HomeOpinion & AnalysisIt’s not what you say, but how you say it

It’s not what you say, but how you say it

By Rabbi Yitzchak Zweig

Emor (Leviticus 21-24)

Perhaps the most critical function in life is that of communication. Every interaction is a compilation of sensory communications that create an individual’s perspective. Thus, communication is at the essence of living.

To perform this function efficiently, the mind has a remarkable set of filters to protect itself. These filters prevent an absolute overload of stimuli and data, which simply could not be processed. The mind identifies and filters out the majority of the commonplace information it is being fed by the five senses. This is why you don’t focus on the feeling you get from the ground while walking, the sound of the humming of your refrigerator, the view from your window that you have seen a thousand times, etc. In other words, the mind doesn’t pay attention to things that it finds routine and commonplace.

Yet the mind has trained itself to snap to attention when it encounters something that strikes it as unique and out of the ordinary. To put it succinctly, the mind doesn’t do boring.

Communication is also the key to all interpersonal relationships. Whether it’s a familial, business, or romantic relationship, all relationships require careful communication.

Of course, the more you are trying to accomplish with the communication, the more sophisticated the process has to be.  The Greek philosopher Aristotle outlined the process that, in his opinion, is required to persuade someone to your way of thinking.

According to Aristotle, a person needs three things in order for make a convincing argument. To begin, a person must have “ethos,” which is credibility of character. Secondly, a person needs what Aristotle called “logos,” a logical structure to the argument. In business, this may mean data or the evidence to back up your argument. The last piece, and perhaps the most crucial one is “pathos,” which is an emotional appeal to the argument. Everything about human nature — from how we vote, to how we invest, to what we eat — is based on our emotional state and how we feel about it.

Obviously, culture and language differ greatly and often concepts in one language don’t translate to others. This is particularly true when it comes to idioms. A person translating the American expression “out of sight, out of mind” into Russian only manages to communicate “invisible idiot.” When Pepsi advertised in Taiwan, the slogan “Come Alive with the Pepsi Generation” came out as “Pepsi will bring your ancestors back from the dead.”

Many years ago, I spent a fascinating couple of hours with a Tibetan monk and his Chinese translator. The broad differences in our cultures and belief systems were astonishing. For example, the Tibetan (and Buddhist) concept of divinity is vastly different than that of Western religions. As an example, in the Tibetan culture there is no concept of angels. Imagine trying to explain what an angel is to someone with zero understanding or familiarity of the concept. Even after thirty minutes of discussion I was unsure he grasped what I was talking about.

Speaking of innate differences, at the very basic elements of language men and women could hardly be more dissimilar. As a rule, men talk more about things and facts, whereas women talk more about people, relationships, and feelings.

The male form of communication is often competitive; reflecting their general interest in acquiring, achieving, and self-fulfillment. By contrast, the female use of language is more cooperative and collaborative; reflecting their preference for equality and harmony. This is also a natural outgrowth of their general focus on others and innate desire for family structure and building things as a partnership.

(Many years ago, when my wife and I first interviewed obstetricians, one remarked: “If men had to carry a child and give birth, humanity would have died out a long time ago.”)

Indeed, the Torah mentions that God instructed Moses to speak in a distinct way when addressing the women of the Jewish nation: “And Hashem called to him from the mountain, saying; ‘So shall you say to the women and also tell the men of Israel” (Exodus 19:3). This verse appears right before Moses ascended Mount Sinai and received the Ten Commandments.

The great biblical commentator Rashi (ad loc) points out that Moses was commanded to speak to the women and men separately. He was to communicate with the women in a gentle manner; by contrast, when addressing the men, he was instructed to forcefully inform them of the laws and all the accompanying punishments for not following the Torah. The Hebrew word for speaking gently is “emor – say.”

Not coincidentally, Emor is also the name of this week’s Torah portion. This week’s Torah reading begins: “Hashem said to Moses; Say to the Cohanim, the sons of Aaron, and you shall say to them ‘To a dead person they must not become impure’” (Leviticus 21:1).

Rashi (ad loc) goes on to quote a passage from the Talmud, which states that the reason the word “emor – say” is used repeatedly (“say to the Cohanim” and then again “say to them”) is to enjoin the adults to instruct the minors that they are not permitted to become unclean by coming in contact with a corpse.

In general, the Torah uses several different words to describe speaking – the most common ones being daber and emor (usually translated as “speak” and “say” respectively).

What is the practical difference between the two words and when does the Torah choose to use one over the other?

The word daber means “speak.” An example of its usage would be when your wife calls you at work and says, “When you get home, you had better speak to your son!”

The word emor is translated as “say” and has a connotation of “communicate.” It should probably come as no surprise to anyone who was ever been in a relationship with a woman that they want to be communicated with, not spoken to.

This week’s Torah portion informs us that we must be very sensitive about what we are telling the Cohanim and we must communicate it effectively. The Cohanim, as the priestly caste, have an elevated responsibility, one that outstrips that of the rest of the Jewish nation: they are prohibited from coming into contact with a dead person.

In fact, to this very day, men who are Cohanim are forbidden to come in contact with the dead and are even prohibited from attending funerals except for those of first degree relatives (mother, father, brother, sister, son, daughter, and wife). The prohibition is found in this week’s Torah reading.

On some level, this prohibition is counterintuitive; even the greatest Torah scholar is permitted to come into contact with the dead. The restriction only applies to the priestly caste. Because of this, God tells Moses that he must communicate this responsibility in a manner that they can understand. They cannot just be “informed” of this law.

This type of communication is key in all aspects of our lives, particularly in the raising of children. In my thirty years of running schools, I have noticed that parents who carefully communicate and explain things to their children develop children who understand difficult situations and are empowered to act in manners commensurate with the circumstances.

Taking the time to explain things to your children communicates that you respect them and that you want them to have “buy in.” This builds up your children’s self-esteem and teaches them that there are logical reasons for behaving in a certain way. Thus, the children are both confident and cooperative because they have been trained to act in a well thought out manner.

By contrast, parents who merely inform their children of what the situation is (e.g. “No! You can’t eat that!”) without making an effort to communicate any understanding, create children who are insecure and resentful and have a difficult time working with others.

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