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?

Adam and…Steve

Life’s biggest struggles can be in the courtroom of your own mind.

When you grow up you tend to get told the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world. Try not to bash into the walls too much. Try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money.

That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader once you discover one simple fact: And that is…everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you, and you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use.

Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.

  • Steve Jobs, 1995

You might enjoy reading that quote again and again. You might marvel at the elementary, yet deeply empowering words.  You will be struck with a feeling that you can do anything! Perhaps you will like the quote so much that you will find it on YouTube and watch it several times, progressively feeling your confidence build as you prepare to do whatever you set your mind to.

And then…you might return to the same exact life you had before. You may go from “once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again,” to…being the same, again.

Why? What secret lies in those powerful words that touch you but might not succeed in emancipating you from the shackles of your current existence?

Jobs is describing part of his own experience taming the self-critical part of his psyche that is sometimes termed the superego. Recognizing and learning to cultivate this powerful aspect of your brain can be a lifelong challenge. (Although Jobs might seem to portray it as a quick recognition, it was likely a process for him.)

Many of your earliest experiences can foster a strong belief that you are the Little Engine That Couldn’t. Early criticism and parental interactions can mold part of your mind into a critical, self-denying naysayer that repetitively tells you that many things you might want are beyond your reach. As you mature, you become accustomed to seeing that deeply judicious part of your mind as your trusted advisor and protector. It allows you to navigate life, society, and decision making. Yet its deeply critical bend often serves to distort and refract your perspective instead of clarifying it.

Part of your superego’s sharply disapproving nature is to create a mirage that others are better than you. They are more intelligent, wealthy, or beautiful. They are more knowledgeable about the world and understand life greater than you do. They are gifted, and they can accomplish more than you ever could. Sometimes that is technically true, but the superego capitalizes on and exaggerates the facts. It also creates a corollary: If others have those talents or gifts, then you are deficient.

A strong superego can also create an arena phenomenon. Life can seem like a circular stadium, with everyone else positioned around, and higher than you. Your mind can be so sensitive to noticing ways in which others are better that it utilizes the perceived advantages that others have to paint that morose portrait.

Often, a superego is a resilient force to wrestle with. It can take many years of insight and self-understanding to be in touch with the power it can hold over you and your happiness, success, and fulfillment.

Is there a way to jumpstart the process? There are two points that might be meaningful for you to keep in mind when you are struggling with the tight grip your superego has over you.

Firstly, acknowledging its existence and power and then talking about it might be very helpful. Monsters that are named and discussed can lose some of their strength. As Elihu ben Berachel said while contemplating the deep suffering of his friend Iyov, (Iyov 32, 20), “I speak that I might find relief.”

Secondly, it might be helpful to see yourself in a partial vacuum. If you meet a threshold for skills, insight, or wisdom to accomplish certain tasks, then you might do well if you permit yourself to pursue them. Even if others might be more suited or have better skills, it does not lessen your own abilities or efficacy. Steve Jobs intimates that when he says that others “are no smarter than you.” There is no way of knowing that empirically. For most people, probably including Jobs, it isn’t true either. But it is largely irrelevant. What they are does not say anything about who you are.

The Torah seems to hint to this perspective in the beginning of Sefer Vayikra. The Chumash opens describing the process of bringing a sacrifice and uses the term “Adam” to describe a person. There are several Hebrew terms throughout Scripture to mean “person,” and one of them is Adam, since we all originate from him. Yet, the Sages were sensitive to that word selection here. Some commentators (Kli Yakar) explain the intent of the Torah is to highlight that the ideal way for a person to bring a sacrifice is to follow the example of Adam. On the first day of creation, Adam brought a korban. Adam acted unilaterally and of his own aspiration. He did not compare himself to others.

According to Jewish law, the world was created in the beginning of this month, Nisan. (See Talmud Rosh Hashanah 27a and Tos. d.h. Kman.) Consequently, Adam brought the first sacrifice 5777 years ago this past Tuesday. Rationally, other humans did not exist. But the Torah is encouraging us to incorporate that perspective even when we are surrounded by other people. Rather than adopt the pernicious superego-motivated approach of comparison and criticism, the Torah advises each person to allow himself the freedom to capitalize on his own existence and intrinsic capabilities.

