A Hearing Problem

They have ears but cannot hear
— Psalms 135:17

Are you overly-aware of the ambient noise in a confined space? Does the crunching of someone else’s popcorn at a movie theater ruin the movie for you or the sound of sniffling become so distracting you cannot pay attention in a meeting? Join the club. My friend Rebecca directed me to a New York Times article about misophonia – hatred of sound - a hearing condition described as acute irritation when hearing certain noises. Dr. Barron Lerner in “Please Stop Making that Noise” shares his own frustration at sounds that make him absolutely crazy and drive him to distraction. A 2013 study identified the noises that irritate misaphones most: lip smacking, swallowing, pen clicking, typing, breathing and other nostril noises.

Lerner observes that for him one of the greatest irritants as a sufferer is what he calls the “incredulity factor.” It is hard for him to believe that other people are not as irritated as he is by the same sounds. It is as if they simply cannot hear these noises when, in fact, they were not registering them as significant or distracting. Friends and relatives would get frustrated that Lerner was paying too close attention to sounds they easily tuned out.

This dissonance made me think of the biblical expression above that appears in a number of places, both in the singular and plural: “They have ears but cannot hear…” We tend to interpret this verse as not listening to what one is told to do: the sin of unresponsiveness. But perhaps this can also refer to the fact that some people hear what others do not. There are those who are acutely aware of the sounds of injustice. Others don’t hear the cry. There are mothers who hear the sound of their own children crying but are impervious to the whimper of someone else’s child. Our selective hearing never ceases to amaze.

We find one example of this in Jewish law as it relates to prayer. Maimonides in the fifth chapter of his Laws of Prayer creates a list of eight acts people should do to prepare for moments of supplication and contemplation. One is “controlling one’s voice.” Maimonides explains: “A person should not raise his voice during his silent prayer [the Amida] nor should he pray silently. Rather, he should enunciate the words with his lips, whispering so that he can hear himself. He should not make his voice heard to others unless he is sick or distracted. In such instances, he is permitted [to be audible] except when praying with others lest they be disturbed by his voice.”

I must confess to being a shul misaphone. I appreciate that it is difficult to strike a balance between praying so that you can hear yourself – an exercise in amplifying intention and concentration – and making so much “noise” that it gets I the way of the prayer space of others. Often people who articulate each word out loud are regarded as particularly pious, except by those of us who regard this behavior as spiritually selfish. Prayer hogs – ironic, I know - chant with the Torah reader, pray loudly and hum tunes with the cantor or hazan. Misaphones unite.

We live in community, which means we have to tolerate the conversation, opinions, noises, smells and behaviors of others. This is a challenge for misaphones who hear what others ignore. What’s the solution? The Talmud [BT Ketubot 5b] asks a few questions about human anatomy that have to do with our ears. In the spiritual rather than anatomical view, why is it that an earlobe is shaped to fit inside an ear perfectly and why do the tips of fingers fit so easily into the ear? It’s so that these two parts of the body can be used to close up the ear from gossip, tale-bearing and harmful speech.

And yet, even so, we do not walk around with our lobes or fingers in our ears. We would look odd. Perhaps this passage of Talmud is offering us a metaphor that we must teach ourselves to close our ears much the way we teach ourselves to close our eyes so that we can live with others whose noises would otherwise disturb us.

And then – when tolerance for others runs low – there are always noise cancelling headphones.

Shabbat Shalom