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book in Hebrew

Counting the Omer with

Day 2 — Attentive Listening

Shmiat HaOzen • שמיעת האוזן

By Alan Morinis, Vancouver, BC, Canada

Michael Peck
Michael Peck

The word shmiat comes from the root shma, to listen. Ozen is the Hebrew word for ear. Therefore this quality is, literally, “a listening ear.” Hearing is a physiological and involuntary act; listening is something different. Listening means inclining the mind so as to register in consciousness what the sound waves are conveying through the ear. It means digging in to unpack the meaning within the sounds. Attentive listening is stressed by the Mussar Masters as something that both brings about our growth and also reflects the level of our spiritual wholeness.

There are two challenges in this attribute. The first is to listen with concentration and without distraction to what someone is saying. Paying attention like that can be very difficult for our distracted and distractible generation.

And difficult as that is, it is not enough. We must also listen for the question that lies behind the question. Why is the person saying that? What’s their motive, their hope, their goal? It’s not just words, and not just a surface meaning. There is often much more below the surface that is there to be heard as well.

I once gave a talk and right afterward a woman came up to me and asked me what I thought of reincarnation as a Jewish concept. I heard the question and launched into sharing my ideas about souls returning to this world for additional births. After I had finished my mini-lecture, she thanked me and walked away. At that point, someone whispered to me that the woman’s son had died in the last few weeks. I had answered from my head a question that had come directly from a pained heart. I did not hear the question behind the question, and so my answer, erudite as it might have been, was no answer at all.

The key is to pay attention and to listen with great sensitivity to the words, the tone, the look in the eye, and the intuitions you yourself feel. That’s shmiat ha’ozen, the foundation of real communication.

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