This is a space where I usually share the shiur I gave the previous Shabbat. This past week, however, I did not give my regular class, but I did have the privilege of speaking in the Main minyan of the Riverdale Jewish Center, on a topic I think broadly relevant. Adjusted from a speech to an essay, here is what I said:
Choosing Our Words, With Hashem’s Help
The opening phrase to our standing formal prayer, ה’ שפתי תפתח ופי יגיד תהלתיך, Hashem open my lips and let my mouth say your praises, is one we could use more often than we do. Aside from the three times a day we already say it, some people use it to introduce their spoken or written words, as an expression of the hope that what they say, orally or in writing, will be productive and advantageous, valuable and helpful. Productive and advantageous, valuable and helpful, laudable goals for all our words, not just those said in prayer. There are many ways to define those terms.
As a start, let’s remember that ה’ שפתי תפתח appears originally in Psalm 51, which King David wrote upon the occasion of Natan remonstrating with him over his conduct in the matter of Batsheva. Recognizing the need for repentance, David writes this psalm, and begs Hashem to open his mouth, since sacrifices won’t do it.
He knows he needs the internal experience of brokenness along with the right words to express what is inside. The right words; such a simple aim, so hard to achieve. How to know when to say what? There are many examples that could fill our time; here, I want to focus on one that has grown to seem, to me, one of the central challenges of our time, for us as individuals, us as a community, us as members of the broader American, possibly even Western, collective.
A Trouble We Try to Deny: Intractable Disagreement To understand the problem, imagine yourself as part of the following scenario: Two people, two factions of a community, two segments of a nation (geographic or ideological) disagree on an issue. What do they do?
Our instinct is to advise them to talk it out, because we cling to the idea that if we are only clear enough, speak of our view for long enough, find the right arguments or proofs, the other person or side will have to concede the wisdom of our perspective.
Only it’s not true. It turns out that the other side is often or usually just as sure of their view as we are. It’s probably also true that reason plays less of a role for most of us in forming our opinions, that our worldviews start somewhere deeper inside of us, that our opinions on a particular issue are an outcome of fundamental assumptions we make about the world (some of them emotional rather than intellectual or logical), which we then apply to a current case.
But if we will not be able to agree on an issue, if statistics or arguments or stories won’t bring us to change our views, what do we do then? A cynical view is that we can find the way to change people’s minds even if they don’t want to be changed, that we can manipulate others to come over to our side.
We should bristle at that, since such tactics can work for both sides of any issue, and I wouldn’t think that’s the world we want, where there’s an arms race over how to fool us into adopting views we wouldn’t take on our own. If not that, what then?
Compromise and Its Discontents
The ideal, of course, is compromise, and when it can be reached, that’s usually to the good. Except that recent years have shown us how hard it can be, because it means yielding on issues that truly matter. I have seen the right refuse to compromise, or the left; the “more” religious, or the “less”; the husband, or the wife; the parents or the children.
Nor do I mean that it’s always (or maybe ever) clear which side should compromise. Compromise means both sides accept an outcome meaningfully far from what they wanted, that gives too much power or money or goods to the other side, gives us too little.
Recently, it seems to me, we most of us have found that too hard, at all levels of social interaction, from the individual to the national. Part of that is that many of us have developed an expansive list of issues on which we think it’s wrong to compromise—and it’s not the same list. The kicker is that there are such issues.
To stay away from Jewish issues, which might be alive enough that they’ll distract you from the larger point, let’s consider Martin Luther King Jr. and those who worked with him to teach or remind the United States that it is wrong to discriminate against people because of the color of their skin.
To get there—and I am not claiming the US has vanquished racism, only that public discourse now accepts that racism is wrong, itself an important achievement—took some level of absolutism, of refusing to compromise with those who would say, let’s reduce institutionalized racism, as a first step, and that will be a compromise. Because sometimes the “other side” is too illegitimate to be countenanced.
If Not Compromise, What Then?
All well and good, and there is value in pausing to commemorate a man who worked hard to raise our awareness of that. But if we are going to live together, in families, in communities, in societies, we need the list of those issues on which we absolutely cannot allow other perspectives to be as short as possible.
Otherwise, every time an issue arises (we see it happen today, on both sides of political, religious, communal, and social aisles), we will feel obligated to dig in and fight to the death (or to make fake compromises, which we then plan to immediately undermine, by working for our next goal).
