By Rabbi Moshe Meir Weiss
In the Hagadah, we read, “Vayishma Hashem es koleinu – Hashem listened to our voices (in Egypt).” Rabbi Frand, in his exciting new Hagadah (ArtScroll, 2018), comments that this teaches us that there is a lofty objective to emulate Hashem by listening to the voices of those who are suffering and those who are in need. He then cites a Gemora in Shabbos [55a] which relates that a woman once came before Shmuel and started to cry. (It was probably not the first time she came and furthermore she was likely restating an intractable problem that Shmuel could not assist her with.) Shmuel did not give her his attention. Rebbi Yehuda, his disciple, asked Shmuel if he was not concerned with the warning in Mishlei which says that one who shuts his ears from the cry of the needy, he too will be ignored when he needs something. Shmuel answered, “I will not be held accountable. Rather my Rebbi, Mar Ukva will be held responsible.” (Obviously Mar Ukva had the wherewithal to help her.) Tosefos cites a Gaonic tradition that in the next world there will be a reversal of roles and Shmuel will become the disciple, and Rebbi Yehuda the teacher, because of this lesson that he taught Shmuel – that even where you cannot help, one must still listen and give a caring ear to a person in need.
In previous articles, I already mentioned that my Rebbetzin considered her mother, Mrs. Devorah Gelbtuch, zt”l, zy”a, to be her primary role model. I remember over 30 years ago, when Rav Singer of the Bialystok Shul eulogized her, he lamented that with her passing the world lost one of the last great listeners. Nowadays, people don’t have time to give a sympathetic ear to distressed individuals. My mother in-law did just that and, as the adage goes, “Like mother, like daughter,” Miriam Libby was the same way. She was a great listener.
We are taught “Dagah b’leiv ish yasichena l’acheirim – If you have trouble in your heart, share it with others.” Sadly in today’s busy world there aren’t many available listening ears. One of the benefits of therapy is the advantage of a sympathetic, attentive ear. Unfortunately, that could cost a person upwards of $300 for 45 minutes. My beloved wife did it for free at all hours of the day and night.
To be a good listening ear, you have to have certain good qualifications. Firstly, my Rebbetzin was never judgmental. It was for this very reason that people felt that they could tell her anything and bare their pained souls to her. She truly lived the Mishnaic dictum in Pirkei Avos, “Al tadin es chavercha ad she’tagia l’mkomo – Don’t judge your friend until you’re in their shoes.” Secondly, she never divulged a secret. Even to me, she would never reveal a confidence. So people felt safe to unburden their troubled souls to her. The Torah teaches us this important trait when it says, “Vayidaber Hashem el Moshe leimor – And Hashem spoke to Moshe saying.” The word leimor/saying seems to be superfluous. The Gemora explains that it comes to teach us that only what we are given permission to say to others, may we reveal what was said. Otherwise, we cannot share it with others.
Yet a third important ingredient for a good listener is that one should rejoice with another person’s successes even if it’s something that they themselves do not have. People would make my wife their very first call when they had a baby or an engagement, a promotion or a good medical report for she was so effusive in exhibiting her boundless happiness over the caller’s good news. This is a true fulfillment of “V’ahavta l’rei’acha kamocha – Loving another man (or women) like yourself.” Just like you’re happy when you get good news, you should be happy with your fellow’s good news in the same way. I meet people who tell me that even now, they reach for the phone to call my wife for a listening ear or to share some good news.
I want to emphasize, as we learned from Tosefos on the Gemora in Shabbos, that many times my Rebbetzin did not have a solution for a problem. If a mother was overwhelmed with five little children, she would listen to the frazzled mother with great patience, and then simply tell her “You’re doing a great job. When I was your age I didn’t come close to your skills.” When someone was suffering with a difficult marriage, she would listen patiently and tell them “Call me anytime. I’m always willing to give you a listening ear.” It was that she was an incredible baal eitza, although she did have a vast arsenal of common sense. Rather it was her sympathy and concern that was itself a balm for a wounded spirit.
When she visited the elderly, who have a habit of repeating the same story over and over again, she would have no problem listening with rapt attention to the same repertoire repeated for the tenth time. She clucked sympathetically and said that she would say Tehillim and have the person in mind during hadlakos neiros, when they told her about ailments and pains. And you could see on her face that she really, really cared.
As Rabbi Frand pointed out, listening to a troubled soul is a fulfillment of V’halachta b’drachav, walking in the ways of Hashem, and in the merit of trying to become caring listeners , may Hashem bless us with long life, good health, and everything wonderful.
Please learn, give tzedaka, and daven l’iluy nishmas of Miriam Liba bas Aharon.
Sheldon Zeitlin takes dictation of, and edits, Rabbi Weiss’s articles.
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