By Rabbi Eliyahu Safran
Well, who are you? (Who are you? Who, who, who, who?)
I really wanna know (Who are you? Who, who, who, who?)
Tell me, who are you? (Who are you? Who, who, who, who?)
‘Cause I really wanna know (Who are you? Who, who, who, who?)
– “Who Are You”, The Who
Picture the moment as Moshe descended Har Sinai with the Tablets – God’s handiwork and the greatest gift imaginable to the People – when, just at that most auspicious moment in the annals of human history when Moshe was to deliver the Tablets, Joshua realizes that something is terribly, terribly wrong. “Joshua heard the sound of the people shouting and he said to Moshe, ‘The sound (kol) of battle is in the camp!’” With a heavy heart, Joshua continued, “…not a sound (kol) shouting strength, nor a sound (kol) shouting weakness, but a sound (kol) of distress do I hear.” (Shemot 32:16-18)
The Midrash Kohelet Rabbah describes Moshe’s reaction to Joshua’s warning. Moshe was not, as we might suspect, alarmed by Joshua’s words so much as annoyed by them. The midrash has him chastising Joshua, “Joshua, you will be charged with leading over 600,000. Do you not know how to distinguish between one kol and another?” By this rebuke, the midrash makes plain that it is one of the most basic functions of a successful leader to understand his followers; to be able to discern what they want and need, what is on their minds. The successful leader must know what his followers are really saying even when their words suggest exactly the opposite! For the leader, the difference between success and failure often lies in being able to hear the nuance between one kol and another.
In a doctor’s examination room, a good doctor will speak – and listen – to his patient. This conversation occurs throughout the exam even as he is peering in his patient’s throat, looking in his patient’s ears, testing his reflexes or when he is drawing blood. The good doctor will ask general questions about his patient’s life and how things are going. After the physical exam, when the patient dresses and comes into the doctor’s office, they might speak some more.
At the end of the visit, the patient gets up and gets ready to leave. Then, just as he reaches for the door, he turns and says, “Um… one more thing…”
Ah! The good doctor is expecting this. It is the “doorknob question”! He knows his patient will wait until just before he is leaving the office to ask what’s really on his mind, the “one more thing” that he’s wanted to talk about since before making the appointment.
This is also the case when a psychologist sees a new patient. The “thing itself” is almost never what the patient comes in to talk about. A therapist listens as her patient expresses concern about a current dysfunction in her relationships. “I try to please my spouse…” or parents or children or co-workers and yet, she finds herself dissatisfied with her relationships.
The patient has come in with problems with current relationships, but the responsibility of the good therapist is to know the issue is less the immediate issues than something deeper. The good therapist helps her patient to understand patterns that took shape in childhood. For example, the child who grew up with a parent who has borderline personality disorder might feel compelled to please others since she learned to please her volatile parent to lessen the risk of being targeted. Having internalized the need to please in childhood, she continues the pattern as an adult, and finding herself constantly being stepped on in relationships. By reaching back and understanding deeply rooted patterns, therapy can help the patient address the current issues.
So, the patient comes to the therapist asking for one thing but needing to understand something else. The good therapist listens to what her patient says but hears another thing and, in hearing that other thing, helps solve what the patient understood to be the reason for coming to therapy in the first place.
Even in his or her distress, the patient, wants to control “the face” he presents. The good doctor, the good therapist, the good leader listens to the genuine kol and does not become distracted by the kol put forth as a mask or shield.
The good leader digs deeper to find the truth.
