The Message Beyond Mere Words

  • Harav Yehuda Amital



Some words speak; others send a message. There are times when words denote nothing more than their plain sense; but there are also times when words send out a message that tells us much more than what was actually stated. A person must be sensitive enough to hear what lies behind the words.


I often tell the chassidic tale about Rabbi Moshe of Kobrin, who every now and then would visit rabbis and tzaddikim in order to see how they served God. Rabbi Moshe arrived one Friday afternoon in the town of Ador Rabbi Yisrael of Apta, and he went to see how Rabbi Yisrael would prepare himself for Shabbat. When everything was ready, Rabbi Yisrael went into the beit midrash and began to read Shir Ha-shirim with great enthusiasm. Rabbi Moshe was beside himself, greatly impressed by what he had witnessed. All of a sudden, the door opened, and a barnyard stench permeated the beit midrash. A Jewish cowherd approached the Admor, and cried out: "Rebbe, my cow, my cow." Rabbi Yisrael interrupted his reading of Shir Ha-shirim, and asked what was wrong. The cowherd explained that his cow, which was ready to calve, was experiencing difficulties in the birthing process, and were the cow to die, he would lose his livelihood, God forbid. The Admor calmed him down, sent him to a veterinarian, and even blessed the cow that it should survive the birth whole and healthy.


Rabbi Moshe of Kobrin, who had witnessed the entire incident, was very troubled by what he had seen. Simple-minded Jews must be brought near to religion, but surely if all books of the Bible are holy, then the Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies! How could Rabbi Yisrael interrupt his recitation of Shir Ha-shirim for a cow? Rabbi Moshe waited until after the Shabbat meal and tisch, and then asked: Is there no limit to the way in which one must relate to simple-minded Jews?


The Rebbe answered him: "Did you hear the Jew's cry?" "Certainly," responded Rabbi Moshe, "he cried out, 'My cow, my cow!'" The Admor said to him: "If so, you weren't listening well. The Jew was crying: 'Rebbe, I am nothing, please draw me close to you!'"


This may not have been what the cowherd said, but this is the message he sent out. The simple Jew sought the Rebbe's closeness, but what could he talk to him about? The only possibility he had of creating a connection with the Rebbe was by way of his everyday needs. His words sent out a message that went far beyond what was actually stated.


In response to Yitro's astonishment about the way Moshe would sit with the people from morning to night, Moshe explained to his father-in-law what the people were really after (Shemot 18:15-16):


And Moshe said to his father-in-law: Because the people come to me to inquire of God; when they have a matter, they come to me and I judge between one and another, and I make them know the statutes of God and His teachings.


According to Ramban (ad loc.), the people's requests related to important issues, whether personal or spiritual, about which they approached Moshe:


Moshe answered his father-in-law: They must stand about me a great part of the day, for they come before me for many things. "Because the people come unto me to inquire of God," that is, to pray for their sick, and to inform them of the whereabouts of what they have lost, this being "the inquiring of God."... Moreover, I adjudicate matters between them, when they have a dispute, it comes to me, and I judge. And I also teach them Torah, and I make them know the statutes of God and His laws.


According to Rashi, however, the people turned to Moshe even about trivial matters:


"When they have a matter, they come" (lit., he comes) - He, viz., who has [any] matter comes to me.


According to Rashi, Moshe may have understood that the people would turn to him even regarding minor matters, in order to have a connection with their leader. For this reason, he did not conduct himself at first as advised by Yitro, for nothing else could substitute for such a connection.


            It is sometimes necessary to understand the message being sent even when the explicit formulation used to send that message is flawed. The Torah relates the argument that erupted between Yaakov and Rachel (Bereishit 30:1-2):


And when Rachel saw that she bore Yaakov no children, Rachel envied her sister, and said to Yaakov, "Give me children, or else I die." And Yaakov's anger burned against Rachel; and he said, "Am I in the place of God, who has withheld from you the fruit of the womb?"


It would seem that Yaakov was right, as Rashi writes (ad loc.):


I have children. From you He has withheld children and not from me.


Nevertheless, Chazal say (Bereishit Rabba 71):


The Rabbis of the south said in the name of Rabbi Alexandri who said in the name of Rabbi Yochanan: "A wise man will utter windy knowledge" (Iyyov 15:2) - this refers to Avraham, "And Avram hearkened to the voice of Sarai" (Bereishit 16:2). "And he will fill his belly with the east wind" (Iyyov 15:2) - this refers to Yaakov, "And Yaakov's anger burned against Rachel; and he said..." The Holy One, blessed be He, said to him: Is this the way to respond to those in distress? By your life, in the future your children will stand before her son.


If we consider only the words that were actually stated, Yaakov was right. God, however, objected to Yaakov's response: Is this the way to respond to those in distress? Yaakov should have been sensitive to the distress that did not find full expression in Rachel's words, to the grief she felt because of her continued barrenness, as opposed to her sister's fertility. He therefore should have responded to her with patience, rather than with anger.


            There is a chassidic saying that goes: "In all that Sara has said to you, hearken to her voice" (Bereishit 21:12) - one should always pay attention to the speaker's voice in order to understand what he really means.


            Before my students go off to the army, I usually advise them to avoid getting into vexing arguments about religious matters with their non-religious comrades. Such arguments contribute nothing; on the contrary, they intensify the split. There are, however, exceptions: it is sometimes possible to sense that the non-religious soldier is participating in the argument out of a desire to get a taste of Judaism; the argument is merely an external expression of that desire.


            In order to be able to grasp the message behind the words, two things are necessary. First of all, a person must be endowed with moral sensitivity, an ability to feel the distress of others and not be immersed only in himself. Second, simplistic thinking must be avoided. A person must fight against superficiality and understand the complexity of the world; he must know that not everything in the world is black or white - most of it is gray. It is not easy to understand the gray, but the ability to understand human complexity requires that attention be paid to such cases as well. The development of such sensitivity is important not only for understanding other people. It also helps a person to acquire a more profound perspective upon reality, historical events, and ideologies, one that goes beyond the formal view, which often leads to a superficial way of looking at things.


            The development of social sensitivity of this sort may even reach the level of saving lives. We read about suicides, and only afterwards does it become clear that the person who took his life had been sending out messages of distress that were not always properly comprehended. When sensitivity is combined with an appreciation of complexity, whole new worlds may open up before us.


(Translated by David Strauss)