sure people knew which was more important. 

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