Reasoning with the Unreasonable
We all know what it’s like to be internally attacked by our own persistent patterns of negative thoughts, a nasty inner voice that demotivates us from pursuing our best life. These thoughts won’t go away no matter how much we reason with them. Logic doesn’t work. We are fully aware that these self-defeating ideas are irrational, but it doesn’t help. We cannot seem to get rid of these arguments once and for all.
The story of our Exodus from Egypt can help us gain insight into a more effective strategy for dealing with this problem.
Pharaoh was the very personification of evil. Complete selfishness. Total lack of so much as a capacity for empathy. His extreme ego was so out of control that he considered himself a god. And when Hashem sent Moshe to speak to him, nothing had yet proved him wrong. He was at the very height of his power. His narcissism was still working for him. So there was nothing, absolutely nothing, that you could tell him that would make him listen to anybody else’s point of view. It was like talking to a wall.
It aptly describes what the ego can become like when it becomes particularly entrenched in stubborn, irrational thought. So the key to successfully communicating with Pharaoh is also the secret to talking reason to the most unreasonable part of ourselves. If we understand how Moshe spoke to Pharaoh, we will understand how to approach the ego when it becomes unreceptive to logic or reason.
Why Did Moshe Speak Hebrew?
Before his confrontation with Pharaoh, Hashem tells Moshe: “You shall repeat before Pharaoh everything that I shall command you (Shmos 7:2)” which Rashi explains to mean exactly as Moshe heard it from Hashem in Hebrew.
In Hebrew? What was the point of speaking to Pharaoh in a language he did not understand?
Yes, the same Rashi explains that Aharon would translate Moshe’s words afterward, but that only makes the question greater. If Aharon is the interpreter, let him speak and leave Moshe out of it. Why did Pharaoh have to sit through a speech he didn’t understand before he could hear Hashem’s message? It’s not like Moshe’s words were made up there on the spot. Moshe already got the message from Hashem before they went to the palace. So why couldn’t Moshe just tell that message to Aharon and let Aharon say it in Egyptian to Pharaoh?
No Translation Needed
In the 1890s, the Polish government issued a ban against shechita (ritual slaughter of animals). All of the wise and eloquent leaders of the Jewish community tried to carefully explain to the government what shechita actually was but no argument was accepted.
The Chafetz Chaim, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan went to a group of high-ranking Polish officials to plead for the rescinding of this decree, which would cause tremendous hardship for Poland’s Jews.
The Chafetz Chaim could not speak Polish, not well at least, and therefore pleaded his case passionately before these ministers in Yiddish, a language the ministers could not understand.
When the Chafetz Chaim finished, the official interpreter stepped forward to translate into Polish. The head of the group of non-Jewish officials, however, said, “Stop. You don’t need to translate. We understand.” And with that, the ban was lifted.
Have you ever heard of the 7/38/55 rule? It comes from a study by a professor at UCLA in the 1970s. It found that a speaker’s influence on his listeners is based 7% on words, 38% on body language, and 55% on tone of voice.
That means that most of what people hear is not what we say, but how we say it.
As the study observed, non-verbal elements are particularly important for communicating feelings and attitudes when they are incongruent with the message. In other words, if words and body language contradict each other, the listener will believe the speaker’s body language more than his words.
So you sit down with your spouse and say, “You have my total attention,” while you’re staring off into space; or you tell your friend, “No hurry, we’ve got plenty of time,” while you pace back and forth and look at your watch; or you tell your child, “Never do that again,” but you’re laughing… in each of these cases, the real message that the listener understands is the unspoken one rather than the spoken one.
Now, obviously, words also matter. Using words that make sense and are faithful to your message is very important. We can’t only rely on how we say things and not pay attention to what we say. However, in some cases, words really don’t matter at all, and it’s not what you say but how you say it.
When is that?
When dealing with Pharaoh.
When Human Power Fails
Pharaoh will not listen to reason. The power of logic is useless against him. So we don’t even try.
That is why Hashem told Moshe to repeat verbatim, in Hebrew, the exact words that he heard from Him. The purpose was not to reason with Pharaoh and get him to understand, because Pharoah couldn’t be reasoned with and Pharaoh could not understand! The only purpose of Moshe’s message was to break the power of Pharaoh’s ego through a display of G-dly might. Moshe was simply the conduit.
Indeed, when Hashem sends Moshe on this mission to rebuke Pharaoh in Hebrew, it’s important to note what it says right before that: “See, I have made you a master over Pharaoh, and Aharon your brother will be your interpreter. You shall repeat before Pharaoh everything that I command you [in the exact Hebrew words] (Shmos 7:1-2).”
The word for “master” here is “Elokim, ” meaning G-d. In other words, Hashem tells Moshe, “You, as a human, cannot speak to Pharaoh. No human can speak to him. So you are not going to speak to him. I, Hashem, am going to speak to him- through you. Don’t even bother interpreting.” Only after Moshe had unleashed the “wrath of G-d,” so to speak, upon Pharaoh without any explanations was it possible that “Aharon will be your interpreter.”
Say It Like It Is
The path to self-refinement often involves talking to our selfish side in words that it relates to and understands. We carefully explain the pros and cons of different decisions and try to persuade the animalistic urges to come along with us in pursuit of a higher calling. That is an integral part of working on oneself.
There are times, however, when the ego is so out of control—so Pharaoh-like—that it just won’t listen to reason. So we don’t even try. Instead, we unleash the pure emes without adapting or editing. We “say it like it is” and don’t worry about whether it makes sense to the ego.
In other words, rather than trying to argue with these thoughts, we speak to them “in Hebrew,” and we don’t “translate”. We tell the ego things so lofty, holy, and pure that it couldn’t possibly understand. And that’s okay, because the goal is not to make it understand. Like Moshe speaking Hebrew to Pharaoh or the Chafetz Chaim speaking Yiddish to the Polish officials. The point is to channel Hashem’s pure truth as it is without holding back.
When particularly stubborn, irrational thoughts attempt to argue with us, we refuse to take the bait. Instead, we loudly and proudly declare our truths: “I am a Jew! The Torah is my guide for life! My soul is infinitely powerful! Now let me do my mission!” And we don’t explain ourselves.
Normally, we can and should talk to the ego. We can use reason. We can explain to our lower self why what it wants is not really good for it and what it doesn’t want is actually good for it. That’s normally.
But then there are times when the ego is like Pharaoh, who was riding high in Egypt, and nobody could tell him anything. In that case, there is no choice but to unleash a holy cry of truth. As our Sages say (Brachos 5a), “L’olam yargiz adam yitzro hatov al yitzro hara, One should incite his good inclination to rage against his evil inclination.”
It’s important to note that the word “l’olam” here does not mean “always” as it does in Torah verses. It means, as it often does in Gemara, “actually.” One should not always rage at the evil inclination. This is not something one does all the time, rather only when needed. The “chiddush” that our Sages are teaching is that although anger is such a negative trait, there is a time and place when it is appropriate- against the unchecked, Pharaoh-like ego. So even though we try to avoid anger in general, “l’olam, actually” there is a case where it is useful, and that is when aimed inwardly at an ego that just won’t listen to reason.
So the next time the voice of the internal Pharoah arises, rather than getting trapped in another pointless argument, let’s proudly proclaim the G-dly truth to it, whether it can relate to such ideas or not. There’s a time for translation, and there’s a time for the pure, unvarnished truth.