Rabbi Yissocher Frand has spoken to the same insights that HaGaon Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky, the great pikeach, has shared regarding the need to look deep in order to discern the truth. He cites several examples in Torah where, without the determined eyes of the leader, we would never arrive at the truth residing beneath an artificially-constructed surface. He notes how the Meraglim were reluctantly sent to survey the land promised to our avot. Now, the land has been promised by God. It is the focus and point of our redemption from Mitzrayim. If God has promised the land, why send Meraglim? What can they “see” that God has not already seen? Nevertheless, Moshe relents and off they go, only to return with their fearful report – those who reside in the land are “stronger than we are”! The land is unconquerable. It is beyond our ability to conquer…
How could that which God has promised, be beyond those who He has promised it to? And yet, these Meraglim baldly report their lies. What could possibly motivate this report? As the Zohar reveals, their report reveals not the truth of the land but of their own human weakness. The Meraglim – all Nesi’im, prominent leaders – are motivated not by what they see but what they fear – the loss of their own positions, prestige, prominence. Rather than own up to their ego-driven motivations, they concoct a story to try and accomplish their desired outcome. The real story is no different than psychologists and psychiatrists encounter day in and day out – stories that don’t “add up”, that are driven by fear and desire rather than truth.
The task is to “hear” the truth rather than be distracted by the stories (kol) made up to distract, confuse, and mislead in the service of ego, fear and desire.
Rav Yaakov makes clear that our tradition understands that everyone has subconscious feelings that drive our behavior, feelings we are often not aware of. It takes perception, intelligence and insight to recognize what is really going on and why we make the decisions we make. It requires the wisdom of Chazal and the sensitivity of chachamim to cut through the chaff, to discern what motivations roil the soul beneath the well-constructed voice we present to the world.
Certainly, this is true of the Misonenim in our parasha – “The people took to seeking complaints (k’misonenim). It was evil in the ears of Hashem.” This followed by the, asafsuf asher b’kirbo – the rabble that was among them.” These people did not simply complain. They sought to turn back time and return the people to Mitzrayim where, in their telling, all had been wonderful. There had been food – fish, cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic! And in the desert? Only “manna”.
“Moshe heard the people weeping – l’mishpechosav – in their family groups at the entrance of his tent.” Rashi tells us that groups of families gathered together to bemoan their sorry state of affairs. No cucumbers! No onions! But immediately after this simple explanation, Rashi adds, “ve’Raboseinu amru – our Sages said…” No, they weren’t complaining just about onions! This was deeper. It was about “…al iskei mishpachos, al arayos ha’neesaros la’em…” The telling word here is l’mishpechosav – families. The real reason for their complaints and bickering is the restrictions set by family laws, family laws that at Sinai regulated permissible relationships. Their incessant complaints are not about fried onions but women; about not being allowed to do anything I want with any woman I desire!
Our Sages want to have us understand that there is much more to what we hear than just a complaint about missing onions. They want us to understand the real story! They want us to understand the real person beneath the mask!
I know a woman who constantly demeans her spouse. She complains that he is insensitive, unappreciative, irresponsible, unhelpful… Her complaints seem endless. To hear her describe her husband is to hear her describe a monster. And yet, anyone who knows her husband cannot recognize in him the man she describes.
Her voice (kol) describes one “reality”, the reality she constructs for the world. But deep down, her description turns out not to be about her husband but herself! Her true voice (kol) tells us a far different story!
It is the task of the chochom and the therapist to hear this true voice and to get at the real story.
What is my responsibility here? It is not just to see “below the surface” in order to gauge the truth of another’s experience. More importantly, it is to find ways to guard against speaking in a false voice and creating a misleading mask. It is to present the truth of my own experience!
How can any of us be sure that our public personas honestly reflect our better selves? Perhaps the easiest way is to create a personal system of checks and balances where someone we know and trust (and who knows and trusts us!) is always close enough to alert us when we present a false voice. We each need a chaver, a confidante, a rebbe, a husband or wife, an honest person who has our trust to speak truth to us, who challenges us, who can and will say (and to whom we will listen), “That is not your authentic kol.” We each need someone who will ask us, who are you? and help us become that person we long to be, who we deserve to be; the person God would have us be.
Special thanks to my son and daughter in law, Zev and Dr. Rachel Safran, fine therapists, for their thoughtful insights and input.