Why Bother Talking to “Them?”
Overcoming a Plague of Darkness of Our Time
Adapted from a sermon delivered to Northwest and Southwest Prairie Churches in Readstown, Wisconsin and Shaarie Torah in Portland, Oregon.
By Rabbi Melissa Weintraub
A common thread of darkness weaves together the last three of ten plagues befalling Egypt to break Pharaoh’s final resistance to freeing the Israelites. During the plague of the locusts, we are told, it was so dark that the Egyptians could not even see the ground on which they stood: “They hid all the land from view, and the land was darkened” (Ex. 10:15). The striking of the firstborn occurs at midnight. And the plague of darkness itself is described in these terms: “Thick darkness descended upon all the Land of Egypt for 3 days. People could not see one another, and for 3 days no one could get up from where he was.”
The story of the Plagues describes an intensifying darkness that blinds and separates those it engulfs from the world and from each other. In this darkness all are isolated, immobilized, and stuck. Hasidic Jewish commentary zeroes in on the precise wording of this plague to explicate the Darkness as psychic and moral states of self-absorption: “people could not see one another,” and rigidity: “no one could get up from where he was.” The plague of Darkness is as much cause as effect, as much description as punishment for a society descended into radical, mutual unseeing.
This lack of “mutual seeing” augments the language of “not-hearing” that characterizes Egypt throughout the preceding chapters. Both Pharaoh and the Israelites are characterized as not listening: the phrase lo shamu, not-hearing, running repeatedly through the story. Says Moses, protesting the implausible task God has assigned him: “The Israelites would not listen to me! How then should Pharaoh listen to me, a man of impeded speech!” A beautiful 19th century commentary called the Sefat Emet turns a literal understanding of Moses’s speech impediment on its head, explaining Moses’s complaint as: “Because neither Pharaoh nor the Children of Israel will listen, therefore I am unable to speak.” This reading teaches us that knowing no one is listening hampers our will and even capacity to speak.
I imagine we can all relate to this on some level. When we sense we’re talking to someone truly receptive to and welcoming of what we have to say, many of us become our most articulate and expressive. On the contrary, when we sense someone is resistant or inhospitable to what we have to say, many of us shut down or withdraw. The plague of Darkness signifies the ultimate manifestation of this dynamic, a failure of communication that results in epidemic self-absorption, rigidity and unseeing.
Most likely anyone who has ever experienced conflict — that is, all of us– can relate to the darkness of not being able to see one another, trust our own words are landing, or take in each other’s words. The plague of darkness — as rendered by Hasidic commentary — could well characterize the classic experience of being in conflict. Many scholars and practitioners of conflict intervention have long observed that escalation produces tendencies toward self-absorption and rigidity.
Pharaoh presents a caricature of this state of darkness: so self-absorbed that he can objectify, dehumanize and exploit an entire people for his own greed. So hardened, that marvels dance before him and he cannot take them in. So recalcitrant, that even when everything that matters to him is on the line, he still cannot change course.
If Pharaoh embodies the archetype of this plague of darkness, consider for a moment the ways we might at least partially recognize ourselves in it. At least in some moments, we too have lost perspective, worn blinders, or dug in, impervious to the experience of the person sitting right before us. Conflict brings out our inclination to not-see or hear each other very well and not-get-up-from-where-we-are. Most of us have at least in some moments, faced with interpersonal challenge, become the opposite of the connected, receptive, flexible people we are when we’re most at ease.
Polarized social conflict reproduces this self-absorption and rigidity on a systemic scale. We tend to retreat into echo chambers, a collective corollary to self-absorption. Informal interaction across lines of disagreement grows rare, making it all too easy to dismiss and even vilify our counterparts. Given the siloing of mass and social media, our sources of information offer high levels of reinforcement for our existing positions. Most of us go to great lengths to believe anything that supports what we already think, and ignore or discredit evidence that doesn’t: a phenomenon known as confirmation bias or motivated reasoning, collective expressions of rigidity.
Surrounded by those who reinforce our perceptions and assumptions, we’re often not even aware we’re distorting others’ positions, operating in a vacuum of understanding their actual intentions, motivations, and concerns. Many of us dismiss those who aren’t with us out of hand or disengage altogether, afraid of being dismissed. In this societal and communal plague of darkness, our desire and even ability to express ourselves grows impeded by fear we won’t be heard as we wish to be heard, or seen in our complexity and integrity. Like Moses, we become of impeded speech.
