Circles and Triangles, Speaking and Listening

In conversations with middle and high school students over the last twelve years, several common threads have emerged. One of them is how important it is to students to feel understood. The truth is, their preoccupation with this feeling is partly a product of where they are at developmentally, but it highlights a truth about all of us. Every single one of us wants to feel like people really hear us, like they understand where we are coming from. As natural as it is for us all to empathize with this feeling, translating it into how we interact with others can be quite challenging.

Many cultures have developed ways of overcoming this challenge so that we might help one another fulfill this basic need. One structure shared by a number of cultures is the idea of “circles”. Mostly simply, the “circle” is a place where people can share their experiences with others. Aided by the passing of a “talking piece”, speakers are able to express themselves without interruption, and listeners can focus primarily on actively understanding what the speaker is sharing. No one is forced to speak, and when the “talking piece” reaches any participant, they are at liberty to pass it along.

Educator Amy Vatne Bintliff explains that one of the fundamental tenets of “circles” is that “we are all in need of community and help from others, and in turn, that we all have something to offer other human beings. The fact that participants sit in a circle form symbolizes shared leadership, equality, connection and inclusion.” The power of “circles” has led Bintliff and others to introduce circle practices into school communities (for more on this, see her book “Re-engaging Disconnected Youth: Transformative Learning through Restorative and Social Justice Education”).

In Jewish tradition, the values of “circles” have largely been manifested in the joint study of sacred text commonly referred to as havruta study. When done well, the human partners and the text itself all have a voice to share, as well as a responsibility to seek understanding of the others. With three members (two human partners and a text) at its core, some Jewish educational approaches (such as Pedagogy of Partnership) have convincingly argued that the Jewish version of the “circle” is actually a triangle.

Given these insights, we can understand the true impact of the following verse from this week’s haftarah (weekly reading from the Prophets of the Hebrew Bible) which describes a future time of peaceful coexistence. There we read, “So you shall summon a nation you did not know, and a nation that did not know you shall come running to you” (Isaiah 55:5). While some commentaries have seen this prophetic vision as a kind of vindication in which the formerly exiled Israelites have become respected enough to now be able to summon other nations to them, others, like Don Yitzhak Abravanel have seen this statement as an invitation for estranged nations to study together. He writes in his , Mashmia’ Yeshu’ah, “this verse means that nations that had never known you will come to the Jewish people to study Torah, as though they summoned them. This is the meaning the next part of the verse, ‘For the sake of the LORD your God, The Holy One of Israel who has glorified you.'” In the larger context of the passage, Abravanel’s words imply that not only is joint study of the sacred a profound way to bring individual people into mutual understanding, it can do the same for nations.

Is there someone in your life you’d like to understand better? Or who you’d love to share your story with? Perhaps this is a great chance to choose a sacred text to study together. When doing so, keep in mind the insights of the circle and the triangle. Listen with the belief that the human and text partners have something important to offer. When it is the right time, speak with the belief that you do too. Like anything, this is something we continually practice and develop in. As we get better at it, we develop an ever greater capacity to heal broken relationships and support a model in which maybe even the world can learn to do the same.

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