THE ART OF STORY LISTENING Part 1 – LEV SHOMEA – A Listening Heart – Cindy Elliott

A Word For The Month of Av – A Month Of Listening

G-d, blessed be He, created the world with the scroll, the scribe, and the story. [1]


When the great Rabbi Israel Baal Shem-Tov saw danger threatening the Jews in his community, he would hike to a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a fire, say a special prayer, a miracle would happen and the crisis averted.

Later, when his student, the famous Magid of Mezritch, needed to do the same thing, he would go to the same place in the forest and say: “Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer.” And again a miracle would be accomplished. Still later, Rabbi Moshe- Leib of Sasov, in order to save his people once more, would go into the forest and say: “I do not know how to light the fire, I do not know the prayer, but I know the place and this must be enough.”And still, a miracle happened.

Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn to overcome misfortune. Sitting in his chair, his head in his hands, he cried out to G-d: “Oh, Holy One! I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer; I can’t even find the place in the forest! All I can do is tell the story, and this will have to be enough.” And it was. [2]

I love a good story. Not one that just tickles my ears but one that engages. One that reaches deep and makes my belly laugh, starts a fire in my heart, and causes my spirit to dance. A story so powerful I forget to breath.

Some of my most cherished memories are late nights and long undisturbed days of reading stories with my daughter. Hour upon hour of losing our sense of time and space – transported out of our world and into the pages. At times closing our eyes to see. And long after we closed the cover – a good story continued living in our hearts.

This love I have for a good story, I think most of us share. But the difference between a good story and a great one? I think it has to do with the storyteller / the author themselves. With a great story, the storytelling has a purpose – a ‘why’ behind the story – and a fire in their heart that not only feeds the story but moves the storyteller to share.

We will not hide from their descendants; we will tell the generation to come the praises of ADONAI and his strength, the wonders that he has performed (Psalm 78:4).

As people of the Book, storytelling and story listening play a big part in Jewish tradition. From the stories of Scripture, to the Talmud, Hasidic tales, midrash… all are meant to, as Rabbi Nachman of Bratslov has said, wake one up. Stories so powerful they leave one laughing, crying, cheering, inspired, stirred, moved, challenged…changed. But that change requires one to fully realize the importance of listening.

A midrash on Exodus 18:1 stresses the importance of listening:

Before the Torah tells us, “And G-d spoke,” we must first learn what it means to listen. Unless there is an ear to hear, even the most powerful message from the mouth of G-d Himself is lost. For that reason, “Jethro heard,” precedes the giving of the Torah. [3]

The art of story listening, to really hear a story, this is both an art and a service of the heart.


Set limits, pull back, set aside time for rest, move from chaos to focus, say no, listen to what you’ve been ignoring, make room for what you’ve been longing for and you will uncover the true meaning of the word “full.” [4]

Who of us hasn’t imagined stumbling upon an old dusty lamp, giving it a rub, and POOF! out pops a genie offering you three wishes – anything you want! Anything! I love letting my imagination wander down those trails of folk and fairytales, finding great adventure in their pages. But surpassing by leaps and bounds the wonder and adventure of any fairytale – even Aladdin’s magic lamp – is a true tale we find in the book of 1 Kings.

The Creator of the Universe comes to Solomon and says, “Choose what you want.” Anything, absolutely anything! “Is anything too hard for me? Imagine it – ask for it – it is yours.” When faced with this great decision, Solomon choose lev shomea – a “heart that hears” or “an understanding heart.” Shomea is from the root shema, which means much more than hear. It means to hear, listen, obey, and respond. According to the Targum it also means to accept. [5]

Shema - a sacred listening - a listening that is active and lived out.

We live in a broken world with broken lives, broken hearts, broken homes, broken relationships. But G-d is wanting to take those broken pieces and rebuild; to heal and restore, to redeem. In this month of Av – as we focus on Avinu – our Father – and healing, creativity, and hearing – may we perfect the sacred art of story listening – a listening that is a conscious choice. A listening one does with the ear of one’s heart. May we pull back where needed, make space for what really counts, move from chaos to focus and enter into the healing Words of Avinu, our Father, knowing His Words can create in us a new heart and a new world. [6]


there are times
my heart is too heavy
too fat
too overwhelmed

is that why you gave us words

so when all that anguish and pain
becomes too much
and it smothers
and suffocates
and presses down
You touch the heart of a story listener
who comes and says

how that spark of Heaven
that story listener
must be your delight


the invitation that opens up a floodgate
breathe out words
breathe in life
a pouring out
a pouring in

with the outpouring of my soul
words so full and fat of pain
just a very small amount
but just enough
of that overwhelming
is shared
and the burden is now carried by two instead of one

and as my soul
pours out
again and again and again
and a story listener gathers up
again and again and again
and Abba you pour in
again and again and again
we become a cord of three strands


toda raba – thank you
that you give to each of us
the gift of being a storyteller
that gift of pouring out
not just our hurts and pains
but your glory, your wonder, your love

and Abba
toda raba
that you give each of us
the gift of story listening
that gift of flowing in
not just to make lighter the pain of another
but to let flow in
your glory, your wonder, your love

and toda raba Abba
that you are
beyond any doubt
the greatest Storyteller e-v-e-r

You pour Living Words
into our heart and soul and spirit
and create life

and toda raba Abba
that You are
beyond a doubt
the greatest story listener

that those times
when I open my mouth
but cannot form words
Abba you hear within the silence space of my breathe
not only my words
but you hear the source from which they spring

those times Abba
you alone are my story listener
You hear my words
You know their source
pouring out
again and again and again
and Abba you
gather up
again and again and again
and it is enough


* all photos are from

1. Yitzhak Buxbaum, Storytelling and Spirituality in Judaism, 215, as quoted by Rosemary Horowitz in Elie Wiesel and the Art of Storytelling, 125
2. Elie Wiesel, The Gates of the Forest
3. Rabbi Zev Leff, The Art of Listening
4. Rabbi Naomi Levy, The Jewish Book of Grief and Healing: A Spiritual Companion for Mourning, 91
5. Targum Onkelos, Devarim 11:13
6. By G-d’s Word the world was created. And our words, much like our Creators, create worlds also. They have the power to frame/reframe space, our own as well as others.

6 thoughts on “THE ART OF STORY LISTENING Part 1 – LEV SHOMEA – A Listening Heart – Cindy Elliott

  1. I have always been a person who could talk, talk anytime, anywhere about anything. Even if I didn’t know the subject I listened long enough to form my opinion and then could talk. I have found myself in a place where I don’t want to talk. I guess I am talked out. I loved this part of the Prayer Story:
    “when I open my mouth
    but cannot form words
    Abba you hear within the silence space of my breathe
    not only my words
    but you hear the source from which they spring”

  2. Oh Cindy, this is beautiful. I love what you have shared here from beginning to end. It resonates deeply. Wanting so much to be a listener, with you my friend! This will be a blessing to many!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *