Considering Replies

Hod is the counterpoint to Netzach. While Netzach strives to connect, Hod ensures that the power and energy in that striving is appropriate and acceptable. As we said earlier, it makes no sense to impress a student if the information is just too much to assimilate. Hod assembles the information to match the capacity of the receiver.

Hod tempers the force of Netzach, which, unchecked, can create distance rather than closeness. We have all experienced the colleague who is so effusive about his proposal that people simply stop listening. We have seen good ideas go ignored because an empathetic heart did not balance the Netzach exuberance. Empathy lies at the core of a caring relationship.

-Rabbi Laibl Wolf
“Hod: Creating Empathy” (pg 181)
Practical Kabbalah: A Guide to Jewish Wisdom for Everyday Life

If you’ve been reading my blog for the past week or so, you’ll know that I’ve been participating in an ongoing dialogue on the issue of Christmas trees and pagan practices in a number of online venues including Boaz Michael’s Facebook page, Jacob Fronczak’s Hope Abbey blog, and Judah Himango’s blog Kineti L’Tziyon. While the content on the blog pages themselves is reasonable (regardless of whether or not you or I may agree with that content), some of the comments made in response were not. I felt they represented an attack on Christianity or at least on those Christians who choose to put a Christmas tree in their homes, decorate it with tinsel, ornaments, and lights, and put gifts under it.

But I did’t write this “extra meditation” to talk about that again. I’m pretty much “talked out” as far as “Christmasphobia” is concerned and would just end up repeating myself if I tried to blog on it one more time. Instead, I’m here to talk about the communication dynamics I saw in those conversations and more in general, how methods of communication sell or sink our message as believers.

Most of the people who regularly read this blog probably aren’t interested in Kabbalah and some of you may be strongly opposed to its study, but in reading Rabbi Wolf’s discussion of Hod and Netzach, I recognized some of the common issues we all have when we want to get out point across.

Christians generally believe we have received a mandate from Jesus in what is called “the Great Commission.”

And you, go to all the nations. Make disciples; immerse them for the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and teach them to keep all that I have commanded you. And see, I am with you all the days until the end of the age. Amen. –Matthew 28:19-20 (DHE Gospels)

For nearly 2,000 years, Christians have, in one form or another, been attempting to tell the world about the Good News of Jesus Christ and the promise of salvation. We haven’t always done a good job at it, though. I’d say the various Crusades, Inquisitions, and Pogroms the church has lead can be described as a dismal failure of our evangelical directive. Even today, many non-believers cringe when a Christian asks them questions such as, “If you were to die tonight, do you know where your soul would go?” We are often depicted as judgmental, rigid, sexist, backward, superstitious “Bible-thumpers” and that description isn’t always particularly inaccurate.

It’s not so much the message we are trying to deliver that communicates such a dismal picture of the church, but how that message is transmitted. Christians really can be judgmental, inflexible, and insensitive to the needs of others, particularly of how people need to hear what we have to say (whether they choose to agree with us or not). We’ve gotten to the point where some folks want to run away when they think we’re about to try to convert them.

If you re-read the quotes I presented above, I’m sure you can immediately recognize that when we people of faith get such responses, we are likely leading with Netzach at the expense of Hod. This can especially be a problem with “text-only” communications on the Internet, such as in Facebook and blog comments, because most of what we use to communicate (body language, vocal tone and inflection) is completely absent. All we have is plain text and without anything to modify it, what we think we’re saying clearly can be terribly misunderstood. A message we think we’ve said with warmth and compassion can come across at hostile and uncaring. When confronted with such a message, it’s very easy to get worked up and fire back a response that is actually angry. The web conversation goes downhill from there, and I’m as guilty of such a transgression as anyone else.

Modeh AniWhat’s missing is illustrated by Rabbi Wolf in how he explains the Modeh Ani blessing which is recited by every observant Jew at the very moment when they realize they’re awake each morning.

The Kabbalah explains that this morning affirmation, known as Modeh Ani, provides the space to enter into the magical moments characterized by the transition from the unconsciousness of sleep into the light of day. The term Modah Ani is enunciated first thing in the morning. It means “I accept,” “I surrender,” or “I acknowledge,” or “I bow in front of you.” It is linked etymologically to the word for “thank you” in Hebrew (Todah)…

When we say “thank you” we are withdrawing and creating a comfort zone for another person. We touch their essence and draw it toward us. “Thank you” is a verbalization of the Hod flow. That is why it is so important to teach youngsters to say “thank you,” even if the deeper import is not yet fully understood. It trains children to express humility and an acknowledgment of others.

