I often wonder whether my voice is somehow mysteriously muffled like the adult voices in the animated Charlie Brown movies, or if perhaps I am just not a clear speaker. It occurs to me that occasionally my voice becomes the background noise to the rest of life. Sometimes it’s when I’m asking Shiri to put her shoes on, other times it’s relaying to Duncan the schedule for the day, but I find myself having to repeat things three times before a task gets done or even remembered.
I’m not totally innocent either. When I was a child, I’d selectively hear what my parents were asking me when it served my purpose, although sometimes this got me into trouble because I missed an important instruction or reminder. Selective hearing has a positive side, too. It can be a great self-preservation tool so you don’t go nuts with all the idle chatter around you. All of these thoughts led me to wonder what it means to actually listen.
This week we read Parshat Vaera, which kicks off Moses’s official role as the leader of the Israelite nation. His job is to convince Pharaoh to “let his people go” and to convince the Israelites to go with him. The text begins with God reminding Moses about the generations-long covenant that was made, but Moses shows he is still hesitant in his leadership. Moses and Aaron then go before Pharaoh to plead their case for freedom and begin to bring the first seven of the ten plagues upon the Egyptians.
What’s interesting to note is how selective hearing plays a role in the major steps Moses needs to take. Moses is told by God to go to both Pharaoh and the people and get both parties to listen to him and follow his direction. In each case, there is selective listening at play. When Moses first goes to the Israelites, they completely disregard his leadership. They perhaps hear him, but they don’t listen to his words. This happens again with Pharaoh; he goes and delivers his message, threatening him, and Pharaoh doesn’t take the threat seriously. Ten times in total Pharaoh hears the words leave Moses’s mouth, but does not listen to what they mean. This act of hearing but not actually listening is the cause for great strife among the Egyptians and leads to severe consequences.
So often in our lives we can see that people have something to communicate, but we don’t truly listen to what they’re sharing with us. This week’s parshah, Vaera, is a stern reminder of our obligation not just to hear what others are saying, but to internalize the message. In the news, on social media, at home, too many words are thrown around without enough regard to what they mean. It’s time we paid attention.