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Counting the Omer with

Day 47 — Clarifying What One Has Heard

Ha’Mechaven et Shmuato • המכוון את שמועתו

By Rabbi Meredith Cahn, Petaluma, CA

Rabbi Barry Diamond, Mahwah, NJ
Rabbi Barry Diamond, Mahwah, NJ

I was born with a significant hearing impairment, which was undiagnosed until I was 14, in part because I was such a good (and unconscious) lip reader. I misunderstood a lot of what was going on around me; after all, if I missed one word in a sentence, it could change the whole meaning. So, when Avi Fertig presented me this topic, it was beshert (meant to be), no?

Ha’mechaven — המכוון comes from the same root as kavannah — the word that means intention, direction, or the aim of — prayer, of action, of words. What did the speaker mean? What was the intention of the words the listener heard? We might listen intently, as we learned back on Day 2 (“Attentive Listening”), but we might not be able to process the words themselves, to really understand what the speaker meant. And sometimes the words don’t truly convey what the speaker meant. Only a limited percentage of the meaning conveyed through speech is in the actual words, the rest is in body language, tone of voice, pitch, and volume. This explains why email and social media are so often misunderstood.

So how do we clarify the speaker’s intention? For me, hearing aids have really helped. But even when I hear the actual words, the meaning, the kavannah, may still be ambiguous. So I ask questions, gently, tentatively, hoping to build trust.

In my role as a hospital chaplain, listening to and clarifying what I hear is essential. One day, I was standing at the bedside of a 57-year-old man who had a stroke. As we discussed the stresses that had preceded this event, he suddenly asked me, “Are we alone?”

“Well, there’s your roommate in the next bed,” I responded tentatively, unsure if I’d understood his question, and wondering what he was really asking.

“No,” he replied, “Are we alone in the universe?” This question began a deeper discussion than I had expected, one where our souls met and he discussed his feelings about his future, and the meaning of his life. Without knowing the intention behind his question — without ha’mechaven — clarifying, distilling his meaning, we would have missed the depth of our connection.

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