The Power of Conversation (even if it is only with a rock)

Written by Rabbi Elliott Karstadt — 3 July 2022

The Renaissance French essayist, Michel de Montaigne, wrote in his essay ‘On the Art of Conversation’: ‘To my taste the most fruitful and most natural exercise of our minds is conversation. I find the practice of it the most delightful activity of our lives. That is why, if I were now obliged to make the choice, I think I would rather lose my sight than my powers of speech or hearing.’

This was saying something from a man who relied upon his sight to read and write millions of words over the course of his lifetime.  This emphasis on conversation – of the exchanging of words by human beings – is one that is deeply shared by our own Jewish tradition. In Sefer HaChinuch, a medieval Spanish book of Jewish law and wisdom, originally written by a scholar as advice to his maturing son, it states that the nefesh ham’daberet – the ‘speaking soul’ or the ‘soul that speaks’ – is the elevated part – the part of us that ascends to the greatest heights.

In era in which we are learning more and more that we are merely just like every other animal on earth, the power of speech remains an ability that we have thar distinguishes us as a species. And particularly in Jewish tradition – one that is so reliant on the spoken and the written word. Bar Mitzvah being an example – in order to do the ritual of coming of age in our community, Oliver and Ollie came up this morning to read for us and talk to us. Because language and speech gives us that ability to access the world of thought that lies beyond. To learn more about each other, and learn more from each other.

Words are also (potentially) what prevent us from harming each other, if we speak to each other rather than resorting to violence.

There is that famous and infuriating saying – ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but your words can never hurt me’. Of course that is not true. Words can hurt a huge amount – and that is partly why they are such powerful tools. If they did not have that power to harm, then they probably won’t also have that power for good. Like a jack hammer – it needs to be capable of killing us if it is also powerful enough to shatter the pavement!

Indeed, the story of Moses and Aaron also reminds us of the power of language and the power of conversation – that it has the power to wound us and to rebound onto us. The fact that Moses calls the people as a rabble is one of the reasons we are told he is punished and told that he will not be able to enter the promised land.

The difference is that, once a jackhammer has gone through you, it’s not really possible to start again. Whereas in conversation it is always possible to find new words. Once you have invaded and started a war, it’s hard to walk back. Whereas it is always possible to come back to the negotiating table.

This is, I think, one of the meta-narratives of the Torah. One of the main take-home messages of the Torah – that words and language and speaking are fundamental – or should be fundamental – to who we are. And that language and speaking and talking, telling stories, are the way we the problems in our world.

Now, the Torah does not always live up to this. And this is a reminder that the world itself is not perfect. That while we have ideals, we often fail to live up to them.

We should never be afraid of speaking. In societies in which conversation is regulated, bad things tend to happen.

We should never be above speaking. As our Torah this morning taught us, even conversation with a rock is better than no conversation at all. Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav conceived of the idea of Hitboddedut – a practice of praying alone, of going out into nature and speaking the words you need to speak. Whether God is involved is, really, up to you.

Rabbi Nachman said: ‘Set aside time each day to meditate and pray alone in a room or some meadow and express your innermost thoughts and feelings and personal prayers to God. Use every kind of appeal and argument. Use words that will endear you to God and win God’s favour. Plead with God to draw you closer and let you truly serve the Divine.’

Often, the fact that Moses struck the rock, rather than speaking to it, is considered to be far too small an infringement to justify God’s harsh decree that he and Aaron will have to died before the Israelites pass over into the Promised Land.

After all, as Oliver pointed out, the way in which Moses had gained water before when it was needed had been through striking a rock (not the same rock – commentators are at pains to say it is not the same rock!) He even does so in the presence of the elders of Israel – those who have been with the Israelites the longest.

But that is, I think, the point. When Moses first strikes the rock for water, the Israelites have just emerged from slavery in Egypt, where the singular mode of communication is not words, but violence. The one scene we get of the experience of the Israelites is that moment when Moses encounters the slavedriver who beats the Israelite to death.

The word that is used for the plagues in Egypt is the same as the word for striking – so the means by which Israel is liberated from slavery are effectively the same as the means used to enslave them. The elders of Israel will have looked on approvingly as Moses struck the rock the first time.

But now, the Israelites have the Torah, they have the words of God, not just God’s physical miracles. These words have lasted longer than anything else — just consider that we read from a text that is thousands of years old, whereas if those miracles ever happened in the first place, they are not happening for us now.

By hitting the rock, Moses shows that he has not learned this lesson – he has either not learned or he has forgotten that metanarrative of the Torah, that words are more powerful than violence; that the pen is mightier than the sword.

But maybe Moses does finally learn after this experience at the rock.

We make our way through the book of Bamidbar – literally, in the wilderness – towards the book of Detueronomy, which in Hebrew is Devarim – literally we are making our way through the wilderness towards words. Or a world in which words are valued over their opposite – which is not silence (silence has its own supreme value), but violence and death.

In that final book, Moses realises that, although he cannot physically go with the Israelites into the Promised Land, he can give them a gift of words that they can take with them that will act as a measure of their moral success once they arrive. So he stands at the shore of the River Jordan and delivers three big speeches to them that constitute the book of Deuteronomy. He ends his life taking up the power of words and the power of speech – something he himself was unsure about when God first charges him with the task of liberating the Israelites – he initially says that he is not very good at speaking.

So, may we always be strong enough to find the power of speech within us. May we be able to choose words over violence. May we have the courage to speak, even if it is only to a rock. Even when we are not sure that our voices will be heard. Because ultimately, our words are the strongest tool that we have.