Have you ever been surprised by how completely wrong your words were understood? It is a common occurrence, but we rarely give it much thought. This week’s parsha shows it to be something addressed early on in Moshe’s career.
Before the actual stand at Mount Sinai, God commanded Moshe to engage the Jewish people and register their agreement for the covenant that would follow. In doing so, the Torah records what appears to be a repetitive phrase (19:3), “So shall you say to the House of Jacob, and so shall you speak to the Children of Israel.” In response, the Mechilta suggests that Moshe was being told to bring down two renditions of the speech, a softer one for the women ( the House of Jacob), and a harsher one for the men (the Children, or sons, of Israel). Yet as Ohr HaChaim points out, we only read of one.
But the truth is that the same exact words could have actually been spoken in completely different ways. We rarely realize to what extent how we say things can completely change their meaning. Indeed, that is why a letter, an email or anything that is only in writing is more frequently misunderstood. Even such an ostensibly positive phrase as “I couldn’t have done without you!,” has the potential to be turned into a sarcastic barb – simply based on its tone. While not all words carry such a wide range of interpretation, a great many do.
Even when our tone doesn’t completely change the meaning of our words, it nonetheless gives them very significant nuance. For example, one can present information such as the giving of a raise to an employee enthusiastically, dispassionately or resentfully. The words may be exactly the same; and, as such, one might say the tone doesn’t really matter. But one would be wrong. Communication is not only made up of words. One who does not understand that does not understand the spoken word.
Having had much experience with all-men and all-women groups, I can testify that the mode of expression in the respective groups is radically different – even when discussing the exact same information. What works in one group can fail disastrously in the other. And while men’s and women’s group may be one of the most common distinctions, it is well-known that one addresses all sorts of different groups in different ways. A public speaker will be at a disadvantage if he does not know his audiences’ backgrounds, opinions and educational levels– only to name a few of the variables that a he should ideally know before addressing a group. Accordingly, God was letting Moshe know that the communication of such an important message as what he was being asked to deliver could not be one-size-fits-all. At the very least, it needed to be gender-appropriate.
What is an important lesson in speaking to groups may be an even more important lesson in speaking to individuals. It is critically important that we give up on the notion of objective communication – there is no such thing: Just about anything we say will be understood differently by two different people. Hence, more productive than making sure the information we give over is as accurate as possible, is making sure that it will be best understood by the person to whom we are speaking. As I have always said about the classroom, one doesn’t teach material, one teaches people!
Getting back to the Mekhilta, God was essentially telling Moshe, “Even though you and I know this is good for the Jewish people, you need to present it in such a way that they will understand that as well.” And being dispassionate and objective is presumably not that way. Rather, the task was to deliver the facts in different ways, so that they would be properly integrated by the respective groups to whom he would be speaking. Paradoxically, when Moshe did this, the response was greater unity, not greater diversity.
It is largely due to this early foundation that Judaism allows for so many different voices. Our first teacher was not told to get men to listen better like women, or visa-versa. He was told to work with their pre-existing listening styles. While this does not allow for anything to be said in any way, it should make us pause when we read or hear something we do not like. We need to then ask whether what we read or heard was meant for us, or for someone else. We might find that doing so actually goes a long way towards bringing about true Jewish unity.