My mother always used to have a sign in her office that said, “The illusion of communication is that it happens.” I remember as a teen being bemused by the seeming paradox. Yet the more I have thought about it, the greater the hidden wisdom. We talk, we write, we express ourselves in so many ways. And yet: we can never REALLY know how those words or actions are understood by others.
The Talmud in Bava Batra explores how this arises in contract and legal discussions. There is inherent ambiguity in any bill of sale or other commercial action, and the Talmud spends significant time defining the larger meaning of certain terms. For example, if one purchases a house, they buy everything attached to the house but none of the contents unless they specify “the house and all that it contains.” And even then, they own the items associated with the house, like a washing machine or furniture, but not the seller’s personal items, like clothing.
While we can (and should) endeavor to define legal language as carefully as possible, other areas of conversation are inherently more confusing. I sometimes joke that I speak Carol, by which I mean I’ve spent enough time with my wife that I understand some of the hidden references and meanings in the words she uses or the way she expresses herself. Yet that comment notes how hard it is to really understand anyone. I’ve been married to Carol for over 27 years and I’m only beginning to develop some fluency…
Moses also stands these last few weeks at the entrance to Israel trying to say: here is what I really meant in the previous four books of the Torah. I have always been trying to inspire you to enter this land and create a society based on justice, love, and faith in God. The great orator knows that his words mean only what the community hears. And so he tries, and stutters, and speaks, so there can be no confusion. And even so the Bible may be the most misunderstood book in human history.
We have a lot of work in front of us. We need to think about our words and how they will be understood by others. We need to think also about what others say and why they are saying those words. What in their background or personal story has led to this comment? Am I right to be hurt or is there more to the words than I saw at first? Where are they sitting right now that leads to this and does that awaken compassion or even understanding?
The illusion of communication is that it happens. And if we don’t find a way to speak words of peace and compassion to one another the whole world will be consumed by misunderstanding, hatred, and violence. Rosh Hashanah comes along to remind us that we choose the world we will make, that we along with God are authors of creation.
May God help us speak and listen with great care, for then we will unlock those gates of prayer and hope.
Rabbi David Booth