Civil Conversations: A Drash on VaYigash, December 2017


By Ilene Cohen. Delivered on 12/22/17

On Dec. 17th, 2017, Democrat Doug Jones gave a victory speech after defeating Republican Roy Moore for the U.S. Senate seat in Alabama. In his speech, Doug Jones said, “the people of Alabama have more in common than (they have) to divide (them). We have shown not just around the state of Alabama, but we have shown the whole country the way that we can be unified. At the end of the day, this entire race has been about dignity and respect, finding common ground, and getting things done for people.” Challenging his future senate colleagues, Doug Jones said, “we want you to find common ground; we want you to talk.”

Finally we hear a politician talking about unity, respect, talking and listening to each other. Given all the polarization encouraged by President Trump and his supporters in Congress, talking to the other side seems like a fantasy, but it shouldn’t be. Having civil conversations is the only way our country and perhaps our planet is going to survive.

In this week’s parisha, Va Yiggash, Joseph, now second in command only to Pharaoh, ends the feud between himself and his brothers who, many years before, had thrown Joseph into a pit and left him to be sold into slavery. Now, many years later, in a position of great power, Joseph sees the basic humanity of his brothers, decides to reveal his previously concealed identity, and reunites with his family.

We have the same choice that Joseph had in the Torah. Do we go on blaming the other side for all our problems, or do we attempt to understand their perspective, and try to seek out their basic humanity in order to communicate. Not the kind of communication we hear from President Trump, but the type of communication we heard from Doug Jones: civil conversation which seeks understanding and not necessarily agreement.

There are many “how to” books available on conducting civil conversations. I have brought with me a selection of some you can look at during the Oneg. Especially useful is Krista Tippet’s “On Being” website where she has started a “Civil Conversations” Project. I have brought that too for you to look over.

Tonight, I have chosen to summarize what Thich Nhat Hanh has written in his book, “The Art of Communicating”. It takes a more spiritual and introspective approach to communication which may be more appropriate for this drash on Shabbat.

Communication is like food or nourishment. When we say something that nourishes us, we are feeding ourselves and others with love and compassion. When we say something that causes tension and anger, we are nourishing violence and suffering. When we get lonely, we suffer and want to talk to someone and have a conversation. Sometimes what a person says can be filled with hate, anger, and frustration. When you listen to such a person, you are consuming toxins.

Tractate Bava Metzia in the Talmud, devotes an entire chapter to “ona’at d’varim” which means “injuring with words”. The Rabbis consider it a serious sin and liken it to murder because when someone is very wounded or shamed, the blood drains out of their face, and they have a desire to drop dead.

Just as relationships do not survive without food, communication needs mindful awareness and compassion to grow and flourish. Words can hurt or words can heal. So we need to choose our words carefully. We need to listen to each other so as to understand what is causing the underlying suffering. Often fear and anger lay at the heart of suffering, and we need to bring understanding and to listen to the pain that people are experiencing. In turn, we need to bring awareness and compassion to our own suffering. In order to understand the suffering of others, we first have to understand our own suffering.

When the biblical Joseph could see the suffering in his brothers, he wept and wailed because it brought him in touch with his own suffering. Only then could he understand and reach out to his brothers. He spoke his truth, and reconciliation was the result.

We can learn from Joseph and we can learn from Doug Jones. Let’s try to understand each other and embrace our differences. It is our diversity that makes us stronger. Above all, it is truth and understanding of our shared humanity that may someday allow us to engage in civil conversation.

Shabbat Shalom.