5778 - VaYetzei
Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the brilliant and renowned founder of the mussar movement, once found himself in a wagon traveling to a speaking engagement with a group of jews, who did not recognize him.
As the journey began, he took out sefer and began to learn. But he became distracted by the conversation around him.
"Did you hear about so-and-so?!" One man asked. "No! What happened?" "Well he and his wife..."
Rav Yisrael Salanter, who did not enjoy talking about other people, noticed that one of the horses drawing the wagon was particularly fine. He pointed it out to his companions, who agreed with his estimation, and the conversation quickly moved from one to another - each man telling his best and worst horse stories.
As the wagon arrived in the city, throngs of people gathered to meet Rav Yisrael Salanter. When the travelers realized who their companion was, they turned to him in shock. "Holy Rabbi, for the last two hours we have been talking, laughing and telling stories about horses - surely their was a better use for your time?!"
"Indeed," said Rav Yisrael, "but just after I took out a sefer, you began to talk about other people. And Chazal teach out that one speaking Lashon Hara is likened to killing a person. I decided that it'd be rather be guilty of to killing horses, than people."
The Torah tells us of the two daughters of Lavan, Leah and Rachel; both of whom would eventually marry Yaakov Avinu and become mothers of the Jewish nation. But in introducing these two women, the Torah describes them as being very different:
וּלְלָבָן שְׁתֵּי בָנוֹת שֵׁם הַגְּדֹלָה לֵאָה וְשֵׁם הַקְּטַנָּה רָחֵל. וְעֵינֵי לֵאָה רַכּוֹת וְרָחֵל הָיְתָה יְפַת תֹּאַר וִיפַת מַרְאֶה.
Now Lavan had two daughters: the name of the elder was Leah, and the name of the younger was Rachel. And Leah's eyes were sensitive; but Rachel was beautiful and fair to look upon.
There's a well known explanation of Rashi in our parsha, addressing Leah's eyes:
רכות – לפי שהיתה בוכה, שהיתה סבורה לעלות בגורלו של עשו שהיו הכל אומרים שני בנים לרבקה ושתי בנות ללבן גדולה לגדול וקטנה לקטן.
She thought she would have to fall to the lot of Esav and she therefore wept continually, because everyone said, "Rivka has two sons, Lavan has two daughters — the elder daughter for the elder son, the younger daughter for the younger son" (Genesis Rabbah 70:16).
It always struck me as odd. Why should that be the deal? Who decided that it should be so? But a careful reading of Rashi reveals to us that their might never have been such a deal. Why did Leah assume that she would marry Esav? הכל אומרים - Everyone said so.
That's the power of speech, of words. Everyone said so, so it became her reality, and she cried over it. So much so that it became her defining characteristic.
Of course, the need to care for the words that we say extends to how we say them as well.
The Torah tells us of the challenges Yaakov faces in Lavan's home. He is tricked into marrying Leah instead of Rachel and pushed into working an additional 7 years. When it comes time to leave, Yaakov is pressured to stay, and work for Lavan. They come to a deal where the spotted sheep would go to Yaakov, and the plain sheep to Lavan. But when Yaakov's flocks begin to increase, Lavan switches the deal. Again Yaakov is successful. The children of Lavan begin to berate Yaakov for stealing their inheritance. All the while, Yaakov remains calm, cool and collected.
This continues for years, until Hashem appears to Him in a dream and tells him it is time to leave and return to Eretz Yisrael. So Yaakov and his family leave in the dead of night to return home. But Lavan is not done. He pursues them, catching up to them and accuses Yaakov of theft and dishonesty.
At this point, Yaakov cracks:
וַיִּחַר לְיַעֲקֹב וַיָּרֶב בְּלָבָן וַיַּעַן יַעֲקֹב וַיֹּאמֶר לְלָבָן מַה פִּשְׁעִי מַה חַטָּאתִי כִּי דָלַקְתָּ אַחֲרָי. כִּי מִשַּׁשְׁתָּ אֶת כָל כֵּלַי מַה מָּצָאתָ מִכֹּל כְּלֵי בֵיתֶךָ שִׂים כֹּה נֶגֶד אַחַי וְאַחֶיךָ וְיוֹכִיחוּ בֵּין שְׁנֵינוּ. זֶה עֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה אָנֹכִי עִמָּךְ רְחֵלֶיךָ וְעִזֶּיךָ לֹא שִׁכֵּלוּ וְאֵילֵי צֹאנְךָ לֹא אָכָלְתִּי. טְרֵפָה לֹא הֵבֵאתִי אֵלֶיךָ אָנֹכִי אֲחַטֶּנָּה מִיָּדִי תְּבַקְשֶׁנָּה גְּנֻבְתִי יוֹם וּגְנֻבְתִי לָיְלָה. הָיִיתִי בַיּוֹם אֲכָלַנִי חֹרֶב וְקֶרַח בַּלָּיְלָה וַתִּדַּד שְׁנָתִי מֵעֵינָי. זֶה לִּי עֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה בְּבֵיתֶךָ עֲבַדְתִּיךָ אַרְבַּע עֶשְׂרֵה שָׁנָה בִּשְׁתֵּי בְנֹתֶיךָ וְשֵׁשׁ שָׁנִים בְּצֹאנֶךָ וַתַּחֲלֵף אֶת מַשְׂכֻּרְתִּי עֲשֶׂרֶת מֹנִים. לוּלֵי אֱלֹהֵי אָבִי אֱלֹהֵי אַבְרָהָם וּפַחַד יִצְחָק הָיָה לִי כִּי עַתָּה רֵיקָם שִׁלַּחְתָּנִי אֶת עָנְיִי וְאֶת יְגִיעַ כַּפַּי רָאָה אֱלֹהִים וַיּוֹכַח אָמֶשׁ.
