Only What They Want to Hear

“We only hear what we want to hear. We only see what we want to see.”

This statement about human nature, pessimistic though it may be, rings true to most of us. It helps explain all sorts of strange human behaviors, ranging from the question of why some of us have difficulties in communication to why the Jews of Eastern Europe failed to see the Holocaust looming on the horizon.

We are all familiar with the experience of listening to a speaker and discovering that we heard a very different message than did our companion, who was sitting right beside us in the audience.

We hear and see what we want to, and fail to hear and see the proverbial “writing on the wall,” perhaps because it is so unpleasant to us that it simply does not register.

It was long ago, while still in college, that I learned that this observation about human nature has ancient roots in the history of philosophy. Of course, philosophers do not generally express themselves in terms that are easily understood. The great eighteenth-century philosopher Immanuel Kant used the term “transcendental idealism” to refer to his contention that “the human mind creates the structure of human experience.” For him, there is no such thing as a universal perception of the world around us. We each see the world differently, according to our own subjective interests, biases, and prejudices.

In simpler terms, we place our own “constructs” upon everything that we see or hear so that you may hear one message, and I may hear an entirely different one. We may both be standing before the same picture, but you may see it one way, while an entirely different picture appears before me.

Nearly two hundred years after Immanuel Kant wrote his treatise on this subject, a psychologist named George Kelly, considered by many to have been the father of modern clinical, cognitive psychology, used Kant’s notion to formulate an approach to psychotherapy. He argued that we experience the world through the lens of our “constructs,” which we use to interpret or construe new events. He insisted that each person’s system of constructs is unique and that by understanding an individual’s system of constructs, a therapist can help patients modify their constructs to enable them to better cope with their behavioral problems.

Many others have subsequently followed in the footsteps of Kant and Kelly. One of my favorites was a social psychologist named Gustav Ichheiser, a native Austrian who had to flee when the Nazis invaded his country. He spent much of his life in exile, but wrote on the subject of social misunderstandings. He felt that we can better understand social and political conflict if we understand the degree to which we misperceive each other. He famously wrote, “What seems to be often constitutes a more solid psychological reality than what actually is.”

I have a special interest in Ichheiser’s otherwise obscure writings because of his insights into the nature of anti-Semitism. He provides an astute analysis of anti-Semitic behavior, based upon his numerous first-hand experiences with anti-Semites who “saw” clean Jews as “dirty,” poverty-stricken Jews as wealthy, and helpless Jews as all-powerful.

The observations that I have just summarized help us understand the behavior of Balaam, the “anti-hero” of this week’s Torah portion, Balak (Numbers 22:2-25:9).

He defied the Lord. This, despite his prophetic talents (which, we are told, rivaled those of Moses himself), and despite his having heard the Lord’s clear message not even to accompany those who would have him curse the Israelites, much less to actually curse them himself.

In the opening chapter of our parsha, we read of the mission upon which the elders of Moab and Midian set out. They bore the message of their king, Balak: “Put a curse on this people for me… Perhaps I can thus defeat them and drive them out of the land, for I know… that he whom you curse is cursed.”

Balaam does not immediately comply. He tells them that he must first consult the Lord and then, “I shall reply to you as the Lord may instruct me.” But the Almighty clearly and forcefully tells Balaam: “Do not go with them. You must not curse that people, for they are blessed.”

To condense the biblical narrative, we soon discover that Balaam persists in his willingness to accompany the messengers and makes a wholehearted attempt to curse the Israelites. So persistent is he that the Lord begrudgingly grants him a vague permit to “go with them, but whatever I command you, that you shall do.”

Commentators throughout the ages have been puzzled by Balaam’s willful defiance of the Lord’s initial instructions. Balaam, by his own testimony, knows the Almighty’s mind. He receives a clear and unambiguous prophecy. Yet he fails to obey. How are we to understand this?

I propose that we apply the sentences with which I began this essay. “We only hear what we want to hear. We only see what we want to see.”

Balaam heard the Lord’s command to desist from accompanying the messengers and to avoid cursing the Israelites. But he didn’t actually hear that command, because he did not want to hear it. He heard it differently from the way we will hear it this Sabbath from the Torah reader in our local synagogue.

We hear a clear “Balaam, don’t you dare!” But he heard a mild refusal, full of loopholes, subject to modification, and perhaps even capable of being withdrawn.

Using the terminology of Kant and Kelly, Balaam placed his own construct upon the words issued by the Divine. He heard those words filtered through the unique constructs which he developed over the course of his life. Those constructs distorted the message so that he did not “hear” it as definite and unambiguous, but rather as subject to negotiation and interpretation.

What were Balaam’s constructs? What aspects of his personality and character influenced his perception so that he could distort and attempt to disobey the Almighty’s clear command?

I propose that an answer to this question can be found in a remarkable passage in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers) 5:22. It reads, “A generous eye, a modest demeanor, and a humble soul are the traits of our father Abraham. An evil eye, an arrogant demeanor, and an insatiable soul are attributes of the disciples of the wicked Balaam.”

If our constructs resemble Abraham’s generosity, modesty, and humility, then our perceptions will be unobscured. We will see and hear accurately. We will not distort the sensory impressions which we encounter in life. We will not “see and hear what we want to see and hear,” but we will see what is real and hear what is spoken.

If, on the other hand, our constructs are based upon jealousy, arrogance, and insatiable material desires, those constructs will distort what we “hear and see,” so that they will not interfere with our self-interests. Our “evil eye” will distort what we “see,” and our “arrogant demeanor and insatiable soul” will assure that we “hear what we want to hear.”

There is a lesson here for all of us, and it is an important one. Our inner selves determine how we perceive and how we react to our outer reality. We must model ourselves after Abraham so that generosity, modesty, and humility become the core of our inner selves, enabling us to “see and hear” clearly and correctly.

We must suppress our Balaam-like envy, arrogance, and insatiable desires so that we no longer “hear and see what we want to hear and see” but clearly hear and see the full breadth, depth, and beauty of our wondrous world.