Do You Hear What I Am Saying?

How the simply audible becomes deeply understandable.

Amidst the melodious clamor of the beis medrash, two chavrusos animatedly discuss a fine Talmudic point. One man asserts his analysis. The other counters; he comprehends the idea in a divergent way. They argue repeatedly and volley their opinions as they become more entrenched in their perspectives. An intellectual tug of war comes alive between them. One becomes more and more convinced that he is correct. The other has no doubt that his understanding makes the most sense. Then, in their spirited discussion, one begins to see a grain of truth in his colleague’s approach. He stops the conversation, closes his eyes and re-contemplates the logic. His brow furrows as he weighs the pros and cons of his partners assertions. He begins to see how it can make sense. Perhaps his friend’s point is on par with his own thinking. Maybe it is even more valid. In a valiant effort to now partially capitulate, the chavrusa offers one of the highest verbal accolades to his intellectual adversary: “I hear what you are saying.” With that brief phrase he virtually embraces his studymate and acknowledges that he is beginning to see merit in his assertion.

The socioculturally unique usage of that phrase has its etymology in Yiddish. There are two words that describe the word “hear.” The first sounds like its English counterpart, “hehr,”  and simply means to “hear.” A more intense version of the word is “derhehr,” which means to hear intensely. In common use, the word “hehr” might be used to connote audibility, that one can physically hear. In contrast, the word “derhehr” indicates intensive listening, or understanding. The verb “derhehr” became so synonymous with understanding and comprehension that it is used as a noun also. One may say, “I have an interesting derhehr,” meaning an understanding or thought. To make matters a bit confusing, the word “derhehr” sometimes becomes shortened back to “hehr,” too. The result is that the word “hehr” – hear – can mean to physically hear or to deeply understand. Do you hear what I am saying?

These two Yiddish words also highlight a powerful truth about conversations and relationships. When one talks to another, the speaker desires one thing over all else – a listening ear. The talker has an intense thirst that his conversational partner can quench. He does not want to simply be heard – hehr. He wants to be derhehred – understood. He passionately wants the other to comprehend his words and his thoughts.

Speakers do not necessarily desire that their listener concur with them. They fervently desire that the other person digest what they are saying, even if he disagrees with it wholeheartedly. Speakers want to be derhehered.

If you are in the role of the listener in a conversation, what might stop you from derhehring the other? True listening entails focusing on the speaker instead of yourself. When someone else is talking, that point of the conversation focuses on him, not on you. Even if you are the subject being discussed, the speaker is usually expressing his thoughts, his feelings, or his emotions – not yours. When you listen, your “I” takes a back burner to the “I” of the talker.

When Moshe Rabbeinu recounts the giving of the Torah, he states (Devarim 5, 5), “I stood between G-d and you.” A Jewish witticism highlights that Moshe is hinting that too much focus on the “I” can separate between one’s self and his connection with Divinity. Interpersonal relationships function similarly. If one feels an overwhelming need to protect his “I,” it can create a large divide in a relationship and prevent him from listening and understanding what a speaker is saying.

Yet, it can be very difficult to put your desire to express yourself on hold and listen to a speaker’s perspective. This is because you probably have your own thoughts and view about what he is saying.Whether you agree, concur with part of what he is saying, or completely disagree, you might feel emotions well up inside of you, eager to be voiced. When you are triggered it can be difficult to contain yourself. The speaker’s need to be listened to seems to pale in comparison to the need you feel to air your reaction.

You might find it difficult to listen for another reason, too. You might feel psychically petrified that the speaker will conflate your listening with agreeing. If you listen to what he is saying with an open heart and a free mind, you can give him the impression that you concur. That might weaken your approach in his eyes. Even worse, if you truly listen, you might be intellectually seduced by his words to accept some of his points. If you do not protect yourself, you might become a traitor to your own convictions!

Listening is the foundation of profound relationships. It means changing a simple “hehr” into a deep “derhehr.” That often takes practice and conscious effort because it entails temporarily stifling your “I” to give the speaker the opportunity to share his thoughts and words. Sometimes being aware of its importance and why it can be so hard can help you embrace this formidable challenge.