Juxtapose this with another predominant theme in our story. God says — at least seven times by my count — “Lech el Pharaoh,” “Diber el Pharoah,” “Bo el Pharaoh,” meaning “go to Pharaoh,” “speak to Pharaoh,” “come to Pharaoh.” Moses actualizes this injunction eleven times. Now this is mystifying. Why does God send Moses to negotiate with Pharaoh again and again when God could have simply liberated the Israelites with force and been done with it? God has already foretold from the get-go, “Pharaoh won’t listen.” In the words of contemporary commentator Aviva Zorenberg, Pharaoh’s “very identity is that of a non-listener.” Pharaoh is not-listening personified. The text basically says: “Go to Pharaoh. He won’t listen, but go to Pharaoh,” again and again. What is this all about?
Moses doesn’t seem to return to engagement because he has any illusions of persuading Pharaoh or changing his mind. In fact whether Pharaoh even has free will to change his mind is a long philosophical debate for another time. One traditional answer as to why God encourages Moses to keep returning to the table is for the sake of the story itself. That is, it makes for really good theater, with God using Pharaoh as a puppet to display God’s Power and make for a great story for us to tell our children and grandchildren.
Seforno, a medieval Jewish commentator, adds a twist to this common interpretation. He explains that Moses’s seemingly futile, repeated negotiations with Pharaoh are not only for the Israelites’ sake, but also for the possibility of reaching and affecting change among the other Egyptians. That is, Moses returns to the table eleven times in part to distinguish between Pharaoh and the individuals on the other side of the divide who are reachable. Indeed, some of Pharaoh’s own advisors are swayed in the story and try to talk sense into Pharaoh and prevent him from leading his people to disaster.
In virtually every workshop that Resetting the Table does — after we’ve taught and practiced skills for collaborative conversations even in the face of sharp differences — someone will invariably raise their hand and say: “This is all fine and good with the reasonable people with whom I share basic assumptions. But are you saying this would work to deescalate conflict or create an opening for connection (or learning or persuasion) with so-and-so?” Now who so-and-so is varies tremendously person-to-person and context-to-context, but you can imaginatively fill in the blank in various directions.
Here’s what I want to say about this, building from the narrative of Moses and Pharaoh. The question of whether I should bother engaging with whichever groups of people or individuals I have written off can distract us from coming to the table with virtually everyone else. And moreover, when we’re operating in a Plague of Darkness, a lot of people look like Pharaohs to us who simply aren’t.
The Darkness of rigidity and self-absorption can overtake us in any moment of conflict, even with the people we love most. At the collective level– we live in an era of Darkness, of mutual unseeing. Many of us harbor such limited understanding of the motivations and concerns of significant segments of other Americans. We live in a moment in which categorical and premature dismissal of entire groups of people has become a collective reflex, a dangerous and costly habit.
Moses’s dogged return to the table with Pharaoh– though God foretold he will only be stonewalled — presents the symbolic antithesis to the Plague of Darkness. Seforno’s twist seems to teach us that it is only through persistent dialogue and engagement that we can tease out who is actually Pharaoh — who is so wrongheaded, malicious, naïve, ignorant, or dangerous that they’re actually not worth talking to — and who is someone with whom we are simply trapped in Darkness. Caught up in a cycle of polarization and escalation that’s kept us from seeing each other, taking each other in, having a chance to reach each other and discover the ways we might connect and impact each other’s thinking.
In our work with communities all over the country, we’ve witnessed thousands of people from a staggering range of backgrounds — many of them reluctant, skeptical, estranged, and even burned — listen to and take in each other’s perspectives. And it turns out the sky didn’t fall. But sometimes the earth cracked open. It turns out more often than not they had so much to say to each other, when supported to do so — when they hung on despite all impulse to shut down, or listened to people they might otherwise have avoided. And in the most magical moments, they walked away buzzing with more sophisticated and creative thinking, strengthened relationships, re-opened hearts and sometimes even changed minds.
May we persevere in overcoming the Darkness of mutual unseeing to become each other’s partners in addressing the weighty dilemmas our country faces. Where we might have given in to not-seeing, not-hearing, and rigidity may we tap our inner capacity for recognition and receptivity. May we listen so that others might come to voice. May we come to voice so that others might listen. For the health of our country and communities for many years to come.
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Rabbi Melissa Weintraub is the co-founding Executive Director of Resetting the Table, an organization dedicated to building dialogue and deliberation across political divides. Melissa was also the founding director of Encounter, an organization dedicated to strengthening the capacity of the Jewish people to be agents of change in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Melissa was awarded the Grinnell Young Innovator for Social Justice Prize, which honors demonstrated leadership and extraordinary accomplishment in effecting positive social change. An alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship program, Melissa has lectured and taught in hundreds of Jewish communal institutions, universities, and forums on four continents. She was ordained as a Conservative Rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary and graduated from Harvard University summa cum laude.