Shut Up and Listen – Ki Tavo 5773

Ernesto Sirolli is an Italian aid worker. In a Ted talk, which is viewable online,*1* he tells the story of his first project in Africa, in the 1970’s. He was part of a group of Italians who decided to teach Zambian people how to grow food. So they went to Southern Zambia to a beautiful, fertile valley that led down into the Zambesi River, and they brought a bunch of Italian seeds, intending to teach the locals how to grow tomatoes and zucchini and so on.
The locals, of course, had absolutely no interest in doing that, so the Italians paid them to come and work. Sometimes they showed up. The Italians were amazed that, in such a fertile valley, there was no agriculture.
Instead of asking the Zambesi about it, the Italians said “Thank God we are here to save the Zambian people from starvation.”
Everything grew beautifully – better than in Italy, in fact. “Look how easy agriculture is,” they told the Zambians.
One night, when the tomatoes were big and ripe, two hundred hippos came up out of the river and ate every last vegetable that they had planted.
The Italians said to the Zambians: “My God! The hippos!”
And the Zambians said: “Yes. That’s why we have no agriculture here.”
“Why didn’t you tell us?”
“You never asked.”
Sometimes, it pays to listen.
It is the last day of Moses’ life, and he knows it. The Israelites are assembled before him in the Plains of Moab on the Eastern Side of the Jordan River. This is the next generation, the children of those who had left slavery in Egypt. They have all been born in the wilderness.
Now, they are poised to enter the land of Israel. Moses, knowing the end is near, has been giving a series of speeches to the people. He has reviewed the history of the Exodus. He has presented the laws, including those that will be applicable once they enter the Promised Land. And now, in this morning’s Parshah, he pronounces a series of blessings and curses which will befall them depending on how they uphold the terms of the covenant with God.
Moses turns to the people and says:
Hasket ush’ma yisrael
“Silence! Hear, O Israel!”*2*
This theme of listening has been a recurring one throughout the Book of Deuteronomy. Moses tells the people many to listen times. Our most famous prayer, the Shema, is from the Book of Deuteronomy. So it is not unusual that Moses tells the people to listen. What is unusual is that he tells them to shut up first. Hasket ush’ma. “Silence, and listen…” It is the only time in the entire Bible that the word hasket appears. When a word appears only once like this, scholars call it a hapax legomenon. As the medieval Rabbi and linguist Ibn Ezra comments, “its explanation is according to its context, for it has no parallels [in Scripture].”*3*
We are left with a question: If the idea of listening is so prevalent in Deuteronomy, why, on this single occasion, does Moses feel he needs to first tell the Israelites to be quiet? To answer that, let’s look at what he tells them to listen to this time:
hayom hazeh nih’yeta l’am ladonai elohekha
“Today you have become the people of the Lord your God.
Is this true? Is this day, at the end of the fortieth year of the Israelites’ wanderings, the day that they finally become God’s people? Didn’t that already happen a long time ago – at the time of the Exodus or at Mt. Sinai?
The great medieval commentator Rashi explains Moses’ instructions as follows: “You should consider every day as the day on which you entered into a covenant with [God].”*4*
Moses is not speaking just to the Israelites born in the wilderness. He speaks to all of us. He challenges all of us to treat “today” as the day on which we enter into a covenant with God.
Perhaps that explains why he tells the people to be quiet before he tells them to listen. Back at Sinai, they did not need to be told to shut up. There was a cacophonous sound and light show that overwhelmed the senses – earthquakes, thunder, lightning, fire, smoke, the sound of the shofar. Believe me, they were paying attention.
Forty years later, in Deuteronomy, there is no miraculous revelation by God. There are only words. In order to listen, to really listen, to what Moses is saying, the people must first stop talking. Only then can they, and we, open ourselves up to Torah and become the people of God.
“Shut up and listen!” he says. If we want to be a people of God, we have to stop making noise. We have to stop projecting ourselves and our egos out into the world.
In a world that is full of the noise of our own making, this is an important reminder. We tend to spend a lot more time talking than listening. When we do that, when we shut ourselves off from what the other has to say, we put up barriers. It is impossible to be in a relationship with someone to whom we do not listen.
I did a search online on the expression “Shut Up and Listen.” There were articles that advocated this approach for salespeople. We can be much more effective when we pause to listen to the customer say what the customer actually wants instead of telling the customer what he or she wants. Makes sense.
A self help column spoke about the importance of listening to criticism from other people. Rather than arguing back, it advocated simply saying “thank you,” and trying to really understand the critique. That is an important strategy that can help us learn about ourselves. Also makes sense.
And I found the story of the Italian aid worker in Zambia that I told earlier. The reason that more than one trillion dollars of Western aid money in Africa has done far more harm than good over the past fifty years is that most well-intentioned do-gooders don’t stop to ask people what they actually need. They would do well to shut up and listen.
While all of this may be true, that being quiet and listening may help us improve our sales numbers, or better ourselves, or help impoverished societies, Moses is getting at something deeper. He teaches us that the secret of being in an authentic relationship with another, whether it is a relationship with another human being, or a relationship with God, lies in our ability to shut up and listen.
Silence is more than just the absence of words. To be silent, we have to let go of our defense mechanisms. We have to stop acting as if “the world was created for me” and start acting like “I am but dust and ashes.” When we force down our ego, we create an open space that can be filled by another.
To be in a true relationship is to be in a covenantal relationship, which carries obligations.
The French Jewish philosopher Emanuel Levinas said that we encounter God when we truly look into another person’s face. Our self falls away and there is only the commanding Presence of the Other. Being in authentic relationship with another person is wrapped up with being in authentic relationship with God.
While there are many aspects of silence, it does come down to words. Words are our primary tools for projecting ourselves into the world. What if we only had a limited number of words that we could use each day?
The American poet Jeffrey McDaniel ponders this in his poem, The Quiet World.*5*

