Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha: Vayigash (Genesis 44:18 – 47:27) Listening

This week’s Parsha is the climax of the drama of Joseph and his brothers. His brothers still think the man before them is the Egyptian Viceroy and Yehuda(Judah), their leader, argues that the youngest brother, Benjamin, should not be taken as a slave.
And Yehuda (Yehuda) approached (Joseph) and he said, ‘Please my master, allow your servant to speak in the ears of my master and do not become angry at your servant for you are like Pharaoh’ (Genesis 44:18).
Being as Yehuda thought he was speaking to an Egyptian leader who did not understand Hebrew (as evidenced by his need for an interpreter), why did Yehuda ask to speak in his ears? If each did not understand the other’s native tongue, why would it help “to speak in his ears”?
Even though one cannot understand another’s language, one can get a sense of the speaker’s emotion from the tone and tenor of his speech. Yehuda wanted the Viceroy to hear the depth and sincerity of feeling behind his words.
Toward the end of the 19th century, a decree was proposed in Poland to ban shechita, the ritual slaughter of animals. The Chofetz Chaim, recognized as one of the leaders of world Jewry at the time, came before Polish officials to plead for and request that the ban be rescinded due to the tremendous hardship it would cause for Poland’s Jews. He pleaded passionately, in Yiddish. When he finished and the translator began to translate, the official said, “Stop. I do not need a translation.” He was so moved by the Chofetz Chaim’s words, even though he had not understood them, that he agreed to do all he could to help rescind the decree.
Yehuda was passionate about protecting his younger brother Benjamin and was confident the Viceroy would hear that passion when he spoke. In addition, there is a second lesson to be learned from Yehuda’s request to “speak in the ears” of the ruler even though it was a foreign language.
When a person tries to influence another person, it is imperative that the listener be open to what is being said. If one comes to the conversation with a closed mind, no amount dialogue can get the person to think differently; the person will not be paying attention and therefore nothing you say will influence him or her. It is as if the person is deaf; even the most rational and empirical thought are useless. When Yehuda asked to “… allow your servant to speak in the ears of my master,” he was asking Joseph to be willing to listen and thereby give him a fair ‘hearing.’
These two lessons are important to bear in mind when speaking with others. If you are getting frustrated with the conversation, before blaming the other person ask yourself “I am being completely sincere in my part of the dialogue? Have I acknowledged the accuracy or correctness of what has been said to me?”
I recall counseling a couple with severe issues in their marriage. The husband had not been sensitive to certain needs of his wife but was making a real effort to correct his past behavior. However, every time I spoke with the wife the conversation went something like this: “Have you noticed a change?” “Yes, but…” and then she would proceed with a barrage of criticism. She was not present during the conversation; her intensely negative feelings toward her husband did not allow her to be present to the possibility that he was actually doing concrete actions to rectify his previous behavior. She could not be convinced otherwise.
This dynamic is especially noticeable when speaking to Jews about Judaism. A man once brazenly stated at a lecture I was giving, “religion and science cannot coexist; no scientist has ever believed in G-d.” This statement is absurd-Divinci, Galileo, Max Plank, and most recently Robert Aumann (the Orthodox Israeli Nobel Laureate) immediately came to mind but even the smallest amount of research will uncover many others. In addition, doctors are practitioners of science; are all doctors atheists? Has anyone ever asked a surgeon before entering the surgical suite, “do you believe in G-d? If so, you must not believe in science and therefore I cannot use you as a doctor.” But years ago this man had convinced himself that science and G-d were diametrically opposed and, consequently, he had lost the ability to listen (on this subject).
Another way this idea manifests itself is when a parent is not happy with the life choices his or her young adult son or daughter is making. “Before doing that,” the parent demands “speak it over with x,y, or z?” From time to time, I get calls from parents asking me to speak with their children on a variety of issues-religious and secular-but I never agree to meet because I discovered years ago that when the only motivation for the conversation is the parents, the child comes into the room with a closed mind-all words fall on deaf ears. However, if the parent gets the child to call, then the conversation begins with me asking, “how can I help you” as opposed to sitting opposite an unhappy young adult with folded arms whose facial expression and body language give the vibe, “I’m not here; I won’t hear anything you say.’
The next time you have a conversation with someone who has an opposing view, ask yourself, “am I even willing to listen?” If not, why am I engaged in this discussion?
Each of us has our own self conversation about being Jewish. “Is there a right or wrong way to be Jewish? Is there any stance on Israel that is not legitimate? (Is calling Israel the new Nazi Germany a stance that’s acceptable?) When I get married, is there a need to create a Jewish home or is that a value from a bygone era? Do I give precedence to Jewish charities; do I give to charity at all?
For some, these conversations will always remain private but there are others who are less fearful and willing to hear (i.e. actually listen) to divergent opinions and remain open minded. One does not need to agree but at least he or she should be willing to listen. Clarity is more desirable than agreement and the more one is willing to engage with an open mind, the more clarity he or she will have.
When was your last Jewish conversation? You surely spoke, but did you listen?
(Source: Rabbi Yosef Dov Soleveichik, Brisk (Jerusalem) brought in
Growth Through Torah)