Let’s talk it over


I have long believed that all conflicts could be settled if the parties would simply sit down together and talk. There are, of course, times when I have wondered whether it is wishful thinking; I have been forced to admit that some disputes are intractable.

But by and large, I still adhere to this long-held belief and try, in both my personal life and various professional roles, to put it into practice. I attempt to get even the most stubborn opponents to sit down face-to-face and discuss their differences.

I had the good fortune during my training in the practice of marital therapy to learn from a master marriage counselor, Ruth G. Newman. I have forgotten much of what she taught me, but I remember her insistence that the role of the marriage counselor was not to counsel. Rather, it was to get the husband and wife to talk to each other and to truly listen to each other.

I witnessed her work many times, and was amazed at how even her most stubborn clients were able to overcome their stubbornness, engage in true dialogue, and achieve understanding of the other person’s point of view.

In this week’s parasha, Parashat Bo, we encounter arguably the most stubborn person in the history of mankind: Pharaoh, the king of Egypt, who refused to release the Jewish people from their enslavement even after an array of miraculous plagues. His obstinacy was partly his own but was reinforced by the Almighty’s commitment to “harden his heart.”

Already in last week’s Torah portion, Va’era, Moshe was put on notice to “speak to Pharaoh to let the Israelites depart from his land,” but not to expect great success. He was forewarned that G-d would “harden Pharaoh’s heart, that I may multiply My signs and marvels in the land of Egypt” (Exodus 7:2-3).

By the time we read this week’s parasha, Pharaoh and his people have already undergone no less than seven plagues, with an eighth in the offing. But the very first verse tells us what to expect: “Go to Pharaoh, for I have hardened his heart and the hearts of his courtiers…”

Surely, if there was ever one person for whom the counsel of others was out of the question, Pharaoh was that man.

Nevertheless, Moshe persists. He and Aharon go to Pharaoh and confront him in the name of the Lord: “How long will you refuse to humble yourself? … Let My people go … For if you refuse … I will bring locusts on your territory … They will devour the surviving remnant that was left to you after the hail … They will eat away all your trees … Something that neither your fathers nor fathers’ fathers have seen from the day they appeared on earth to this day.”

Having delivered this dire threat, Moshe then does something unprecedented. He does not wait for Pharaoh’s response. He simply leaves.

What are we to make of this sudden departure?

Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, the Ramban, suggests an answer that gives us an insight into Moshe’s thought processes and teaches us a lesson about the power of dialogue.

He writes: “Moshe knew that the recent plague of hail frightened Pharaoh and his people very much. He reasoned that the fear of a deadly famine, which would inevitably result from the plague of locusts, might bring even Pharaoh to soften his heart. And so, without so much as asking Pharaoh for permission to leave, he summarily departed before Pharaoh could say yes or no. He did this to allow Pharaoh and his courtiers to discuss the matter and take counsel from one another.

“Indeed, this is exactly what happened. The courtiers said to Pharaoh, ‘Are you not yet aware that Egypt is lost?’ In the words of our rabbis of the Midrash, ‘Moshe observed that they were turning to each other, taking this threat seriously. So he left abruptly, so that they would indeed advise each other to repent’.”

Although Moshe was already familiar with Pharaoh’s stubbornness, refusing to comply even after seven devastating plagues, and despite the fact that the Almighty himself had told Moshe that Pharaoh’s heart would remain hardened, Moshe still held out hope that Pharaoh would talk things over and might relent. In Moshe’s judgment, repentance is always a possibility, and what makes it possible is conversation and dialogue.

Rabbi Simcha Z. Brodie uses this passage as the cornerstone of his theory about the importance of dialogue and of its power to change people. He goes so far as to argue that true spiritual greatness cannot be achieved without such dialogue.

To illustrate this point, he relates a story he heard from a disciple of the famed 19th-century moralist, Rabbi Yisrael Salanter. Rabbi Salanter was once told about a uniquely spiritual individual, one who had attained rare levels of piety.

Rabbi Salanter refused to believe it. “If you would have told me this about one of the three saintly men from the town of Reisen (three famed early 19th century Pietists), I would believe you. Each of them had the others to help him ascend the ladder of holiness. But the man you just described to me lives in utter solitude. No one can achieve sublime spirituality alone.”

Ramban and Rabbi Brodie are teaching us two useful and important lessons, lessons Moshe knew well.

First, dialogue and the readiness to talk things over can soften even the hardest of hearts.

Secondly, solitude may have its occasional value, but only a life of dialogue with others can foster moral and psychological growth.