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Digging for Connection

09/10/2021 02:09:38 PM


Rabbi Brent Spodek

Earlier this summer, my family and I went canoe camping up in the Adirondacks, which was beautiful - we were together in the forest, happily singing as we paddled under clear blue skies.

At least for the first day. 

We caught a fair bit of rain the second day and by the third morning, as the edge of Hurricane Fredrick made its way through the mountains, things were not so beautiful. We were wet, our gear was muddy and there was no real prospect of either of those things changing any time soon. 

So that third morning, we broke camp and hauled canoes and damp sleeping bags down to the edge of the Raquette River for the next leg of our soggy journey. Back and forth I went with canoes on my shoulders and bags in my arms, grumbling in my mind that the weather clearly had a personal vendetta against us, that my kids were slackers who weren’t doing enough, that Alison had brought enough food to feed an army division for a month, not four people for a few days. Grumble, grumble, grumble. 

At very least, I knew enough to keep my mouth shut so that my negativity could stay in my own head. 

Then, my eldest kid came over to me, put their hand on my shoulder in exactly the way I do when I want to reassure my kids that I love them as I tell them that they are screwing something up and said, “Hey dad. You know how you are telling me and Abe that the first rule of a camping trip is no whining, no complaining? Well, you’re being a bissell fabissinah. Why don’t you do what you tell us to do - if you have something you want to say, say it; if not, please stop huffing and stomping - you're bumming everyone out.”

I found it more than a little bit humbling to realize that I’ve spent all these years studying Torah in the hopes it would make me a better person, and yet there I was, being taken to school by my teenager - in Yiddish, no less. They were, of course, absolutely, completely, 100% right. 

I was using silence as a weapon - perhaps there are others here who are familiar with this habit. It involves making sure that everyone knows that I am unhappy, without ever explicitly saying that I am unhappy. I let them know by the way I glower, the way I put a bag down with just a bit too much force, the petulant tone I use to spit out curt answers to any questions that come my way. The genius of this approach is that silence gives me plausible deniability - if anyone dares to ask me what is wrong, I can spit out, “Nothing. I didn’t say anything!” Thankfully my kid could see right through that absurd alibi.

If I was half as mature as I like to think I am, I might have honestly said “I’m bummed out from all this rain, my shoulders hurt from carrying all that gear and none of this has anything to do with you. I’m sorry I've been taking it out on you.” 

But, I didn’t do that. 

When my emotional manipulation game is on point, I make everyone guess what they are doing to make me unhappy without ever owning up to the ways I am the agent of my own unhappiness.

We all are, even as many of us endure hard, difficult and even horrifying things. 

It's easy enough to get into a conflict, to stew in bitter silence, but it takes presence of mind and real maturity to step away from it. The rest of our paddling journey was indeed soggy and muddy, but infinitely better than it seemed like it might be in the morning, because while I brought the attitude of a petulant teenager, my actual teenager brought some actual emotional maturity and gave me the opportunity to get my own head screwed on straight.

The great Hasidic master, Rebbe Nachman of Bratslav, teaches כִּי הַשָּׁלוֹם תָּלוּי בְּדַעַת וּמַחֲלֹקֶת, הוּא הֶפֶךְ הַדַּעַת/ peace is dependent upon self awareness, while dispute stems from the opposite of self awareness. 

Self-awareness is a funny thing - it is the habit of looking at our own looking. If I look out a window at a tree, I might notice its color, the shape of its leaves, the sway of its branches. I might also, however, notice the window itself - the beads of dew drying on the glass, the web a spider has spun in the corner, the frame which highlights some things while obscuring others. 

Self awareness, or da’at, which Rebbe Nachman teaches is the foundation of peace, involves recognizing that we have no control over what happens to us - the things that happen outside the window of our consciousness, but we might have some ability to affect how we perceive things through that window - to be aware of what we are choosing to highlight and obscure, even if it doesn’t feel like a choice at all. I certainly wasn't aware of choosing to be fabissinah that soggy morning; at least not until my kid helped me choose a different path. 

As we probably all know, however, it's often not so easy to choose a different path, in large part because we rarely have any awareness of our own choosing. 

In his groundbreaking work on emotional intelligence, Daniel Goleman taught of the dangers of “amygdala hijacking,” those moments when the most ancient part of our brain - the part that is excellent at perceiving danger and asking “Do I eat it, or does it eat me?" - takes over and squeezes out any other ability our mind has. When the amygdala takes over, we no longer are asking if we are in danger; we know we are in danger and we are only processing if we should flee, fight or freeze. It is very, very hard for us as individuals - or us as a nation - to engage our da’at, our self-awareness, when we feel afraid and under attack.

In 1988, two of the most important rabbis of the day - Yitz Greenberg and Meir Kahane - debated about the future of Israel. Kahane, who founded the now outlawed but still very powerful Kach party in Israel, argued that following the Holocaust, Judaism must be muscular and demanding, and could not afford to take any risks. “If there is one Arab in the country who is not willing to accept the status that was given to him,” he argued, then “that Arab must go.” Greenberg argued just the opposite, saying that “Our [Zionist] dream is realized. We have come back to the land of Israel, but there is a population there and they are human beings.” We must take risks for peace. 

