Tuesday, August 07, 2018

929- Genesis 18- The Auditory God

We live in a visual culture. The aphorism "a picture speaks a thousand words" is well known. Especially today, with our emphasis on sharing information about our lives through formats like Instagram, Snapchat, Facebook (if you're my age) and even blogs, so much of what we do has to do with visual social media. If you ask people what they have found arresting of late, it's typically pictures, texts or videos.

So I found it interesting when reading this chapter that God specifically speaks about the cry that reached Him from the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. He is responding to an auditory cue, not a visual one. 

וַיֹּ֣אמֶר יְהוָ֔ה זַעֲקַ֛ת סְדֹ֥ם וַעֲמֹרָ֖ה כִּי־רָ֑בָּה וְחַ֨טָּאתָ֔ם כִּ֥י כָבְדָ֖ה מְאֹֽד׃
Then the LORD said, “The outrage of Sodom and Gomorrah is so great, and their sin so grave!

אֵֽרֲדָה־נָּ֣א וְאֶרְאֶ֔ה הַכְּצַעֲקָתָ֛הּ הַבָּ֥אָה אֵלַ֖י עָשׂ֣וּ ׀ כָּלָ֑ה וְאִם־לֹ֖א אֵדָֽעָה׃
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.”

This put me in mind of an earlier scene (found in Genesis 4).

יֹּ֖אמֶר מֶ֣ה עָשִׂ֑יתָ ק֚וֹל דְּמֵ֣י אָחִ֔יךָ צֹעֲקִ֥ים אֵלַ֖י מִן־הָֽאֲדָמָֽה׃
Then He said, “What have you done? Hark, your brother’s blood cries out to Me from the ground!
We find similar wording when God determines the time has finally come to lead the Israelites out of Egypt (Exodus 2). 

וַיְהִי֩ בַיָּמִ֨ים הָֽרַבִּ֜ים הָהֵ֗ם וַיָּ֙מָת֙ מֶ֣לֶךְ מִצְרַ֔יִם וַיֵּאָנְח֧וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל מִן־הָעֲבֹדָ֖ה וַיִּזְעָ֑קוּ וַתַּ֧עַל שַׁוְעָתָ֛ם אֶל־הָאֱלֹהִ֖ים מִן־הָעֲבֹדָֽה׃
A long time after that, the king of Egypt died. The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out; and their cry for help from the bondage rose up to God.

וַיִּשְׁמַ֥ע אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶת־נַאֲקָתָ֑ם וַיִּזְכֹּ֤ר אֱלֹהִים֙ אֶת־בְּרִית֔וֹ אֶת־אַבְרָהָ֖ם אֶת־יִצְחָ֥ק וְאֶֽת־יַעֲקֹֽב׃
God heard their moaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob.
וַיַּ֥רְא אֱלֹהִ֖ים אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל וַיֵּ֖דַע אֱלֹהִֽים׃ (ס)
God looked upon the Israelites, and God took notice of them.
What I found fascinating is that there seems to be a theme. First there is cruelty. Then God hears the voice of the victim. After hearing the voice of the victim, that is the point at which He actually goes to investigate - and that is the first visual mention. God does not need to see the degradation the people are under- the first step for Him is to hear their cry.

(Please note there are exceptions to this rule. For example, when it comes to the Flood, God saw that the wickedness of man was great on earth. Similarly, by the Tower of Babel, it is left ambiguous in that there are certain things members of the coalition say, but the first verse we have referencing God says that God came down to see what was happening. This suggests that perhaps punishment is different and more severe- or at least encapsulates more people- when God simply sees as opposed to hearing, but to investigate that concept I would need to use a concordance and look at the language used in each place in order to see whether that is indeed so. It's also possible the difference lies with whether the people are rebelling against God (breaking bein adam l'Makom) or harming one another (bein adam l'chavero).) 

