It’s Time to Start Really Listening to Each Other

A 91 year old fellow went to the doctor to have a checkup. Two days later, the doctor saw his patient smiling, with a 30 year old woman on his arm.

The old man said, “Thanks, doc! I did what you said.”

The doctor asked, “For heaven’s sake, what did I say?”

The 91 year old man replied, “You said, find a hot mama and be cheerful!”

The doctor replied, “No! I said you have a heart murmur, and to be careful!”

Mis-communication is not only funny, but it can be dangerous, and may even be fatal.

Something interesting takes place in the Torah reading this week.

Isaac is now an old man. He is blind, and he’s hungry. He calls his son, Esau, and he says that he would like his son to make him some dinner and then afterwards, he would like to give him a blessing. Not just any blessing; but one that he describes as, “my most inner-most blessing.”

The Torah tells us that the matriarch, Rebecca, Isaac’s wife, was shocked that her husband, Isaac, now intended to give over to Esau, the first-born blessing; the historical and divine mission that God gave to Abraham, to pass on through his seed, through the generations.

It was obvious, um, to anyone, “except a blind man,” that Esau was not fit to carry out the family’s spiritual traditions. Esau was, by nature, a wild man. He was possessed with violent passions. He was contemptuous of spiritual values.

The Torah already told us in the previous passage, that he, “despised the birthright.”

Jacob, on the other hand, was suited both by temperament and intelligence.

Knowing this, the reader is justifiably confused.  Why would Isaac choose Esau?  And, if you know the story, you know that Isaac will be tricked by Jacob and give Jacob the blessing.  All of this trickery happens because Rebekah – the mother of the twins and Isaac’s wife – doesn’t share with Isaac her concern about Esau.  In fact, the parents don’t seem to be speaking to each other.  Instead, they use their children to fight their battles for them.

Talk about miscommunication!

The Netziv (Naftali Zvi Yehuda Berlin) once wrote that Isaac and Rebecca never learned to communicate closely.  Sarah and Abraham, Rachel and Joseph, they knew how to speak about difficult things.  But not Isaac and Rebecca.  Even when they meet for the first time the first thing Rebecca does is veil herself.  The relationship is never casual.

Most of us fall into the trap of miscommunication because we assume we know what the other person is saying.  You make a plan to meet at Starbucks in the Loop but you don’t specify which one.  You engage in a discussion with a person of another faith and assume that the words “God,” “Messiah” and “Sin” mean the same thing in both religions.

Time is another source of miscommunication.  Ever show up on time to a Conservative Shabbat service on Saturday?  You may be alone; the rabbi may not even have arrived.  Edward Hall, an anthropologist, relates the story of an Afghani man in Kabul who could not locate a brother with whom he had an appointment. An investigation by a member of the American embassy eventually revealed the root of the problem: The two brothers had agreed to meet in Kabul, but had neglected to specify what year. What often surprises clock-watching Anglo-Europeans most about this story is to learn just how many people in the world fail to see the humor in Hall’s story – most are quite understanding and sympathetic toward the miscommunication.

Sometimes the miscommunication is pretty funny.  It seems once a rather old fashioned lady, was planning a couple of weeks’ vacation in Florida. She also was quite delicate and elegant with her language. She wrote a letter to a particular campground and asked for reservations. She wanted to make sure the campground was fully equipped but didn’t know quite how to ask about the “toilet” facilities. She just couldn’t bring herself to write the word “toilet” in her letter. After much deliberation, she finally came up with the old fashioned term “Bathroom Commode,” but when she wrote that down, she still thought she was being too forward. So she started all over again; rewrote the entire letter and referred to the “Bathroom Commode” simply as the “B.C.”. Does the campground have its own “B.C.?” is what she actually wrote.

Well, the campground owner wasn’t old fashioned at all, and when he got the letter, he couldn’t figure out what the lady was talking about. That “B.C.” really stumped him. After worrying about it for several days, he showed the letter to other campers, but they couldn’t figure out what the lady meant either. The campground owner finally came to the conclusion that the lady was and must be asking about the location of the local Baptist Church.

So he sat down and wrote the following reply:

“Dear Madam: I regret very much the delay in answering your letter, but I now take pleasure of informing in that the “B.C.” is located nine miles north of the camp site and is capable of seating 250 people at one time. I admit it is quite a distance away if you are in the habit of going regularly but no doubt you will be pleased to know that a great number of people take their lunches along, and make a day of it….. They usually arrive early and stay late. The last time my wife and I went was six years ago, and it was so crowded we had to stand up the whole time we were there. It may interest you to know that right now, there is a supper planned to raise money to buy more seats…..They plan to hold the supper in the middle of the “B.C.”, so everyone can watch and talk about this great event…..I would like to say it pains me very much, not to be able to go more regularly, but it is surely not for lack of desire on my part….As we grow older, it seems to be more and more of an effort, particularly in cold weather….. If you decide to come down to the campground, perhaps I could go with you the first time you go…sit with you…and introduce you to all the other folks….. This is really a very friendly community….

You get the idea.  Why is miscommunication a concern for us?  Sometimes there is nothing funny about it.

Miscommunication ceases to be funny when we don’t feel listened to.

It ceases to be funny when we resent what the other person is doing or not doing.

It ceases to be funny when we are frustrated because our desires are not being addressed.

All of this works not only on the personal level but also on the communal plane.

As a city there is so much we don’t understand about other people, including their religion, their geography, their experience.

We miscommunicate and we don’t even know it.

Recently the Archbishop of Chicago, Blase Cupich, recounted time spent at the Synod in Rome.  They were discussing marriage – or more specifically, divorce — with representatives from South Africa.  Those in South Africa tried to explain that divorce does not mean the same for them as it does in Europe and America.  Here it means two people split up.  There it means two clans split up – a far more serious thing, relatively speaking.

In the Torah, the miscommunication between Isaac and Rebekkah will lead to heartache and loss of any functional family.  Even decades later, when Esau and Jacob reunite, the miscommunication will continue.

Like most things, we get better at miscommunicating the more we do it.  So the only way to reverse the trend is to become more aware of how often we do not really understand what the other person is saying.

There are techniques to help but the best thing is to slow down, stop multi-tasking, and listen.

This is a gift.


Wars have started because of miscommunication.

Families have broken down.

Corporations have dissolved.

Our task is to establish a culture in which honest, open and respectful communication takes place.  Speaking and listening.  Or tragedy will come.






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