People who show humility invite more relationships into their lives.

-Rabbi Wolf (pp 185-7)

Putting Kabbalah and even the Modeh Ani aside, pay attention to the key phrase in Rabbi Wolf’s narrative: “we are withdrawing and creating a comfort zone for another person.” If we want someone else to hear us, regardless of our message, we must create a “comfort zone” for them, not for us. Yet we often do the exact opposite, creating a comfort zone for us and putting the listener on the defensive. This is especially easy to do on the Internet, even if it’s not our intent, because most of the elements of complete communication are not available. On top of that, we sometimes “pull rank” by explaining our abundant qualifications to be able to transmit our message. I don’t mind learned people and even “experts” in a particular field who have something to say, but a person who repeatedly has to outline their “quals” while making their point is an immediate turn off to me. The more you have to tell people, “I’m important and a big deal”, the more most people (me included) will believe that you’re not.

In one of the conversations I mentioned, one fellow responded like this:

I am a Hebrew. I am a Messianic Jew. A Kohen Levi. I am not one of the lost 12 tribes, nor do I believe in it.
My credentials…

I have no doubt all that is true for this person and you might say something like, “What’s wrong with what he said if it’s true? Is there a problem telling the truth?”

My answer: yes and no.

I don’t know how many conversations, both online and in person, I’ve been involved in (and where I was being put on the defensive) where the person talking to me responded to my resistence by saying, “well, it’s the truth!” Truth though it may be, if you can’t tell me the truth in a way that doesn’t drag me or other people through the mud (whether you really are or it just sounds that way), am I likely to listen? I’m not saying that you will or won’t convince me of your point of view, but there’s more than one way to present it. If you shove pure “Netzach” in my face while “Hod” has been left ten miles behind in the conversation, doesn’t this create a problem? It doesn’t matter what your family or cultural lineage is, how learned you are, how many languages you speak, and how much of a “Torah expert” you happen to be, if your message is delivered with all the tact of a barbarian horde riding madly across the seven hills of Rome, bent on the destruction, mayhem, and looting. No, I’m not saying that your intent is bad, just your delivery (OK, for some people, the intent is bad too, but it’s almost impossible to separate intent from inadequate communication over the web).

You Christians trying to fulfill your responsibility to share the Gospel with unbelievers, you are no different. Zeal is one thing and frankly, it is very important, but if you don’t create a space in the relationship where the person you’re talking to can feel comfortable, or at least a space where they don’t feel like they’re about to be spiritually jumped on and beaten up, you won’t “win a soul for Christ” (and I really hate the implications of that statement) or even convince the other person that you’re a half-way nice human being.

Being too empathetic makes you look wishy-washy and your message becomes completely ineffective. Being too zealous makes you look like a judgmental crusader out to bash someone’s head in with a Bible and your message becomes immediately disgarded by your audience.

Remember what I said a few days ago about being out of balance?

I’m not trying to bash anyone reading this or anyone who posted a comment in Facebook or on the blogs I mentioned. I’m imploring you to please, please look at the state of your intent and the balance of your Netzach and Hod. It doesn’t matter if you don’t use those terms. I doesn’t matter if you’ve never heard of Kabbalah or don’t like what you’ve heard about it. Take the labels off everything I’ve said and look at the dynamics of communication under the hood. That’s what matters. It matters a lot because we’re supposed to be God’s representatives in the here and now. I’ve already mentioned how it really matters what we “loose on earth” because it is also “loosed in heaven” (Matthew 18:18). Being careless about what we say and how we say it when presenting ourselves as people of faith, can elicit not only a poor response in the immediate circumstance, but create a long-term and even potentially eternal problem in the much larger spiritual realm.

One of the exercises Rabbi Wolf suggests in his book to help people develop Hod, is to participate in conversations where you wait three to five seconds to respond after your conversational partner says something. The exercise directs you to use the time to consider what to say and how to say it. Use the time to consider the impact of your response on your partner. What would happen if we did that all of the time? What would happen if we cared enough about other people to create a comfort zone for them in our conversations, if we listened to what they had to say, and if we stopped and considered their feelings and understanding before launching into our reply?

This probably isn’t true, but imagine this is the reason why God rarely answers our prayers immediately. Maybe He’s waiting until we are in our comfort zone with Him. Maybe He’s considerate enough to carefully craft His reply to us so it will be the most useful reply possible. Maybe God loves us that much. Imagine if we loved each other that much.