In an effort to get people to look
into each other’s eyes more,
and also to appease the mutes,
the government has decided
to allot each person exactly one hundred
and sixty-seven words, per day.

When the phone rings, I put it to my ear
without saying hello. In the restaurant
I point at chicken noodle soup.
I am adjusting well to the new way.

Late at night, I call my long distance lover,
proudly say I only used fifty-nine today.
I saved the rest for you.

When she doesn’t respond,
I know she’s used up all her words,
so I slowly whisper I love you
thirty-two and a third times.
After that, we just sit on the line
and listen to each other breathe.

Just imagine what it would be like.

*1*http://www.ted.com/talks/ernesto_sirolli_want_to_help_someone_shut_up_and_listen.html
*2*Deuteronomy 27:9
*3*Ibn Ezra on Deut. 27:9
*4*Rashi on Deut. 27:9
*5*Listen to author read the poem at: https://myspace.com/jeffreymcdaniel/music/album/the-forgiveness-parade-5886367

Eating the Fruits While One Labors – Ki Teitzei 5773

In January 1914, Henry Ford*1* raised his workers’ salaries to $5 a day.  His competitors were paying $2.25.  He also shortened the work day from 9 to 8 hours.
The popular reason is that Ford wanted his workers to be able to afford to purchase the cars that they were manufacturing.  He wanted to increase demand for his product.
This is a somewhat simplistic explanation.
The real reason was to reduce worker attrition.  It was incredibly expensive to have workers who might or might now show up, and if they did show up, were more often than not drunk.  In 1913, Ford employed 52,000 men to keep a workforce of 14,000.
In increasing the wages, Ford did not just write bigger checks.  Half of the wages were paid as bonuses and were dependent on a number of factors.  Ford had a “Socialization Organization” that sent people to workers’ homes to make sure they were doing things the “American Way.”  No gambling or drinking.  Immigrants had to learn English.  Women could not get the bonus unless they were single and supporting a family.  Men could not get the bonus if their wives worked.
By reducing the workday from nine to eight hours, it allowed Ford to schedule three back-to-back workshifts per day.
But he did not just raise wages to improve efficiency.  Ford had much bigger ideas  He writes in his autobiography:
“The kind of workman who gives the business the best that is in him is the best kind of workman a business can have. …[I]f a man feels that his day’s work is not only supplying his basic need, but is also giving him a margin of comfort and enabling him to give his boys and girls their opportunity and his wife some pleasure in life, then his job looks good to him and he is free to give it of his best. This is a good thing for him and a good thing for the business.”
It worked. The reason it worked for those employees is not because the wages went up and the workday shortened in and of themselves.  It’s that it made working at Ford better than the alternatives.  Morale and loyalty were high because workers knew that they were getting a better deal at Ford than they could get anywhere else.
In 1913, Ford’s workers made 170,000 cars.  The next year, after these changes, they made 202,000 cars.  It went up and up from there.  Ford’s approach was adopted across the American economy, and played a big role in building the American middle class
In recent years, this has fallen apart.  Companies no longer take the approach that they need to invest in their employees the way that Ford did starting in 1914.
Over the last several decades, corporate profits relative to GDP has risen significantly.*2*  At the same time, employee compensation relative to GDP has fallen.  This is reflected in workers’ stagnant wages while corporations earn huge profits.
It seems to me, anecdotally, that workers today do not feel the kind of loyalty to their employers that Ford’s workers did in the 19-teens.
The Torah would seem to support Henry Ford’s ideas.  It is ironic because, in addition to being a business genius, Henry Ford was an anti-semite, publishing a series of articles in his newspapers that were later reprinted in a four volume set of booklets called The International Jew, which fanned the flames of all of the classic stereotypes.  It was admired by Nazis and reprinted in Egypt in Arabic as recently as 2001.