Steve Jobs was not necessarily the most talented, brightest or most insightful individual. Yet, he noticed his capabilities and reported that he was able to subdue his critical, self-effacing superego. The Apple did not fall far from the Steve.

You might encounter and struggle with your superego’s critical eye, during Nisan or throughout the year. Perhaps you will begin to tame it with a simple realization, like Steve Jobs reports he did. Perhaps it will be a long journey with growth and setbacks along the path. Maybe it will even be both – an aha! moment followed by a long trek. It might be a discussion worth having with yourself, following in the footsteps of your earliest ancestor, Adam.

I Am So Different Than You…and Let’s Keep It That Way

Interacting with people can be so hard! Find out why…and how you can think different.

I hate socializing.

Awk- waard!

I have nothing to say at the table.

Everyone else is so different than I am.

They sooo don’t get me.

A chief complaint that we can feel when we are in a group of people is that we are markedly different than the others. Sometimes we might feel inferior – not as knowledgeable, less “with it,” or not too sociable. On other occasions we might feel that we are “better” – more intelligent, further refined, or superior conversationalists. These thoughts can leave us feeling that we have little to talk to everyone else about. We might feel “out of it” or not too energetic as the conversation buzzes around us. Then, the ideas that we had about the group become even more true as our prophesies of difference fulfill themselves.

There is a fascinating background story to this experience. A tension exists deep within us. On the one hand, we deeply desire to feel unique. That yearning was with us since our earliest days, and perhaps before then. We wanted our parents to take care of us, protect us, and show us their love and how we were special to them. As we matured physically and emotionally, we remained with that perpetual desire to feel unique. In addition, each of us really is unique. We are each different from one another physically, and that reflects the exclusive nature of each of our thoughts and feelings. We might know that, but we want to feel it more potently. Each person is distinctive from a religious standpoint, too. The soul that each person has is individual, and represents his connection with the Divine.

At the same time, the perpetual desire to feel and express our uniqueness can backfire. It can cause us to focus on it too much when we are with a group of others. Instead of connecting with the other individuals in a group, we hone in on our uniqueness. This is self-preserving. When we are with a group of people, our uniqueness can feel threatened. Paying disproportionate attention to our uniqueness feeds it and preserves it for us. In our efforts to keep our uniqueness, we create an I – You barrier.

In addition, when we focus unduly on our uniqueness, we often make a judgement about it. We can see ourselves as different and see the others as better than us. Although it might seem strange that we criticize ourselves, it actually works to our advantage. Our tale of woe as being less than everyone else highlights that we are different – and unique. We create a reality that the others shine and we fall short. It might be true that the other in a group have some attributes that we do not. Yet, we can be so desperate for a unique point of differentiation that these thoughts often feel truer than they are. This way of thinking is often painful and distances us from others, and from ourselves.

On other occasions, we might make a judgement of superiority of self. We might feel that the group that we are with is below what is fitting to us. We are smarter, more complicated, or better conversationalists than the other people there. In truth, the delusion of feeling superior also stems from a feeling of inferiority. We are so desperate to feel unique that we hone in on some positive traits or characteristics and favorably compare ourselves to others. This allows us to preserve our uniqueness that we perceive as so fragile.

Social situations can acutely bring out our deep desire to perpetuate our uniqueness. Ironically, true uniqueness is tautological. It is the very defining trait of who we are. One is unique. One is not unique because of something. “Unique” is not the middle of a sentence. It is followed by a period.

An apocryphal story tells of a man who walked into a restaurant in the South and ordered sausage and eggs for breakfast. When the waitress brought him his order, he noticed a white mound on the plate, too. He asked the waitress what they were. “Grits, sir,” she replied. “But I didn’t order grits,” he responded. “Sir, you don’t order grits, they just come,” she exclaimed. Similarly, our uniqueness is not something we need to rationalize or explain. At its core, it just is – it’s who we are and who we will be.

This was the eternal paradigm provided by the Machatzis Hashekel, the half-shekel that was required to be collected yearly, and is described in the beginning of Parshas Ki Sisa. The Torah highlights that each person was required to donate a half shekel coin for the needs of the Temple in the coming year. The Torah emphatically states that an affluent person may not increase his donation, and an indigent one may not decrease it. The lesson, highlighted by many commentaries, is that each person is central and important in maintaining the Temple. Those with deeper pockets do not have more gravitas than those with shallower ones. By extension, more or less intellectual ability, personality, or capability does not make a person more unique. Uniqueness just is.

