Global Jewish Reflections | These High Holidays, A Time to Speak and a Time to Listen
In this column, Sarita Robinson reflects on her own experiences, the Book of Proverbs, and how community organizing can be transformational when we intentionally create the space to ask questions and listen.
By Sarita Robinson - Director of Community Partnership (North); Movement for Reform Judaism, United Kingdom | September 21, 2022
Global Jewish Reflections is a recurring feature highlighting the spiritual wisdom of rabbis, Jewish educators, and others from around the JDC world.
I recently accidentally revealed that I knew something that I was not supposed to know. We’ve all said things we wish we hadn’t and, for me at least, my latest indiscretion will play on my mind for some time.
Luckily, there are framings based on our Torah and tradition that can help us deal with these moments. For example, you may be familiar with the quote relating to Torah as being “a tree of life to those who grasp it” (Proverbs 3:18), but there is another great proverb a little further along: “A healing tongue is a tree of life, but a crooked one causes a broken spirit.” (Proverbs 15:4). It may sound like it belongs in a fortune cookie, but for me it resonates incredibly. The verse is speaking about intent. When I accidentally outed myself for being “in the know,” there was no malicious goal. Intent is key to the difference between the crooked tongue that causes a broken spirit and the one that flows just a little too fast, too often, and without thinking things through beforehand.
Often when I do reflect before speaking, I realize it is better not to speak. One of the things I find the hardest about my job — serving as Director for Community Partnership (North) at the Movement for Reform Judaism in the United Kingdom — is knowing when to keep quiet. As someone who loves to talk and always has an opinion, it is a daily struggle to spend more time listening and less time talking. There is a great saying in Pirkei Avot 1:17 (Ethics of the Fathers): “Shimon, his son, used to say: All my days I grew up among the sages, and I have found nothing better for a person than silence.” That’s something that could have saved me a few hours ago!
Correct intent and the power of silence lead me to think about the power of listening. Some people (not me) find it easy to listen rather than speak, and when we all speak, then no one is being heard. For the past few years, the Movement for Reform Judaism has encouraged our synagogues to get involved with community organizing, whereby communities can make change through listening. The first stage is a campaign where we train a team of people to go out into the community and have a conversation that involves around 75 percent listening and 25 percent speaking.
This switch can be completely transformational — people are not used to being invited to a meeting where the ask is that they talk about themselves, their lives, their hopes … and they are truly listened to. What listening does is give space for problems to be heard and addressed, hopefully pre-empting any need for a crooked tongue.
This reminded me of one of my favorite Maya Angelou quotes: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Through listening, we enable others to feel heard and valued and build communities where power is a two-way street — “relational power” rather than “power over.”
What listening does is give space for problems to be heard and addressed, hopefully pre-empting any need for a crooked tongue.
Our words have a huge impact on other people, and according to Google, we speak somewhere between 7,000 and 25,000 words per day. (I bet I use more, but I don’t plan to count.)
What I do plan to do, and I would love you to join me in, is to be more intentional with my words, to listen more and to speak less, and to help others feel better through my speaking or listening. This is my resolution for Jewish year 5783!
Sarita Robinson is the Director of Community Partnership (North) at the Movement for Reform Judaism in the United Kingdom. She is also an alumna of Yesod, a partnership between the Rothschild Foundation Hanadiv Europe and JDC that works with community professionals and educators enhancing and strengthening Jewish life in Europe.