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his book Lessons in Leadership: A Weekly Reading of the Jewish Bible talks about the visual vs auditory nature of Judaism as a whole. He writes: 

Ancient Greece was a visual culture, a culture of art, architecture, theatre, and spectacle. For the Greeks generally, and Plato specifically, knowing was a form of seeing. Judaism, as Freud pointed out in Moses and Monotheism, is a non-visual culture. We worship a God who cannot be seen; making sacred images, icons, is absolutely forbidden. In Judaism we do not see God; we hear God. Knowing is a form of listening. Ironically, Freud himself, deeply ambivalent though he was about Judaism, invented the listening cure in psychoanalysis: listening as therapy. 
It follows that in Judaism listening is a deeply spiritual act. To listen to God is to be open to God. That is what Moses is saying throughout Deuteronomy: "If only you would listen." So it is with leadership- indeed with all forms of interpersonal relationship. Often the greatest gift we can give someone is to listen to them. 
Viktor Frankl, who survived Auschwitz and went on to create a new form of psychotherapy based on "man's search for meaning," once told the story of a patient of his who phoned him in the middle of the night to tell him, calmly, that she was about to commit suicide. He kept her on the phone for two hours, giving her every conceivable reason to live. Eventually she said that she had changed her mind and would not end her life. When he next saw the woman he asked her which of his many reasons had persuaded her to change her mind. "None," she replied. "Why then did you decide not to commit suicide?" he asked. She replied that the fact that someone was prepared to listen to her for two hours in the middle of the night convinced her that life was worth living after all.
As Chief Rabbi, I was involved in resolving a number of highly intractable aguna cases, situations in which a husband was unwilling to give his wife a get so that she could remarry. We resolved all these cases not by using legal devices but by the simple act of listening: deep listening, in which we were able to convince both sides that we had heard their pain and their sense of injustice. This took many hours of total concentration and a principled absence of judgement and direction. Eventually our listening absorbed the acrimony and the couple was able to resolve its differences together. Listening is intensely therapeutic. 
The deep truth behind person-centred therapy is that listening is the key virtue of the religious life. That is what Moses was saying throughout Deuteronomy. If we want God to listen to us, we have to be prepared to listen to Him. And if we learn to listen to Him, then we eventually learn to listen to our fellow humans: the silent cry of the lonely, the weak, the vulnerable, the people in existential pain. 
When God appeared to King Solomon in a dream and asked him what he would like to be given, Solomon replied: lev shome'a, literally "a listening heart" to judge the people (I Kings 3:9). The choice of words is significant. Solomon's wisdom lay, at least in part, in his ability to listen, to hear the emotion behind the words, to sense what was being left unsaid as well as what was said. It is common to find leaders who speak; it is very rare to find leaders who listen. But listening often makes the difference.  
-pages 252-254
What I find fascinating is that here Rabbi Sacks talks about how important listening is for us as people and as a nation. But there seems to be another aspect to listening, and that is that it is actually a form of imitatio Dei, emulating God. God listens. He hears the voice of the victim. After He hears it, He investigates it. He is the Auditory God, the God who hears as opposed to merely seeing. 

And there is something really impactful about that image. The God who listens is a God who is connected. The God who sees could seem more impassive, dispassionate, looking down from on high (although interestingly, we notice in our texts that whenever God goes to investigate and see, He actually descends, going down in order to see). What becomes clear in our narrative is that no victim is forgotten- their blood cries out- they cry out- and then God investigates, looking to determine what must be done. The voices remain even when the person is gone. 

There is a scene in the film 'Bruce Almighty' (see below) that shows God receiving email prayer requests, and it could not be more different from the way God is depicted in our texts. God does not simply receive all these emails (visual) but rather He actually hears the cries, the pain, the difficulty, the whispered words (auditory). It provides us with an understanding of a far more connected, loving God. He is the All-Hearing God, if you will, such that every creature may come to His attention, as opposed to the All-Seeing Odin of Norse Myth. 

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