Communicating in Context
Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar teaches “Do not pacify your colleague when his anger is raging; do not comfort him when his dead lies before him; do not challenge him at the time he makes a vow; and do not intrude upon him at the time of his disgrace.” (Pirkei Avot 4:23) Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar is teaching us an important lesson. We must not only be cautious with the words that we speak, but the context in which we communicate those words to our fellow human beings. For even if we communicate what appears to be uplifting news, if it is at a time of sadness or disgrace, our important message will not be heard, and there is potential for disastrous results.
As we see in this week’s parasha, Va-Era, context is everything. We read in Exodus 6:8-9 that Moses communicated to the Israelites God’s promise to redeem them and bring them to the land yet “They would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by bondage.” Ramban, a Spanish commentator, offers an understanding as to why the Israelites were not overjoyed to hear Moses’s words. Ramban teaches that “it was not because they did not believe in God and in God’s prophet that they did not listen. Rather, they paid no attention to his words because of impatience of spirit, as a person whose soul is grieved on account of his misery and who does not want to live another moment in his suffering even though he knows that he will be relieved later. The ‘impatience of spirit’ was their fear that Pharaoh would put them to death, as their officers said to Moses, and the ‘cruel bondage’ was the pressure, for the taskmasters pressured upon them and hurried them in their daily task, which gave them no chance to hear anything and consider it.” Ramban is showing that they were so much in the depths of despair that they were not able to hear the uplifting nature of Moses’ pronouncement. Similar to Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar, Ramban is communicating to us that it was not that they had a complete lack of faith, yet an inability to hear anything because of their misery.
Unfortunately, Moses’ lack of understanding that communicating this message while the people were in despair, eventually set this generation of Israelites up for ultimate failure. Sforno, an Italian commentator, explains that because this generation of Israelites apparently lacked faith, they were not permitted to enter the land, and it was their children’s generation who would ultimately be redeemed there.
It is extremely difficult for many of us to be in the presence of those who are in pain or who are deep in despair. Many of us are uncomfortable with silences and want to remind people that “it will be okay, or things will turn around.” While these statements might eventually be true, we must be sensitive to the context in which we are communicating our message. We must allow our friends and family time to grieve. We must not tell them how to feel. We must not set our friends and family up for the potential to appear ungrateful, like the Israelites appeared to Moses and God. We must heed Rabbi Shimon ben Elazar and Ramban’s teachings, that context in communicating a message is just as crucial as the message itself.
The publication and distribution of the JTS KOLLOT: Voices of Learning commentary has been made possible by a generous gift from Sam and Marilee Susi