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Tell me a tale                             Subtle Speech: Its A Jewish Thing                                              ...
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CJA July 2010 Subtle Speech By Sari Steinberg


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CJA July 2010 Subtle Speech By Sari Steinberg

  1. 1. Tell me a tale Subtle Speech: Its A Jewish Thing By SARI STEINBERG“Its okay, Ill sit in the dark.” mentary on the beginning of Sefer Breishit (Genesis). Why did the Torah – our book of laws and history – start with creation,Thats the punchline to a classic: “How many Jewish mothers rather than with the first mitzvah or the beginning of our na-does it take to change a light bulb?” To most people, this version tionhood? Because, according to the non-textual interpretationof the joke is about “Jewish guilt” (we can talk about that someother time), but to me its about how subtle we can be in our com- tradition, this way we recognize that Israel is the birthright of themunication. How indirectly can your mother ask you to do Jewish nation.something? Similarly, much of Torah cannot be interpreted literally. TheresTrue, we Jews have we have our share of the bold and the brash. no argument that the laws of keeping kosher boil down to notThere are the stereotypical outspoken (New York) Jews, and seething a kid (the goat kind) in its mothers milk. No matterModern Hebrew brings us dugri, a word for speaking straight how you look at it, the requirements of keeping meat and milkand to the point. And there are times and places where efficiency separate is more complex than that. Why does the Torah nottrumps etiquette extras. For example, when at the butcher shop, spell the details out in writing? Is this a lesson in listening beyondwe dont mince our words when it comes to ordering mincemeat, the obvious?and we speak quite frankly about the frankfurters we want. Butmany interactions could use some softening, and thats within My familys dinner table was doubly kosher: the food was kosher,our tradition as well. This other side of Jewish communication and the manner of speaking was, too. Subtlety was served updeserves more recognition – and deserves to be remembered both with relish and in abundance. It was perfectly natural – so muchwhen we speak and when we listen. In contrast to the two-by- so that I remember being shocked by a guests literal interpreta-four-between-the-eyes approach, this other Jewish speech is in- tion of my question, “Does anyone want the last potato?” For us,direct, sophisticated, and gentle. And its as old as time. this was code for, “Id like to have the last potato, but Im willingThe Torah is peppered with examples of subtle speech. (Unfor- to split it with anyone else who wants it.” Coming from a differ-tunately for Lots wife, a non-Jew, she didnt listen closely enough ent background, though, the guest thought I had offered that pre-to subtlety and took a direct order with a grain of salt....) Perhaps cious portion – and took it!the paradigm for listening began when our forefather Avrahamneeded to buy a burial plot for his wife Sarah. The land owner, Subtlety can be keenly important in all relationships, and espe-Ephron Ben Tzohar, said he wanted nothing in exchange for the cially useful in parenting. Rather than continually beating theCave of the Machpeilah, but Avraham insisted on compensating drum of criticism, a parent can employ humor and subtlety canhim. Finally, when Ephron dismissively said, “Whats four hun- make when offering guidance and direction. Instead of sayingdred shekels between you and me?” Avraham immediately took “Stop whining, some parents have more clever packaging for thethe hint and shelled out the shekels. The result of this subtle ne- message, such as “I dont speak Whinese” or “Would you likegotiation? Our nations first foothold in Israel. some cheese to go with that whine?” This not only relieves someWhen the prophet Nathan wished to rebuke King David on the of the tension, but may even give children an opportunity to thinkmatter of his marriage to Batsheva, he didnt immediately say more about their behavior as they interpret the comment.“Youve sinned!” Rather, he delivered his message slowly, throughthe parable of a rich man taking a poor mans only lamb. The Looking back at the light bulb joke, we can imagine that ideally,sages say that a big part of King Davids greatness is that he rec- a son or daughter would have gotten the hint and changed theognized the truth, admitted his error, and expressed deep regret. light bulb, happy to have an opportunity to help a belovedHis understanding of his own actions surely were enhanced by mother. Listening to what is not being said could save you a lotthe parable hed heard. The result? David is one of the greatest of grief... and guilt.Jews in history, and his union with Batsheva ultimately will leadto our redemption. (This article is a subtle reminder to figure out what your parents need before they have to spell it out.)Midrashic interpretations accompany Torah from start to finish,adding layers of insight to the written words. One of the earliest Sari Steinberg ( is a freelance writer and edi-of these as far as connection in the text is found in Rashis com- tor, memoir ghostwriter, and author.24 • CHICAGO JEWISH ADVERTISER TO ADVERTISE CALL 773.850.9908