Tuning into the Voices (Rosh Hashanah Day 2)

For much of his career, Anthony Flew, born in 1923, was known as a powerful advocate of atheism, arguing that one should presuppose atheism until empirical evidence of a God should surface. As late as 2003, he was one of the signatories of the Third Humanist Manifesto.

But in 2004 Flew stated that in keeping his lifelong commitment to go where the evidence leads, he now believed in the existence of God. As an outgrowth of that new philosophical commitment, in 2007 Flew published a controversial book entitled There is a God: How the World’s Most Notorious Atheist Changed his Mind. He opened the section in which he describes his “conversion,” entitled “A Pilgrimage of Reason,” with the following parable:

Imagine that a satellite phone is washed ashore on a remote island inhabited by a tribe that has never had contact with modern civilization. The natives play with the numbers on the dial pad and hear different voices upon hitting certain consequences. They assume first that it’s the device that makes these noises.

But the tribal sage summons the scientists for a discussion. He has thought long and hard on the matter and ha reached the following conclusion: the voices coming through the instrument must be coming from people like themselves, people who are living and conscious although speaking in another language.

But the scientists simply laugh at the sage and say: Look, when we damage the instrument, the voices stop coming. So they’re obviously nothing more than sounds produced by a unique combination of lithium and printed circuit boards and light-emitting diodes.

Flew’s point in this section is to emphasize how our preconceived notions shape how we interpret the world around us. But his metaphor is also about our willingness to tune into the voices in the world around us.

Indeed, our difficulty tuning into those voices was enshrined in one of the classic analyses of this problem: Abbott and Costello’s 1953 comedy sketch “Who’s on First.” The sketch concerns a baseball team that Costello is considering joining. The first baseman is named Who, the second baseman What, and so on. But Costello just doesn’t get it. He can’t understand that Why and What mean anything other than the questions they usually denote. And this is revered as perhaps the iconic comedy sketch of all time.

Why? Certainly, the premise is ingenious, the acting sublime. But there’s something more that lies just beneath the surface. If all humor contains at least a kernel of truth, Who’s on First contains a bushel. It’s really a metaphor for our utter unwillingness to listen to others. Had Costello paused for just a moment and actually tried to understand what was happening from Abbott’s perspective, he would have understood what was going on. But, of course, he didn’t. And the point is that, on the whole, we don’t listen either.

We know that things have become more challenging since 1953. We don’t need to rehearse the ways in which modern living and technology have made it even more difficult to really stop and listen. But it does beg the question: if we occupy a cacophonous world in which it’s hard to tune into what others have to say, what can we do differently?

The beginning of a response emerges from a key law regarding the shofar on Rosh Hashanah. The Mishnah (Rosh Hashanah 27b) teaches:

התוקע לתוך הבור או לתוך הדות או לתוך הפיטס אם קול שופר שמע יצא ואם קול הברה שמע לא יצא.

If one sounds a shofar into a pit, or into a cistern, or into a large jug, if he clearly heard the sound of the shofar, he has fulfilled his obligation; but if he heard the sound of an echo, he has not fulfilled his obligation.

In other words, there is an halakhic distinction between hearing the shofar and hearing a mere echo. In one case we’re hearing the thing itself; in the other we’re hearing our own reconstruction of that voice. This is a key point. And what’s true for mitzvot is equally true for the people in our lives.

Think about it for a moment: Who are your favorite people in the world?

For me, it’s people who are personified by a seemingly pedestrian but in fact profound moving story I recently heard from Rabbi David Aaron of Orayta. Rabbi Aaron has these fantastic animations - I highly recommend them - and he recently told a story along these lines. Recalling one of the most meaningful moments in his life, he reminisced:

My mother is sitting beside me, and she was reading Winnie the Pooh. I must have been about 5 years old. That moment is deep inside me. What was the great gift she was giving me? It’s called presence. That’s the greatest gift. My mother was creating space in her life. She wasn’t reading Winnie the Pooh for herself. She created space in her life and put me in the center. She condensed her entire being into that room and was there for me.

Really making space to be present for, and listen to, those in our lives who are most precious to us, is one of the greatest gifts we can give them. And it is one of the great mandates of life in the modern world.

But this is not just true of listening to others around us, but also of listening to ourselves.

One of the exquisite pleasures I enjoy each week takes place during lunch on Wednesdays, when a small group of teachers and myself sit down to learn. Some years I’ve delivered shiurim, other years we just learn something together. It’s an oasis, our chance to pause for just a few minutes in the midst of a hectic day and recharge our spiritual batteries.

Last year we learned Netivot Shalom, written by the Slonimer Rebbe, R. Sholom Noach Berezovsky. In one passage that tellingly recurs a few times in his sefer, he cites the berayta at end of Avot:

אָמַר רַבִּי יְהוֹשֻׁעַ בֶּן לֵוִי, בְּכָל יוֹם וָיוֹם בַּת קוֹל יוֹצֵאת מֵהַר חוֹרֵב וּמַכְרֶזֶת וְאוֹמֶרֶת, אוֹי לָהֶם לַבְּרִיּוֹת מֵעֶלְבּוֹנָהּ שֶׁל תּוֹרָה.

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said: Each and every day a heavenly voice goes out from Mount Horeb, and announces and says: "Woe to the creatures for the disparagement of Torah."

The Slonimer asks, if the voice emits from Sinai, why can’t we hear it? To this we might add a question of our own. We know that as a general matter, the physical location of Sinai retains relatively little stature in halakha. On many views, the Beit Hamikdash retains its sanctity even today. By all accounts, the Temple Mount certainly retains some profound halakhic significance, the Temple’s destruction notwithstanding. But Sinai is a past event. Even if we were to locate the mountain on which the Torah was given, it would be historically fascinating and of great archaeological interest, but we wouldn’t assign the physical location any ongoing sanctity.

The Slonimer answers simply but elegantly: the voice no longer literally emits from Sinai. When we stood at Sinai, the voice of the Torah became embedded in the soul of every Jew. So the voice emerges not from some distant mountain, but from within us. It’s just a question of whether or not we are paying attention to that spiritual tug. Modern scientific research, we might add, confirms that people are overwhelmingly drawn toward spiritual experiences. The question is not whether or not there is a voice; the question is whether or not we are listening.

Anthony Flew, after describing the reasons for his “conversion” from atheism to belief, returns to the metaphor with which he began:

We talked of the satellite phone discovered by the island tribe and the attempts to explain its nature. The parable ended with the tribal sage being ridiculed and ignored by the scientists.

But let’s imagine it differently. The scientists adopt as a working hypothesis the sage’s suggestion that the phone is a medium of contact with other humans. After further study, they confirm the conclusion that the phone is connected to a network that transmits the voices of real people. They now accept the theory that intelligent beings exist “out there.”

Their whole world changes. They know they are not alone.

The analogy is easy to apply. The discovery of phenomena like the laws of nature - the communications network of the parable - has led scientists, philosophers, and others to accept the existence of an infinitely intelligent Mind. Some claim to have made contact with this Mind. I have not - yet. But who knows what could happen next?

Someday I might hear a voice that says, “Can you hear me now?”

As we prepare to hear the voice of the shofar, not in a pit, cistern or jug, but here in our exquisite Beit Midrash, let’s ask ourselves: Do we stop to be fully present for others? Do we make space for Sinai's inner voice? By doing so, we’ll make sure that we truly can hear now.