This tension - between the risks of defense and the risks of openness - is the animating tension of Jewish life, at least since the Holocaust. If it's helpful, this is also the animating tension of the X Men comic series, which not incidentally, were written by post-Holocaust Jews. In that superhero universe, the Nazis targeted mutants as well as Jews, and in the aftermath of the Holocaust, Magneto carries Kahane’s banner, insisting that the mutants can never trust humans and must be prepared to fight them with power and strength, while Professor X, confined to a wheelchair, uses the enhanced power of his mind to argue that if we are brave enough to face our own fears, we can come to a place of trust and understanding, even with those who would be our enemies. 

One need not be a mutant superhero to address conflict directly and maturely, but it does take a level of courage that not everyone has. 

Among those who lack that courage are the twelve sons of Jacob. A quick refresher - the 12 sons hated their brother Joseph, he of the amazing technicolor dreamcoat. In fact, they hated him because of that coat - it was the embodiment of Jacob’s love for Joseph, a connection far beyond what he felt for any of his other children. I know that feeling - maybe you do, too. That feeling of not being loved, not being recognized, of being taken for granted. 

That resentment can eat us alive from the inside out, and that is exactly what it did to the twelve brothers. 

When his brothers saw that their father loved Joseph more than any of them, they hated him, וְלֹ֥א יָכְל֖וּ דַּבְּר֥וֹ לְשָׁלֹֽם - they could not speak him to peace. (Gen 37:4)

This would seem to be precisely the sort of behavior the Rambam was urging against when he taught, “When a person feels they have been wronged, they should not hate the offender and keep silent ... it is his duty to talk directly to the offender and ask, “Why did you do this to me?” (Hilchot Deot 6:6)

If the brothers had been able to speak to Joseph they might have told him of their anger at his talebearing, and of their distress at seeing the many-colored coat. They might have spoken frankly about their sense of humiliation at the way their father favored Joseph’s mother Rachel over their mother Leah, a favoritism that was now being carried through into a second generation. If the brothers were more courageous, or simply more mature, they might have taken ownership of their feelings and invited Joseph to respond with integrity. 

It takes courage to operate with that level of integrity, in no small part because the person to whom you are speaking might not be willing or able to meet you there. 

But the brothers didn’t speak - they tried to win. Perhaps the brothers thought that they had won, because they threw Joseph in a pit and sold him to slavery. And perhaps Joseph thought he won, because even in prison, he enjoyed the love of their father in ways his brothers did not. 

The hard truth though is that at least when it comes to relationships, winning is for losers. What is it that we win, exactly, when we win a conflict with a loved one? There is that small moment of frisson when you hear those magic words, “OK - you’re right,” but then what? Do we get a trophy saying I won an argument with my spouse, my child, my parent?

We win when we transform conflict into connection.  

This is, I think, precisely what the author of Proverbs was referring to when they taught עֹכֵ֣ר בֵּ֭יתוֹ יִנְחַל־ר֑וּחַ - One who troubles their own house will inherit the wind. (Mishle 11:29)

What if the brothers had been able to say, “Hey, we feel lousy because our father seems to love you so much more than any of us. Seeing you in that coat makes us feel like dirt?” What if they had named their own feelings, without accusation or attack? There is no way of knowing, of course, what might have happened, but I like to imagine that Joseph might have responded with concern for these brothers that he loved, even looked up to. But lo yachlu dabro le-shalom. They simply couldn’t bring themselves to speak. As Nachmanides teaches, “Those who hate tend to hide their hate in their heart.”

Conversation does not, in and of itself, resolve conflict. Two people who are open with one another may still have clashing desires or competing claims. They simply may not like one another. There is no law of predetermined harmony in the human domain. But conversation means that we recognize one another’s humanity, which is no small feat when conflict emerges. At its best, conversation allows us to engage in role reversal, seeing the world from the other’s point of view. Think of how many real and intractable conflicts, whether in the personal or political realm, might be transformed if we could do that.

In the end Joseph and his brothers had to live through real trauma - bondage, imprisonment, famine - before they were able to recognize one another’s humanity.

Our Talmudic Sages were eloquent in speaking about the dangers of lashon hara, “evil speech,” the power of language to fracture relationships and destroy trust and goodwill. But there is evil silence as well as evil speech. Joseph’s brothers were unable to “speak to him peace” and so communication and connection broke down at the very point where it was needed most.

Words create; words reveal; words redeem. Words can be the narrow bridge across the abyss between one soul and another, between two human beings, and between humanity and the Divine. Language can be a pathway to connection, and connection is the redemption of solitude, the mender of broken relationships. However painful it is to speak about our hurt, however limited language actually is, it is far more harmful to stew in silence. Had they the courage and maturity to speak, Joseph and his brothers might have been reconciled early on in their lives, and thus spared themselves, their father, and their descendants, much grief. 

I have no doubt that as a nation and as individuals, we will experience moments of fear this year, moments when we are pained, when our amygdala pushes our da’at to the side. In those moments, I pray we all remember the teaching of Rebbe Nachman, that הַשָּׁלוֹם תָּלוּי בְּדַעַת. In those inevitable moments, may we have the courage and maturity to reveal our pain so as to heal our pain. 

Shana Tova

Thu, July 7 2022 8 Tammuz 5782