The most important declaration of faith in our tradition is the Shema, which, of course, means “Hear!” or “Listen!” When I chose my titles for my High Holy Day sermons, every one included the word “Listening.” This was, in part, an outgrowth of our “Sharing our Stories” series from last year, during which participants shared reflections on the values that had emerged from their upbringing and their experiences.
There, was, however, a “private irony” in those sermon titles.
For the last seven years, both “hearing” and “listening” have become a major challenge for me.
I often think of my uncle, Harry Karol, who worked at an electronics company in Kansas City. His knowledge led him to become a classic “audiophile. ” He created a stereo system in his home that met stringent specifications for the sound it produced. Uncle Harry used various electronic devices to test his stereo equipment to make sure everything was up to his standards. He had a passion for Baroque music and accumulated an extensive collection of vinyl albums, and, later, CDs. As he moved into his 70s, his ability to hear the “highs” in his favorite recordings was greatly diminished. It was sad to see that area of enjoyment closed off to Uncle Harry in his later years.
Like my uncle, I have always enjoyed listening to music in stereo. I marveled at the ways in which music producers could strategically put sounds in different “places” in the left and right channels to create a “spatial” sense in a recording. I was fascinated when I was able to experiment with this process using my “Garageband” software on my Apple computer.
About 7 years ago, I began to have some health challenges with my left ear, which led to chronic problems and, finally, an “idiopathic” closing of my left ear canal in 2009. A surgery by my specialist offered a fix that turned out to be only temporary. Tests at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center confirmed the “idiopathic” diagnosis that had no “sure” or “easy” solution. Surgery was a possibility, with a 20% chance of the problem recurring within two years. An implant with a visible electronic “box” to be worn on the outside was proposed, with possibly no coverage under health insurance. I chose not to take action until I knew where I would be and what other choices might be available.
In three years of working with the Erev Rosh Hashanah choir, I have let the singers know that I would be standing to their left in order to put them on my “good side.” The sounds that I do hear are not as high in volume as they used to be. In a room full of people, private face-to-face conversations are challenging, which is why I may turn my head so that the sound goes into my right ear. Someone trying to get my attention from my left may think I am ignoring him or her, when I actually cannot hear what he/she said to me. My days of listening to music in stereo, at least with headphones, are behind me, likely never to return. I have an adapter for my iPod earbuds that puts all of the sound in one channel—and that is still satisfying. When I sit at the midpoint between the two speakers in our home office, I regain some sense of the stereo effect that I used to enjoy so much.
I am very grateful for what remains in my hearing abilities. I can have conversations. I can play and sing with other musicians and not miss a beat. I appreciate the fact that my hearing on one side is good enough to allow me to relish the sounds of music, supportive and caring voices, and nature. I promise that I will do my best to both hear and listen to everyone, because what you have to say is important to me as we build community together.
Many of us may have some limitation that prevents us from doing 100% of what we would like to do. I believe that is how God made us: not quite perfect, “a little lower than the angels,” but good enough to live completely even with the challenges that life may place in our way.
One of my favorite readings about gratitude is found in Gates of Prayer for Young People. This paraphrase of the daily prayer for thanksgiving, the Modim, declares: “Source of good, thank You for Your many gifts and blessings that fill our lives: sweet smells, delicious tastes, and warm touch; friendship and love and life; Your Torah, which teaches us wisdom. We praise You, God, for all Your goodness.”
I would add “beautiful sounds” to that list, whether they are outside of us or inside of us. May the music we create in our souls ever be reflected in the harmony of life all around us.