When we think about our uniqueness as being an integral and immutable part of ourselves, it can allow us the freedom to foster it and still connect with others. We might even allow ourselves to see value in being in a group because others will enjoy our uniqueness. The more we are in touch with uniqueness as an integral part of who we are, the more it can begin deep conversations within ourselves and with the others that we associate with.

From Coup D’état to Coup de Grace: The Importance of Thinking About What You Are Thinking About

Haman thought himself into oblivion. Can we do better?

What do you think about?

How you answer that might depend on how comfortable and trusting you are of the person asking. Even so, you might not know what to answer. The human mind is so wonderfully complex that you might be thinking many thoughts at the same time. Some can be easy for you to access, and others more difficult. Sometimes, when you try to answer that question honestly, you can gain insight into who you are, and some things that make you happy, sad, or confused.

If you are not in touch with your thoughts, you can sometimes be hiding keys to who you are from yourself. That doesn’t mean that the thoughts aren’t there, it simply means that you are not allowing yourself to focus on them. Since they are still present in your mind, they might come out at inopportune moments or through your behavior, even if you are not aware of it. That is what happened at one of the critical junctures of the Purim story.

The Midrash (Koheles Rabbah 5:2) illuminates the background of a pivotal story in the Megillah. Mordechai, the Jewish sage and leader, was supposed to be terminated on Passover. Instead, he was paraded victoriously around the city on that day, led by his archenemy and planned assassin, Haman.

Acheshverosh, supreme ruler of the Persian Empire, had had a troubling dream the night before. He envisioned his second in command, Haman, standing above him with a drawn sword, disrobing him from his royal attire, removing his crown, and attempting to kill him. Achashverosh tried to shake the dream but it recurred throughout the night. It was almost morning, and Acheshverosh still struggled with his nightmare.

Haman then entered the royal chamber. He intended to discuss the immediate execution of Mordechai with Achashverosh. Achashverosh sensed that Haman might have had ulterior motives in coming, too. To test Haman’s thinking, Achashverosh asked him to recommend a procedure for honoring a loyal subject. Haman responded that the honoree should wear royal robes. Achashverosh inquired as to which ones. Haman explained that his intent was Achashverosh’s coronation robes. Haman further recommended that the man ride on one of the king’s horses. Achashverosh asked which horse Haman meant. He again responded that he referred to the horse used during coronation.  Haman added that the honoree should wear the royal crown. When Achashverosh heard that, his visage turned angry. He silently decided that the time for Haman’s own end had come. Achashverosh had received proof positive that his sixth sense was correct. Haman was obviously planning a coup.

This narrative is as a powerful declaration as to the role of thought and its interplay with actions. The Midrash comments that wicked people, such as Haman, are governed by their thoughts. In contrast, righteous people have the ability to manage their thinking. The commentaries (see Eitz Yosef ibid.) explain that all people can harbor negative thoughts or feelings. The difference between a person who leads a morally correct life and one who does not is the ability to work through those thoughts productively. Wonderful people can have not-so-wonderful thoughts. A person who wants to meet with success acknowledges those thoughts and addresses them. Perhaps he will decide to be simply cognizant of them and not let them lead him to incorrect actions. Perhaps he will try to change his cognitions. Maybe he will be more conscious of situations that trigger those thoughts. Perhaps he will embrace all of these, or address the thoughts in a different way. The only way to decide how to navigate and address thoughts is to first notice that they are there.

In contrast, Haman was filled with thoughts of aggression, and his persona seemed to have exuded them. Unconsciously, his aura expressed that he was planning to usurp the throne. Achashverosh unknowingly sensed this, and his concerns materialized in his dream. Haman was not clever enough to disguise his negative thoughts and plans. Haman might even have been able to successfully plan his coup if he paid attention to what he was thinking and bifurcated his thoughts from his actions. Instead, he let his thoughts and desires influence his speech and behavior, and gave himself away to the King.

Sometimes, the difference between people that thrive and people that dive is not the thoughts that they have, but how they deal with them. The more you are in touch with the layers of thoughts in your mind, the more you might be able to discover and understand yourself. This can lead to a more fulfilling and successful life, which is something to celebrate, not just on Purim, but throughout the year!