Toward Shabbat: Vaethanan

When I was growing up, my parents used to rent a house at the beach every summer. As we drove back and forth each week, the cassette tapes they played in the car introduced me to the liturgy of the late 60’s/early ‘70s—Joni Mitchell, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Joan Baez. My favorite song was “Big Yellow Taxi” (though I was puzzled about why she liked him if he was a mean daddy). My second favorite was “The Times They Are A-Changin’” by Bob Dylan. The verse I loved the most was:

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one
If you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’

To this day, I am tremendously moved by these words every time I hear them. And thank God for Dylan’s words this summer. Because for me, this summer has been the summer of the opinions of the 20-somethings. My two college-aged daughters have been home since March and have brought with them some very firmly held perspectives on everything from cultural appropriation to the social construction of gender. In the weeks and months since George Floyd’s murder, I have had a number of conversations about race with current and former students, and their views have challenged me in many ways.

This week’s parashah, Vaethanan, repeats the root שמע (shema)—meaning hear or listen—19 times (including the words שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל ה׳ אֱלֹהֵינוּ ה׳ אֶחָֽד, Shema Yisrael, Adonai eloheinu, Adonai ehad). God asks the Israelites to listen in order to learn. God reminds the people of all the times God has listened to their cries and their pleading in the wilderness. God acknowledges that listening can be frightening. Finally, God suggests that listening plays a critical role in our ability to come close to one another.

Honestly, listening to the voices of the next generation has not been easy for me this summer. I don’t necessarily feel that they are listening back. I am not always crazy about their tone. And yet, perhaps I can borrow a concept from what I have learned about race over the past few years. When people talk about centering Black voices in conversations about racism, it doesn’t mean that White people never have a chance to express an opinion. It just means that maybe White people don’t go first for a while. What would it look like for me to try that idea on for size with my children, students, even the op-ed writers whose pictures, to me, look like they got out of college two days ago? To listen resiliently. Even to listen past the tone. To commit to fully understanding before offering my own perspective. I have come to believe that though it is challenging sometimes, I have a lot to gain from such a stance.

Fast forward to another car ride, as my family travels to visit my father a few weeks ago. In place of a cassette is a podcast our daughters want us to hear about defunding the police. The ideas in the podcast are thoughtful and thought provoking, providing a much more nuanced perspective than the three-word slogan. The narrator connects her ideas to the concept of restorative justice, which reminds me of teshuvah, a word that at its core means return and restoration. As we listen, and as I turn toward a deeper understanding of the issue, I feel that I am also—using the beautiful image of the prophet Malakhi (“God will turn the hearts of the parents to the children and the hearts of the children to their parents”)—turning toward my daughters. While I know there will be more uncomfortable conversations ahead—more times when hearing each other out will be challenging—for the moment, listening has brought me a measure of comfort for this Shabbat Nahamu, this Shabbat of comfort.

Written By Anne Ebersman

Rabbi Anne Ebersman is the director of hesed and tzedek (community engagement and social responsibility) at the Abraham Joshua Heschel School.  She has proudly led family services for BJ for the pa...