What’s Black and White and Read All Over?

Is anything really “simply stated?”

“Don’t shoot the messenger!”

“It’s not my fault. I just work here!”

Life experiences might have demonstrated to you that when someone says those excuses, he is usually slithering out of his own responsibility. Curiously, for the ill-fated spies that went to explore the Land of Israel, that claim seems to have had veracity. The Jews in the wilderness, led by Moses, had dispatched them. The spies were deployed to research and report the physical nature of the Land of Israel and how easy or difficult it might be to conquer its inhabitants. When the scouts came back, they reported truthfully. They described the land as bountiful and its residents as strong, formidable opponents who were battle-ready. When the Jews assimilated the account of the fortitude of the Canaanites, they felt dejected and hopeless. They mourned their lot and dreaded fighting battles for Israel that they might lose.

G-d punished the Jews for being fickle and having lack of faith. Surprisingly, the spies got penalized too. Something appears unfair. The Jews’ outlandish behavior demonstrated that they were skeptical of Divine assistance. Why were the spies punished? They reported back what they saw. Don’t shoot the messengers!

This question has been addressed and readdressed by commentators through the ages. The Ramban advances an extraordinary approach. At first, the spies faithfully reported facts back to the Israelites. They described the agricultural abundance of Israel and its succulent fruit. They also related truthfully that the current inhabitants were strongly armed and well prepared for battle. Their description was not only truthful, it was responsible. It was their job to report about the land and its people, and they did as they were charged.  The spies would have been negligent if they omitted the description of the Canaanite nations as robust and substantial. They conveyed the information as they saw it. Yet, the foible of the spies was the word that they added to their communication: “efes,” which means “zero,” zero chance and zero possibility. They added that they saw no odds for the successful conquest of Israel. “No way!” they exclaimed. “The nations that are there are too strong.” The spies conveyed to the Jews that they had absolutely no opportunity to ascend to Israel.“ It is impossible to enter the Land!” they proclaimed. “Disregard any previous positive information. There is absolutely no possibility that we will succeed.”

According to the Ramban, the spies were culpable for simplifying their situation. They took a complex reality and saw it as binary. If the question was, “Can we succeed or not?” the answer the spies gave was a resounding “No, not a chance!” The fundamental error of the spies was that they did not allow themselves to see ambiguity and complexity. For them, the situation was black and white. The case was open and shut.

A more truthful response would have taken into account the components of the situation. They might have considered the different aspects of their combat. They might have posited, “The current inhabitants are strong. We also have an army. We have a large population. We might need to devise strategic methods to fight. We have Divine protection. G-d has provided miracles for us during our Exodus.” They did not allow themselves to see the equation as complex. Instead, they looked it at with a simplistic vantage, “The enemy is robust, so we can’t succeed.”

It is common to think that a major aspect of the sin of the Jews and the spies was that they did not trust in G-d and his ability to follow through on his commitment to bring the Jews to the promised land. It was more basic than that. There was nothing to begin to trust G-d for. In their minds, entering Israel was an impossibility that warranted no further discussion. To the contrary, in their immature simplicity, they might have seen entering Israel as prohibited. If there was no possibility for success, waging a losing battle would be suicide. Jewish law demanded that they did not enter!

Life is complex. We might have a desire to simplify our situations, our interactions with others, and our thoughts. Yet, most often there are shades of grey and webs of complexity instead of the black and white we pine for. Many errors in religion and relationships have their roots in unjust simplification of a complex situation. It is easy to see one’s specific religious practice as correct, with all others lacking. In certain situations that might be true; in many others it is a cry of simplistic judgement where more complexity is warranted. In relationships, it is so tantalizing to aim to isolate wrong from right and correct from incorrect. On might gain from observing that almost never – since Creation – is there a relationship disagreement where one party is absolutely wrong and the other is absolutely right. Human relations and human relationships are sophisticated and multifaceted. It is easy to simplify, but that is often not truthful.

Developmental psychologists note that adolescents often think in black and white terms. As they begin to be exposed to life and its experiences and their minds develop, they tend to passionately see circumstances and positions as simply wrong and right. As one matures, he ideally departs from this more simplistic tendency, and begins to appreciate life’s complexities. It has been stated that most extremists are either young or unintelligent. It can be easier to be an extremist, but it might not truly reflect life’s intricacies.

Similarly, Korach rebelled and desired to serve in the Tabernacle like Moses and Aaron. He shamelessly demanded that he be given a chance to serve. Korach was guilty of the same error as the spies. He oversimplified. Korach didn’t allow himself to appreciate the complexity of laws, of societal differentiation, of different strokes for different folks. He passionately desired to work in the Tabernacle and rebelled. He died because of his undying dedication to simplicity.