Do you hear what I am saying?

The Thrill of Victory and the Agony of Defeat 

Can you embrace both?

Jubilation abounded as Yisro, Moshe’s father-in-law, came from his native Midian to join the Jewish encampment in the wilderness. Moshe related to him the details of the miraculous Israelite exodus and the splitting of the Red Sea and Yisro reacted with intense emotion. The Torah uses a unique word to encapsulate Yisro’s feelings – “Yichad”. (It is so distinctive that it is a hapax legomenon – a word that appears only once in Scripture.) Rashi interprets that expression in two ways. Superficially, it is a shortened form of the more common word “chedva,” which means joy. Yisro was overjoyed at the Israelite salvation. (Other commentators suggest that the etymology is from the Aramaic/ Targum – “chadi,” which is has the same meaning. Interestingly, in contemporary Persian, the word “chadi” means happiness and is sometimes taken as a family surname). Rashi then quotes an additional, Midrashic interpretation. The word originates from “chad” – which means sharp.  Yisro developed sharp stress marks on his skin as he heard Moshe’s narration of the decimation of Egypt. Since Yisro originally came from the country of Midian, near Egypt, he felt solidarity with the stricken Egyptians and their downfall pained him.

Rashi frequently quotes more than one interpretation of a word or an idea in his commentary. It can sometimes seem like each explanation is bifurcated from the other. Here, the two approaches espoused by Rashi, one of elation and the other of distress, seem in opposition. Upon further examination, Rashi might be suggesting an integration of both approaches. (This is possibly the truest meaning of how to understand multiple hermeneutical methods, such as peshat – simple meaning, and drash – homiletical meaning. They are meant to be combined and interwoven. A similar observation is made by Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetzky, Emes L’Yaakov, beginning of Vayigash.) How can that be in the description of Yisro’s emotions?  Did Yisro react with both jubilation and grief?

The Torah is accenting the beauty and complexity of the human experience. On the one hand, Yisro experienced joy at the miraculous salvation of the Jewish people, including his daughter and son-in-law. At the same time, Yisro felt dread and terror at the punishment of the Egyptians. Yisro embraced both the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, simultaneously.

We can frequently find Yisro-type experiences in our own lives. Our minds can harbor several feelings about someone or something; these feelings can even be contradictory. We often, perhaps always, experience mixed feelings for a person, situation, or object. We might appreciate some parts and dread other characteristics or facets. For instance, it is common for people to enjoy the financial remuneration they receive from their employment, but not the job itself.  Alternatively, they might appreciate both of those, but bemoan the need to leave their homes or their families.

This can even be true in one’s most close familial experiences and relationships. For example, it might be significant for a child to be in touch with the pleasurable experience of security and nourishment that parents give, as well as the restriction and demands they might place on him. It is natural to appreciate the former and resent the latter. The same can be true regarding other relationships. It might be beneficial to think about the strains of emotions people evoke within us and feel comforted that there are usually webs of them, and they can often seem to be in opposition.

Yet, it can be hard to allow ourselves the reality of all parts of an experience. It might be easier to focus on one aspect of a person or experience than on multiple pieces. It seems more streamlined and simple. The urge to simplify our thoughts and emotions might cause us to think more about one aspect of an experience than another. Sometimes it takes some effort to become in touch with the multiple feelings and emotions we have about someone or something. It is not always comfortable or pleasant, but it might be more truthful.

This might be especially challenging in a world where people portray themselves technologically and usually emphasize one dimension of themselves, and see others that way. When culture encourages choosing who to date or connect with by means of a simple swipe of the finger, it is hard to buck the trend and notice that we usually have multiple feelings about people, not simply likes or dislikes and yeses or nos.

