The Double Blessing of Listening: Parashat Chayyei Sarah

I was recently at a meeting in which two people were not communicating well. It's an experience many of us have shared. One person would say their piece, the other would say theirs, and then the first would repeat their same point again. Each person spoke, but neither felt that the other had heard their needs or requests, and neither was proving they had understood the other.

Parashat Chayyei Sarah opens with an elegant account of Avraham Avinu negotiating with Ephron the Hittite about a burial plot for Sarah in Hevron. When we read the text closely, we notice a surprising pattern. In each of the lines of dialogue, the characters repeat the plea, sh’ma’eini – “Listen to me!” Back and forth they go, the plea to listen a constant repetition. While this passage is often interpreted as an example of formal ancient business dealings, I hear a subtle desperation in the polite words. Two men from two families are coming together here, each trying their best to be heard, to be respected, to be understood. And they do so in a public place, with the eyes of the local community watching them struggle.

When I was in college I learned about the work of Marshall Rosenberg, who developed the method of Nonviolent Communication, or NVC. According to NVC, violence can be verbal as well as physical. The Center for Nonviolent Communication explains on their website, “NVC begins by assuming that we are all compassionate by nature and that violent strategies—whether verbal or physical—are learned behaviors taught and supported by the prevailing culture. NVC also assumes that we all share the same, basic human needs, and that each of our actions are a strategy to meet one or more of these needs.”

One of the core goals of NVC, one way to communicate “nonviolently,” is to listen with the goal of understanding your conversation partner. One core strategy for doing so is to repeat back what you have heard them say, in your own words.  It is a curious human trait that when we hear our own passion reflected back in the original words of another, we tend to relax, to come off our guard a bit. If that person has been an adversary in some regard, hearing them express our needs and ideas may even help us move them from the category of adversary to collaborator. But of course we can only control our own end of a conversation, so it is up to us to take the initiative. Saying “Let me be sure I understand you. I’m hearing… Did I get that right?” can be a game changer in a conversation and even shift the dynamics of an entire relationship.

In a powerful textual move, the Torah tells us in Genesis 23:13, Vayishma Avraham and Abraham listened. I want to add in a midrashic “finally” to the sentence, for the verse resounds with relief. Finally Abraham listened! And in that moment of truly listening to Ephron, the deal goes through. The plea “Listen to me!” is heard no more from either party. All it took was one person softening, even in the midst of his own grief; one person opening to the interests and needs of the other, and listening with the goal of understanding. 

Perhaps the reciprocal nature of this kind of listening is even hinted at in the name of Sarah’s burial site, Ma’arat HaMachpelah, playfully translated as the Cave of Doubling, from the root caf, peh, lamed meaning double. Here is where pairs of people can find understanding. Here is where one person’s act of listening can double and bless both parties. Here is where two estranged brothers, Isaac and Ishmael, each in their own way traumatized by their father, can come together to bury him.  Out of grief can come healing. Out of sorrow and loss can come a double blessing. But it takes a courageous act of conscious nonviolence to get there.

We are at a time in Jewish and world history when the temptation to use violence, both physical and verbal, is high, and ­the consequences of such violence are great. May we bring the blessing of vayishma Avraham – and Abraham listened – into a world that so badly needs it.