This week starts our ninth year of Derech Tsofeh. We are fortunate to feature a d’var Torah by Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum, the founder and Executive Director of the Kavana Cooperative, an innovative Jewish community in Seattle.
Just last week, the Israelites experienced the Exodus from Egypt, crossing between two walls of water as they made the momentous move from slavery to freedom. This week, we are on to Parashat Yitro, another big and important Torah portion! The young nation stands at the base of Mount Sinai, preparing to receive the Torah, as the mountain trembles and smokes, the shofar sounds, and the Israelites’ senses are confused (vocabulary bonus: impress your friends with the word “synesthesia”).
Many interpretations seek to explain what happened at Mount Sinai, because it’s such a big deal! One midrash (Exodus Rabbah 5:9) states: “Rabbi Yochanan said: When God’s voice came forth at Mount Sinai, it divided itself into 70 human languages, so that the whole world might understand it… All at Mount Sinai, young and old, women, children and infants heard according to their ability to understand. Moses, too, understood only according to his capacity, as it is said (Ex 19:19): ‘Moses spoke and God answered him with a voice.’ With a voice that Moses could hear.”
This midrashic text teaches that God has an amazing ability: to speak in such a way that everyone can understand. God has the power to speak in multiple languages at once, or to tailor a message to reach every distinct audience (including Moses), ensuring that it will be received by all.
Incredibly, God isn’t the only one who can do this trick! We human beings also possess the ability to tailor our communication to fit the needs of our communication partner. We often do this without even thinking about it! For example, we might relate the same story with more or fewer details depending on who we’re talking to, or explain some new technological device differently depending on whether we’re talking to our peer or to a grandparent. When we talk to babies, there’s a certain kind of sing-song-y kind of speech many of us use automatically… and scientists have proven that this kind of “baby talk” (with elongated vowels and enunciated consonants) is exactly what babies need to hear in order to learn language.
That said, there are times when tailoring our message to the listener doesn’t always come so naturally; at these times, we have to work at it. When it comes to Judaism, for example, we might be tempted to think that there’s only one “right way” to practice or explain our traditions. That’s why it’s so powerful that the tale of the Four Children is built right into the middle of our Passover seder. This section teaches that while it’s indeed an obligation to tell the story of the Exodus, the way we explain the story must fit the needs of each listener so that the message can be received!
The same is true in the Jewish concept of tochecha, where we are called on to rebuke (in other words, to offer critique and correction to) a fellow community-member who is doing something wrong. The Talmud (Yevamot 65) teaches that tochecha is a mitzvah only when our words are likely to be heard, and if our words will not be heard, then it is better to remain silent (Yevamot 65b).
In Parashat Yitro, we find excellent practical advice for how to lead, teach, and communicate effectively! When God speaks at Mount Sinai, the message is fine-tuned to fit the needs and abilities of each recipient, and in turn they are all able to receive the precious gift of Torah. The next time you have something to teach or communicate, you too can consider: who is my audience and what are their needs, interests, and abilities? If we can learn to tailor our messages to fit the listener, we have a much better chance of being heard and making a difference in the world.
Rabbi Rachel Nussbaum