When the Jews encamped around Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, they are described as doing so with singular mind, like one individual. Chazal describe that as “kish echad b’lev echad” – as one person with one heart. It seems redundant – if they were like one person, weren’t they of unified heart? The Torah might be emphasizing that even one individual may have different thoughts and feelings in his heart. The unique nature of the Jewish encampment around Sinai was that they were so singular of purpose there was no fragmentation whatsoever. But that is the exception that proves the rule. We can often experience many thoughts and feelings, “b’ish echad” – within our own selves. It can be difficult and untidy, and complicated – and honest.

I Caught the Cold

Sometimes it’s easier to avoid the warmth.

On an exceptionally rainy and cold winter morning, Rav Yehoshua Trunk of Kutna, a great 19th century Russo-Polish rabbinic scholar, was intensely studying with his students. Suddenly, he closed his Gemara and invited them to accompany him on a stroll. The students looked at one another quizzically. Gradually, they followed him to the outskirts of the city and walked toward the intercity road. As they neared the way, they saw a peddler laboring intensely in the mud just created by the heavy, icy rain. His cart was full of merchandise and his lone horse was powerless to free the cart and pull it to the road. The peddler was concerned that his meager investment would perish as it was exposed to the elements. He also worried that his only horse would collapse from the exertion. He forlornly looked heavenward and cried for help. Rav Yehoshua motioned to his students and they joined together to wrench the cart free of the muck and to the road.

The very grateful peddler, unaware of the identity of his helpers, assumed that he had the Providence and good fortune to encounter a skilled group of haulers. He asked them about remuneration. Rav Yehoshua responded that each of the men were to be paid a kopeck (the former Polish/ Russian version of a penny). The man then turned to Rav Yehoshua, who he presumed was the foreman, and asked him how much he wanted. Rav Yehoshua responded that he should be paid three kopecks. The man promptly compensated, and expressed his unceasing thanks as he made his way on the road to peddle.

The next day, Rav Yehoshua and his students heard vigorous pounding on the door in the middle of their studies. They opened the door and saw the peddler that they had helped yesterday, distraught. He apologized profusely for taking advantage of them. He bemoaned that he had the audacity to make use of the time and effort of a leading Torah luminary and his students for his own service.

Rav Yehoshua swiftly comforted the man. He gently explained to the peddler that he did not gratuitously make use of Torah scholars. They had an ad hoc business arrangement and he had paid for their services properly and fairly.

As I read this story recently in a Hebrew book, I began wondering about the legal permissibility for Rav Yehoshua and his students to leave their Torah study to help that unfortunate peddler. Torah study is a serious matter and is not permitted to be interrupted. Maimonides codifies the absolute significance of Torah study (Laws of Torah Study, Chapter 3, 3 -4):

There is no commandment among all the commandments that has a weight equal to Torah study. Rather, Torah study is equal to all the commandments, because study brings to deeds. Therefore, study takes precedence over deeds in every regard.

If one has the opportunity to do some [other] mitzvah or to learn Torah, and the mitzvah could be done by someone else, he should not interrupt his learning. Otherwise, he should do the mitzvah, and return to his studies.

How did Rav Yehoshua divert his attention from Torah study and direct his students to follow? I began to reason that Rav Yehoshua and his students were covered by the latter clause in the Rambam. There were probably few groups of people that could have banded together to help the poor vendor. Therefore, assisting him fell under the caveat that if the mitzvah cannot be done by anyone else, one may interrupt Torah study to perform it.

Afterward, I began chiding myself. I could have basked longer in the shine of the story and imbibed its statement about the majesty of assisting others. Instead, my mind raced to contemplate the legalistic justification of Rav Yehosuha and his students. My internal give and take was rational, logical, and contained an appropriate question. Yet, I noticed how quickly my “go to place” was to probe and understand the Halachic validity of the story.

I reminded myself of the Jewish joke that explains the difference between two similar terms used for hapless or pesky individuals, schlemiel, schlimazel, and nudnik. The pithy explanation is that the schlemiel is the one who spills the soup, the schlimazel is the one who the soup spills on…and the nudnik is the one who asks what type of soup it was.