And Yaakov got angry, and fought with Lavan. And Yaakov answered and said to Lavan: 'What is my trespass? what is my sin, that you have hotly pursued after me? .. These twenty years have I been with you; your ewes and your goats have not miscarried... These twenty years have I been in your house: I served you fourteen years for your two daughters, and six years for your flock; and you have changed my wages ten times. Were it not for the God of my father, the God of Abraham, and the Fear of Isaac, being on my side, surely now you would have sent me away empty!
And indeed, Yaakov deserved to get angry. After two decades of abuse, bullying and persecution, he was well within his rights to get upset. But even in this moment, the Torah reveals to us the majesty of Yaakov: וַיִּחַר לְיַעֲקֹב וַיָּרֶב בְּלָבָן וַיַּעַן יַעֲקֹב וַיֹּאמֶר לְלָבָן - Yaakov got angry, וַיֹּאמֶר, and he spoke to Lavan.
Chazal tell us that there are two ways to communicate: ויאמר and וידבר. The word וידבר connotes a harshness of tone, ויאמר is gentle.
Reb Mendel of Rimanov explains that this is the secret of being a descendent of Yaakov Avinu: Even in the moment when you are most passionate, most angry, most right; in that moment, we speak to other people: ויאמר. We don't yell, we don't degrade ourselves by putting others down.
Conversation in a Digital World
Conveying appropriate empathy, sensitivity and emotion becomes even more challenging in a world where so much of what we say to each other is not face to face, but online, texting and whatsapp.
How many time have you felt misunderstood over text; or hoped that the person you texted understands the tone of your voice?
Theres a fantastic book by Sherry Turkle, Ph.D. called Reclaiming Conversation - The Power of Talk in a Digital Age. There she writes:
Face-to-face conversation is the most human—and humanizing—thing we do. Fully present to one another, we learn to listen. It’s where we develop the capacity for empathy. It’s where we experience the joy of being heard, of being understood. And conversation advances self-reflection, the conversations with ourselves that are the cornerstone of early development and continue throughout life. But these days we find ways around conversation...
I have often reflected on the reality that as Orthodox Jews, we might be the only people in the world that still regularly eat meals with family and friends where no one is staring at a screen.
But we ought to consider, for a moment that the words we say online and on WhatsApp can still sting. Though we may not see the pain in another person's face, that does not mean they are not feeling it.
It's much more difficult to live a life of ויאמר when tone is ambiguous. It's so easy to kill horses and people without even knowing it, and it's possible to radically alter Leah's life without ever meeting her.
Raising the Level of Our Conversation
Our community is special. Whenever I speak to prospective families, which I do very often, Baruch HaShem, I tell them of the core values of our Kehillah, that myself, the shul leadership and the members of the community are promoting.
1. We are a community of בני עליה - people on the way up. I am proud to explain to people that at BRS West, we are people that care much more about trajectory than position. That everyone can be feel comfortable as long as they are interested in growth.
2. We are a children-focussed community. We don't view kids as annoyances, but as the reason for community. We welcome, include and celebrate our kids.
3. We are a community of people that walk the narrow bridge between caring about people and caring about Halacha; being careful to never dismiss one in favor of the other.
These are our values. It is this set of values that I speak about from the pulpit, that we discuss in shiurim, that we strive together to achieve. It is this set of values that governs every board meeting, every decision we make as a shul.
And what of situations when these values are not the dominant forces in the community?
Chazal teach us that דברי חכמים בנחת נשמעין - the words of the wise are only accepted when spoken with care. No one has ever won an argument by belittling anyone else, by berating anyone else or by shouting them down. Of course, דברי חכמים בנחת נשמעין, also means "No one listens unless you're giving them nachas."
But Rav Yisrael Salanter would often say it is worth saying Mussar, even if there is only person who listens, even if that person is me.