As will the other side, creating ever more impasses, forestalling forward progress. In that context, too, I think we need David’s words, ה’ שפתי תפתח ופי יגיד תהלתיך, Hashem, open my mouth and let me recount your praise. Not your praise in the sense of saying how great You are, but in the sense of doing my best to build this world You gave us.
Doing my best to ask and answer the question: granted that we disagree, deeply, that we will never come to accept each other’s position, and that we cannot currently compromise, what then? Today, our answer seems to be, fight it out, over and over, the winner being the one willing to wait the longest, fight the nastiest or most manipulatively, develop the most power or leverage.
To me, that shows how many of us miss the crucial point of ה’ שפתי תפתח, that we should seek to speak productively, in ways that help us live together. For as long as the other side’s position is not intolerable, we have to work to live together, maintaining our social bonds. And that involves granting and recognizing that we will often disagree, in ways that will not change. And asking ourselves, what then?
What Not To Do
Too often, it’s “I’ll find the way to get my way,” I’ll use my political skills, I’ll bring my greater resources to bear, I’ll refuse to budge until the other side gives in. It might work, but it teaches the other side to act the same way when they can, turning our lives into an arms race.
When we’re frustrated with that other side, we often say to ourselves, how dare they refuse to negotiate or compromise? How dare they ram this down our throats without taking our perspective into account? Sometimes, it’s because we’ve done or would do the same, given the opportunity.
Too many times, we ask ourselves “what’s the right answer?,” when we should be asking “what’s the best answer the group of people among whom I live and with whom I am building my life can agree to and live up to?”
As soon as we are part of a collective, a two-person friendship or a three hundred million person nation, what we want only counts as part of a whole picture, that works, as best as possible, for as much of the group as possible. To adapt to that, we have to adjust, stop looking and fighting for the answer we know is right or best, and start looking for the answer with which our group as a whole will do best at that time. That will lead us, eventually, to compromise.
Until Then, What?
Until we are ready for that, there is no simple answer. But this week’s parsha, which starts and ends in the middle of the Exodus, offers some crucial steps. One comes early, when Hashem tells Moshe it’s time for the Jews to leave Egypt, and Moshe expresses his dubiousness about how that can work, given that the Jews weren’t listening to him, מקוצר רוח, from a shortness of breath or of spirit, ומעבודה קשה, and from being too burdened with hard work.
The Jews couldn’t hear Moshe because of their shortness of spirit and their hard labors. If we want to hear each other, in case the other has an idea worth incorporating or converting to, or so we can begin to see where a common path despite our disagreements might open, we need אורך רוח, length of spirit, and to avoid עבודה קשה, to prevent our work from so overwhelming or dominating our thoughts that we cannot imagine having the freedom, flexibility, and freshness to look at someone else, say, “Ok, we disagree. Now, how do we live together?”
When we’re stressed, and burdened, and busy, that’s much harder.
Staying in the Game
Another, perhaps even more important part of the answer, I propose, comes from Moshe’s repeated interactions with Par’oh, as the plagues progress towards the inevitable conclusion Par’oh seems unable to anticipate. Moshe knows, Hashem knows, we know, how the story must end, but Par’oh doesn’t know. Instead of bringing the clinching punishments from the start, Hashem leaves him around, giving him and those around him opportunities to change their minds.
Some Egyptians, according to Rashi, heeded Moshe’s warnings before the pestilence hit, saving their animals. Some, according to the text, feared Hashem enough to bring their slaves and animals home before the hail hit. Each step counts.
We stay in the game, we find a way to move forward, together, as much as possible, knowing we don’t agree. We share meals, times of joy, times of illness or bereavement, we build connections even as we differ on that which might be ultimately important or only very, very important.
But we move forward, we search for the words to take each of us from where we are to the next step in our journey, building bridges as we can, making compromises as we can, hopefully coming always and ever closer to Hashem, to living our lives as Hashem has commanded us, and as Hashem hopes for from us, and to finding ways to do it, as much as possible, together.
Always hoping and praying ה’ שפתי תפתח ופי יגיד תהלתיך, Hashem open my lips and let my mouth tell Your praises. Directly or indirectly, but producing a world closer to what Hashem wants and hopes for from us.