I felt a tinge of being a nudnik. I moved away from a beautiful example of kindness, selflessness, and thoughtfulness to the realm of the legal. This seems to have been in contrast to Rav Yehoshua of Kutna in the story. Rav Yehoshua was not a prophet. He probably did not know that a specific merchant needed his help. His deep perception and attentiveness to the needs of others led him to believe that people would probably be in great need of assistance in the rain. On the other hand, my initial thought was to focus on the rational and legal exploration of the story.

Relegating the human experience to analysis and exploration in an official way is sometimes an easy route. When we examine something legally and analytically, it allows us to observe it as an outsider. It side-swipes the messiness of being human. This can prevent the exchange or experience from touching us. That might even be the reason that we run to do it. Legal analysis is complex, but is it safe. We don’t need to feel, explore, or be in touch with the world of emotions of ourselves, or of others.

I then observed that I was not alone in seeking safety in the non-human part of the story. The Hebrew book that I was studying had an epilogue: When a contemporary Torah scholar heard this story, he was perplexed. The Talmud states (Bava Metzia 32a) that since it is a mitzvah to assist one’s neighbor load or unload a struggling animal, one may not take payment for that actions. The scholar was bothered how Rav Yehoshua and his students allowed themselves to be paid for their good deed. The scholar’s reaction contained a different question than mine, but was still focused on the legalistic nature of the story. That scholar himself might have marveled at the beauty of Rav Yehoshua’s benevolence. Yet, the brief analysis in the book and its juxtaposition to the story left me with an impression of analysis instead of feeling and scrutiny instead of humanity.

In contrast, our Sages observe that the first description the Torah gives of Moshe (Moses) in Egypt was that he observed the suffering of his nation in slavery and was tormented. Moshe was sheltered in the protection of Pharaoh’s court, but went to see and experience the anguish of his nation. Importantly, the Torah describes that it was the first thing that Moshe did when he matured. Moshe’s joining the distress of his people was both a result and a statement of his maturity. Moshe’s extraordinary empathy is closely related to his success as the most renowned and revered teacher in Jewish history.

The contemporary educational system sometimes places great emphasis on analysis and legal understanding. The skills, techniques, and knowledge that one learns are invaluable in further study, and in life. Yet, they are one part of an important scholastic corpus. One’s struggle with the complexity of the human experience, both his own, and those of others, is important to keep in mind. Focus on legalisms and rationality can sometimes leave one, or his neighbors, struggling helplessly in the cold.

The Sun Will Come Out Today

Stifling emotions is causing trouble for Shayna and Yisrael

Stifling Emotions in Judaism

 Shayna and Yisrael’s Predicament

Shayna and Yisrael have been married for several years. They live in Woodlake, New Jersey, where Yisrael studies in Kollel (an advanced Talmud study program) and Shayna is an office manager. Their marriage seems happy, stable, and fulfilling, with one significant presenting issue. When people say hurtful things to Yisrael, he absorbs their comments and doesn’t respond. He puts up a stiff upper lip, then smiles and continues with his day.

Shayna is concerned about Yisrael’s lack of emotion. She believes that it is “fake” or “unnatural.” Furthermore, Shayna notices that for a few hours after the insulting comment, Yisrael seems like he is more on edge. Even though he is smiling and looks cheerful, he is often more irritable and easily disturbed. She thinks that his emotions seem to be still pent up inside him. Shayna explains that two points put a strain on their own relationship. Firstly, she feels like Yisrael is not being honest emotionally and not being candid with her. Secondly, he often is harder to relate to after someone says something negative to him.

Yisrael explains that he is trying consciously not to react to critical or negative statements. He elaborated that he formerly learned in a well-known, established, pedigree yeshiva in Israel. During his years there he absorbed an approach that emotions should be subdued and not readily expressed. The yeshiva’s modus operandi was to be halachic and to examine all situations solely from a legalistic standpoint. Yisrael was now trying to adapt the worldview of stoicism. Although he is not “there yet,” he is aspiring to integrate that perspective into his own life. Yisrael explained that, theoretically, if he could sue his insulter in a beis din (court) for defamation or slander, he might do so. But absent any direct halachic/ legalistic response, he remains silent and squelches any response on an emotional level.

