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Rabbi Francis Nataf

In the middle of this week’s parsha, we read that Avraham listened to Sarah’s voice and complied with her wish to marry Hagar (16:3). In the Tanakh, people can listen to others, they can listen to their words and they can also listen to their kol – which actually has a broader sense than voice and would perhaps be better translated as sound.

Looking at a few early examples of listening to voices does not give us clarity whether it is better to listen to a person’s words or their voice. For it would seem that Adam got into trouble when he listened to his wife’s voice. Yet later, God famously tells Avraham that he should listen to Sarah’s voice. Finally, in between – in our case – God does not explicitly agree or disagree with Avraham listening to Sarah’s voice. Hence we have three cases of men listening to their wife’s voice, one bad, one good and one indeterminate. It would hence first seem that listening to someone’s voice is not much different than listening to someone’s words. Apparently – whether we or dealing with one or the other – what is most important is what the person actually has to say. Nonetheless the three cases of listening to voices mentioned seem to be different than cases of just listening to words.

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While we occasionally find this expression with other individuals, it is particularly apt with the two couples we are discussing. That is because both of these early couples are bound together with a closeness almost impossible for us to comprehend. In the case of Adam and Chava when the listening takes place, they were the only two people around, something which made it impossible for their attention to be diffused to any other human beings whatsoever. Their spouse was not only at the center of their earthly lives, they were also at the periphery. Avraham and Sarah’s situation was not that different – as the only original followers of Avraham’s new religion, they too were very much on their own.

Such situations make it more likely that someone will listen to more than just the content of what their spouse is saying. That type of total listening would seem to be called listening to their voice. Perhaps that is because a voice expresses nuance and feeling that is not – and perhaps cannot be – contained by words alone. Granted, this is not always what is desired. Sometimes – as is frequently the case in court – knowing the feelings of people may be counterproductive. But when it comes to a marriage, listening to more than the words is critical. One need not follow what the voice wants from us; one must, however, listen deeply and attentively to all that the voice presents. This is presumably what Avraham does when he hears all the investment that Sarah must have placed on his marrying Hagar. He could have easily rejected her words as wrong, but he could not reject what he heard in her voice.

Getting back to Adam’s listening to Chava’s voice, Netziv actually understands this as the reason God does not punish him more severely. He explains that Adam’s sin is considered inadvertent because he listened to her voice. It could be that Netziv would say this even if was only her words that Adam listened to, and not to everything that was communicated by her voice. However, I would like to suggest that Adam’s excuse came precisely as a result of his appropriate willingness to understand everything his wife was communicating, and not just her words:

As alluded to in Midrash, Chava could imagine nothing worse than for her and the only other person in existence to be separated. She certainly knew that she was taking a risk by eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge, even if we assume that she believed it to be the correct thing to do. And hence whatever course of action was taken, she would have been tremendously concerned that her husband might choose a separate path. When Adam heard this in her voice, it was very difficult not to go along. Though it is likely that he was more ambivalent than his wife about the path she was suggesting, he understood the importance she placed upon his going along (especially if we assume she already ate). And so he did. But as a result of this nuanced sin, God rescinded the death penalty which Netziv and others feel was originally promulgated for eating from the tree.

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