Henry Ford was apparently misinformed about Jewish values.
This morning’s Torah portion states: “When you enter another man’s vineyard, you may eat as many grapes as you want, until you are full, but you must not put any in your vessel.  When you enter another man’s field of standing grain, you may pluck ears with your hand; but you must not put a sickle to your neighbor’s grain.”*3*
This has been understood by our tradition to refer specifically to laborers.*4*  Workers in the field are allowed to eat their fill while they are working.
Why does the Torah require this?  Some commentators say that it is a benefit to which they are entitled – part of a worker’s pay.
The Mishnah asks how much a worker is permitted to eat?  Of course, there is a disagreement.  Rabbi Eleazar ben Hisma says that a worker cannot eat more than the value of his wages.  The Sages permit it, but warn that he should not be so gluttonous as to close the door against himself.*5*
In other words, if a worker is too greedy, his boss is not going to rehire him, or he’ll eat up all the profits, and he won’t have a job for very long.  So he should be smart about it.  To summarize, being able to eat while they work is a benefit to which agricultural workers are contractually entitled.
The Talmud adds that the worker is not allowed to transfer this right to family members.  It is only for the worker himself.
The commentary Torah Temimah explains that if the worker does not have to spend his own money on food while he is working, it will improve his morale physically and spiritually, thereby making him a better worker.  In other words, it makes good business sense.  Like Henry Ford more than 3,000 years later, the Torah recognizes that workers will be more productive when they feel that their basic needs are being met.
A similar rationale, it seems, has led many of the high tech corporations in our area offer all sorts of supplementary benefits on their campuses ranging from free gourmet food, to exercise facilities, laundromats, daycare centers, volleyball courts, and more – anything to make workers stay at work longer and boost productivity.
A medieval work, Meirat Enayim does not think that the right to eat produce while working is a benefit.  If it was, the worker should be allowed to transfer that benefit to his wife, children, or anyone else for that matter.  Rather, says the Meirat Enyaim, it is an act of grace and kindness.
Even though, according to strict justice, a worker should not be allowed to eat the products of his labor, the Torah is telling us to go beyond what strict justice requires.  A worker should not have to spend all day long handling food that he is not allowed to eat.  That would be cruel.  We have to act with compassion and not allow a person over whom we have power to suffer, even if the details of the contract would allow it.  Just because something is legal does not mean that it is right.
The Torah reminds us that there are some things that are more important than the bottom line.  This is such an important lesson in 2013.  We are more removed than ever geographically and socio-economically from the production of the things that we consume, whether strawberries picked by migrant workers in Watsonville, iPhones assembled by 20 year olds brought in from the farms in China, or t-shirts sewed in overcrowded sweatshops in Bangladesh.
Our prosperity depends not just on the opportunity for everyone in our global society to earn decent wages, but also on the compassion that is afforded to those with the least power among us, and the ability for everyone to live a life of dignity.
*1*http://www.forbes.com/sites/timworstall/2012/03/04/the-story-of-henry-fords-5-a-day-wages-its-not-what-you-think/
*2*http://www.slate.com/blogs/business_insider/2013/07/30/henry_ford_s_150th_birthday_his_fight_for_higher_wages.html
*3*Deuteronomy 23:25-26
*4*I got some ideas for this D’var Torah from AJWS’s D’var Tzedek, written by Rabbi Joshua Rabin.  It can be found at http://ajws.org/what_we_do/education/publications/dvar_tzedek/5773/ki_tetze.html?autologin=true&utm_source=education&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=20130812-E-DT
*5*Bava Metzia 7:5