If some of life’s greatest sins and mistake come from using binary, simplistic thought, then the converse is also true. One of the greatest strides one can make psychologically, religiously, and in relationships, is to appreciate the complexity of most situations and experiences. It can be enriching, gratifying, to embrace life’s complexities. It’s not simple, but neither is life.

Creation, Individuation, and a Nation

What are your relationships like?

A beautiful newborn lies in his loving mother’s arms. He silently sleeps as his mother marvels at the tranquility on his sweet little face. After a while, he wakes up with a tiny yawn. He stirs and then starts crying. Mother senses that he is hungry and tenderly nurses him.  As she does, she thinks about the special and unique connection that she is creating with her precious baby.

Baby sees it differently. He doesn’t see a relationship between himself and his mother. He simply sees mother as part of him. He is hungry, and he is then fed. He needs cuddling and is held. Developmental psychologists suggest that for the first period after a baby’s birth, he thinks that he is the same person as his mother. His mother is part of him, and he is part of her. He’s unaware that she provides food and care for him. He just sees her as an extension of himself.

As baby matures, he gradually learns that his mother and he are not the same. She can feed him, or not feed him. She can satisfy him or frustrate him. This astonishing realization can provide baby with a sorrowful awakening to the realities of life. He is alone and dependent on the world for survival. Although he tries to control that world with his cry, he is not always successful. The world might respond to his needs, and it might not.

From that epiphany and on, baby begins a lifelong journey of psychological differentiation. He starts comprehending that he has a unique existence that is not connected to anyone else. The journey of individuation continues for years, and perhaps throughout one’s life.

Years later, this differentiation can include the individual becoming aware of his own sense of self in a deeper way. He can become aware of his own thoughts, feelings, and emotions. He comprehends that the ideas are in his mind and not shared by anyone else. Many people might even disagree with his concepts or thoughts. In a more profound sense, differentiation means understanding that he himself is responsible for the ideas in his head. Even if others have created experiences, shared connections and conversations, or given presentations that have impacted him, the thoughts in his brain are the products of his own processing. It is also his choice to try to alter or dismiss them if he chooses to do so.

Psychological individuation can be very significant for a person. Individuation brings with it a sense of responsibility and ownership of oneself. Perhaps it is the only way to fully exist. If one is psychologically tethered to his home and his early influences, he is not really an adult, but a grown child, connected to his early caregivers by a psychological umbilical cord. He is not his own person with independent thoughts and desires.

Despite the beauty and power of individuation, the mind craves the safety and security of its early existence when it was one with Mom. It deeply desires the comfort of childhood where one’s caregivers’ ideas were one’s own. The process of differentiation connotes greater and greater separation from one’s parents. Leaving psychological home and moving further on that path can be dreadful and bitter.

It is possible that relationships that one develops through life partly imitate the original parental connection. Peer relationships such as marriage or friends can partially echo the longing for caregiver connection. They can provide comfort to an individual whose mind silently mourns home. When one connects with a spouse, associates, or acquaintances, they can partly take the place of parents in one’s mind.

For example, it is often significant for each spouse to care for and responsible to the other. Sometimes a spouse can demonstrate an intense and consistent need to be taken care of that stresses the marital relationship. This might be a manifestation of that spouse’s wish to recreate a parental relationship in her marriage. If the latent wish to recreate a parental connection becomes prominent enough that it upsets a relationship’s functioning, it should be thought about and analyzed closely. Perhaps this is a simple meaning of the Torah’s description of marriage when it describes Adam and Eve, “one should leave his mother and father and join with his wife and they will be one flesh.” The Torah is describing the psychological differentiation that is necessary to create a peer marriage rather than a recreation of the parent – child dynamic.

The same analysis might be important in peer relationships. Connections with friends can be an important aspect of life. At the same time, if social groups usurp one’s individuality, it might be important to question that friendship or peer group. In some friend groups among adults, one can find it hard to be accepted if he engages in a certain mode of dress, style, or religious practice. One often obliges because that social circle is significant to him. Is that a peer group or a recreation of a desperate need to connect with others that are representing one’s parents? When Chazal relate that the Jewish people surrounded Sinai to receive the Torah “like one person with one heart,” it seems to be describing a powerful peer relationship where everyone was accepted and there was little hierarchy.

As we approach Shavuos, perhaps it is worthwhile to examine our relationships. Do they echo the beauty of Matan Torah, “like one person with one heart?” If they do, they might be very worthwhile to invest in further. If not, perhaps there are changes that one might consider as he becomes an individual, with the freedom and power that it produces.

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?