 The Perspective of the Sefer HaChinuch

The hashkafa (religious perspective) of emotions and their expression is a complex and ancient one in Judaism. There is no unilateral, all-encompassing answer and there are different approaches taken by different leaders and parts of Klal Yisrael (the Jewish people), both historically and currently. At the same time, it is valuable to examine the words of the Sefer HaChinuch (The “Book of Education” – 13th Century Spain) regarding the prohibition of Onaas Devarim – verbal mistreatment of another person. The Torah prohibits one from saying anything that causes distress to another. This includes name calling, insulting, or reminding someone of her unsavory past. What if someone violates Onaas Devarim? What should be the reaction of the offended party? The Sefer HaChinuch (338) elaborates that a response is both appropriate and not included in the prohibition of verbally distressing someone. He explains:

According to what it seems, it can’t be possible that if one came and began to be wicked to pain his fellow with his bad words, that the listener should not answer him. For it is not possible for a man to be like a stone that cannot be overturned, and what’s more, that he will be in his silence like one who admits to the insults. And in truth, the Torah did not command for a man to be a stone, silent to those who insult him like to those that bless him…it is proper for a wise person that he will reply to him in a roundabout and pleasant way, and not become exceedingly angry, because “Anger rests in the heart of fools (Koheles/ Ecclesiastes 7:9)”.

The Sefer HaChinuch adapts an approach of reality. He acknowledges that it is typical to be insulted at another person’s hurtful or spiteful comments. If it were ideal for one to simply ignore another person’s negative comments, the Sefer HaChinuch would have penned a different approach. Perhaps he would have advised the insulted to toughen up, trust in G-d, and ignore the meaningless comments someone else uttered. Rather, the Sefer HaChinuch recognizes that emotions are part of the human condition. It is natural to react to another person’s statements. The Sefer HaChinuch even considers anger a valid reaction to insult – as long as one does not become “exceedingly angry.” The valiance of man is not to ignore but to try to temper his reaction and to not explode.

What About the Sun?

The Sefer HaChinuch adds a caveat. He concludes that those who are consummately in love with G-d strive not to reply to those that insult them:

Yet – there is a group of people for whom their righteousness rises so much that they do not want to bring themselves into this leniency to reply something to those who insult them – perhaps anger will overpower them and they will become involved in the matter more than is enough, and about them they of blessed memory have said: those who are insulted but do not insult back, who hear their shame and do not reply, about them the verse says: “And those who love Him are like the sun emerging in its strength (Shoftim/ Judges 5:31).”

The Sefer HaChinuch says that those who love G-d and are exceedingly righteous do not respond directly to their detractors so that they will not respond too strongly. At the same time, the Sefer HaChinuch acknowledges that even the most righteous can feel hurt by the words of man. It is important for them to be emotionally honest with themselves and to acknowledge the feeling. Sometimes, it might be beneficial for them to discuss them with someone else, too. Emotions are often very authentic expressions of who we are as humans.

The imagery of the strength of the sun beginning to shine that Chazal (our Sages) use is beautiful and precise. Since people are expected to respond emotionally to insults, it takes extraordinary internal strength not to respond directly. It is important not to confuse that with stifling one’s emotion altogether.

Implications for Yisrael

The presenting issue that Shayna and Yisrael had can be indicative of his upbringing, past experiences, and their relationship. One area for Yisrael to explore might be his approach to emotions and their expression. It is possible that he feels more comfortable stifling his emotions because of pain he has experienced in the past that he would rather not allow to come to the surface. Alternatively, it might be that his upbringing, in addition to his Yeshiva, demonstrated or valued shrouding or inhibiting emotion. The issue is ripe for discussion and might be helpful in exploring more about who Shayna is, who Yisrael is, and underlying strengths and challenges in their relationship.