Tuesday, August 20, 2013

The Dog is in the Courtyard

“Ha’kelev ba’chatzer!” said the small child in his stroller, the night breeze refreshing the couple and their child after the hot August day. The child pointed toward a ceramic figurine in a neighbor’s front yard garden. “The dog is in the courtyard.”

The father, not really paying attention, offered what he thought was the appropriate gentle correction, “HaMelech ba’sadeh—the King is in the field.”

The King is in the field is an expression in heavy use during the month of Elul, a time of Jewish repentance, when the King (Hashem), is said to be accessible to all, even to the farmer in the field. He comes to us, wherever we are; ready to listen to what we have to say for ourselves.

The child in the stroller, desperate now to make his point, since his parents were in the process of wheeling him past the object in question, repeated his words, this time with more force, “Ha’kelev ba’chatzer!”

Once again the father reinforced the child’s impression that nobody was listening, “Ken—yes. HaMelech ba’sadeh—the King is in the field.”

It all happened in a matter of moments. My sedentary job writing for Kars for Kids had begun to affect my weight. I’d just come out for an evening power walk as part of a new resolution to get some exercise, get back in shape. They, the couple with the child, were passing my home.

This was a couple of days ago. And as trivial as it may seem, I haven’t been able to get it out of my mind. This brief interaction, this small parenting “fail” seemed to me symbolic of something much larger.

It’s this: if man is created in the image of God and God stands ready to listen to us in Elul, even coming out to meet us on our own terms then what of this father? He was preoccupied with repentance, as he should be at this time of year, but did his behavior reflect that of a receptive and listening King?

He hadn’t met his child on the child’s own terms. He hadn’t allowed his eyes to follow the trajectory of his son’s pointing finger. If he had, he would surely have seen the lawn sculpture that looked to his child like nothing so much as a dog in a courtyard. This father failed to put himself in his son’s place, to see things from his child’s perspective and so failed the listening test.

Since I passed that couple and their child, I’ve been watchful. I’ve noted many cases where people are talking yet not listening to each other. Not really.

Like the woman who tried to tell me lashon hara (a category of prohibited speech). “It’s not lashon hara,” she said. “Three rabbis told me it’s not.”

But it was and I didn’t want to hear it. Still, she remained oblivious to me and my concerns.

Like the woman who left a comment on a facebook posting that sounded to me like dibat haaretz, a prohibited form of tale-bearing against the Holy Land meant to leave a negative impression. I removed her comment and used the standard Facebook message form to tell her what I found objectionable.

“That’s not dibat haaretz,” she said, citing her husband’s opinion on the matter as authoritative.

But it was. I didn’t want to read that or have my friends read it either. Yet she remained defensive, not allowing for my concerns.

Once more it happened, just today. I was tagged on a post I found objectionable. I “untagged” myself. I politely explained that I don’t post articles that slander Jews or Israel.

Necessary Slander??

The tagger tried to convince me that the post was not slander. Then he tried to convince me it was necessary slander to correct a greater ill. The more I tried to demur, the more forcefully he argued his point.

It began to fall into place for me, how being receptive to others is crucial to the act of repentance. When we don’t listen, we’re being stubborn. We’re demanding that things go our way. We’re not letting go and moving forward. We’re stubbornly holding on to our (sinful) status quo.

I am guilty, too—as guilty as anyone else. There are times I could shoot myself for saying something I know I shouldn’t, even as the words come out my mouth. There are times I pretend I don’t see a person’s body language telling me to STOP RIGHT NOW—I DON’T WANT TO HEAR THIS.

In the not listening, in not seeing things as they really are, we are as stuck as stuck can be. We stay where we are, stuck in our own vanity, and in our own human failings. We remain in stasis.

The King is in the field, but it’s up to us to meet Him and to be receptive to the lessons that are all around us: that come at us from our fellow human beings. We’re each of us as fallible as the next. But if we’ll just listen with all we’ve got, we may get somewhere.

We may just meet the King.