Despite the many examples of happy families in literature, on stage and on TV, we know that reality is often very different. We know that families must weather crises – some minor and some major – as they grow and evolve.
In this week’s Torah portion, we read of the stress and strain experienced by the family of Avraham. As Yitzhak was welcomed into the world, a natural rivalry emerged with his half-brother Yishmael. Not surprisingly, the mothers of these two boys, Sarah and Hagar got involved as well.
It becomes clear – to the readers, anyway – that the situation cannot continue without some major changes in the way the family operated. Sarah’s suggestion for resolving this conflict was to expel Hagar and Yishmael from the family (Genesis 21:8-21). Avraham was not so sure. So, he appealed to God for guidance.
Within the text of God’s answer, two words stand out among the rest. God told Avraham: “Sh’ma b’kolah – hear her [Sarah’s] voice.” Now, this is generally translated to mean that Avraham should accede to Sarah’s wishes, which he ultimately did.
However, I have always had difficulty with that reading. Did God really tell Avraham to throw Hagar and Ishmael out? Yishmael was Avrham’s firstborn son and he was still a child. In truth, God did not tell Avraham to follow Sarah’s orders or fulfill her request. God said, “Hear her voice.”
In his commentary on this verse, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch suggested that God was really telling Avraham, “Don’t only listen to her words, her demands; listen to your wife’s anguish, her fear, the tone of pleading the voice of the woman you have been married to for so many years.”
In other words, the emotion in our voice is as important as the words which emerge from our mouths.
In recent years, we have all become incredibly reliant upon electronic communication – texting, emails and such. I’m as guilty as anyone. Even the most ardent, devoted users of technology, though, must admit that these forms of communication all pale in comparison to an in-person conversation. Even “skyping” or “facetime” aren’t as good as the real thing. It’s too easy to miss cues when communicating electronically. We can hear or read the words, but we are not really hearing the voice behind them.
Perhaps, God was really trying to tell Avraham that he had ignored Sarah’s attempts to communicate her pain for so long that the situation was now out of control. He was not really hearing the voice behind the words.
We have an obligation to try and understand our loved ones if we are going to function as a family. We cannot rely words alone. We must hear the tone of voice, the look in the eyes and the posture of the body in order to fully comprehend what our loved ones are telling us.
And then maybe – just maybe – we can communicate effectively within our families.