8 thoughts on “Considering Replies”

  1. Enjoyed the post. I know I’m guilty at times of either being too aggressive, effusive, or self-centered to accomplish anything productive in a blog dialogue. Thing is: I love intellectual stimulation. And my favorite form of that is Torah Talk. On top of that, I probably carry some baggage from Christianity or even Messianic Judaism which means that if I hear what I believe to be a damaging doctrine then I want to jump in with guns blazing to confute it. Yeah, it’s immature but in my defense I’m really just hungry for Torah study, letting iron intellect sharpen iron intellect. This is the Jewish method of learning. But I have to realize that this method is perhaps only meant for face-to-face. There is definitely a bias towards the negative in text communication. I guess I’m immature though because I do LOVE a good intellectual battle. And I feel like I have some great weapons as far as that goes and like any man who has weapons I yearn to use them. As men, we love to do battle in all its forms. Perhaps this is one of the healthier forms of battle, yes?

    Anyway, I hope I didn’t say anything in our recent dialogues to offend you. I’ve read your posts on other blogs and have really enjoyed them. I love the blogosphere! It’s such an interesting time in which we live!

    Take care and G-d bless! : )

  2. I did not know about Modeh Ani at all. Interesting.

    I mostly steer clear of Internet arguments. NOT worth it, especially not for emotionally fragile me. My recent argument with Cindy Sandifer was the last (and most intense one) I had had for a long time. In the end, I do feel it was fruitful for us both. I have never commented in a cesspit like YouTube, and don’t even read video comments there anymore.

  3. @likesarah: I appreciate the complement and I completely agree that we need to put our “humble” foot forward first.

    @Peter: I think we all get a little excited and determined on the Internet. There’s something about being at least a little anonymous that allows us to “say” things on the web we’d never say, or never say in the same way, in a face to face conversation. I’m as guilty of that sort of behavior as anyone and I love a good debate, but we forget that there are real human beings behind all of these keyboards and computer monitors and our words contain real power to heal or to hurt.

    I appreciate you stopping by here and being willing to comment. Thanks.

    @Andrew. I love the Modei Ani blessing and it’s virtually the first thing I think about when I wake up in the morning. It’s short and easy to memorize so I don’t have to pick up a siddur to say the blessing. I also love the bedtime Shema, though I only recite it from Psalm 128 until the end. I try to start my day with my first thoughts on God and have my last thoughts be of Him at the end of the day. It especially helps when what’s happened in the middle has been less focused on God.

    I know what you mean about Internet debates and agree that it is often wiser to stay away from them if the only thing that will be accomplished is hurt feelings.

    Don’t think I’ve ever commented on YouTube, either. The Internet can be a rough neighborhood.

    Blessings, all. Good night.

  4. Hi James,

    That was an amazing post, delivering the truth in meekness. It’s our intent that people really do see, even if it’s in written text. That means to me, check your heart, your motives, before you speak. Motive is everything.
    I really do love this post. Wow, need to know more about the Hod? Thank you for this information. I don’t study Kabbalah, but the connection between the two is interesting.
    Out of the abundence of the heart man speaks. So, what’s in our hearts really is going to come out, even in the written word, so we need to be very careful what we say. We will be judged by our own words, every idle word that men speak, they will have to give account for.

  5. Hi Michelle,

    I agree that our intentions and motives are very, very important in how we present ourselves to others, but those can be completely lost in Internet or other forms of text-only communications. Back in the late 1970s or early 80s, I worked at a Suicide Prevention Hotline in the San Francisco Bay Area (East Bay, actually). We had installed a TTY machine so hearing impaired people could call us without having to go through a service. We very rarely got calls through the machine, but I remember talking to one person in a way that I thought communicated deep caring and concern, just as I talked to others over the voice line. His final response to me before ending the call was to accuse me of being cold and unfeeling.

    Needless to say, I was stunned but then, I couldn’t hear how I meant for me words to come across. My tone and inflection would have significantly modified what I had typed on the machine. 30 years ago, this type of communication was an extremely rare event in the life of an ordinary person. Now it’s incredibly common, but we face the same pitfalls that I faced way back then…trying to relate emotion and intent accurately using only alphanumeric characters.

    I think that being overly zealous can do great harm if not balanced by compassion and concern for the person you’re talking to, but we shouldn’t underestimate the medium by which we’re communicating to strip away most of the humanity from our message. I’m a professional writer and so I know how difficult it is to send a message from the heart on the “printed page” or what passes for it on the web.

    As far as Hod and Netzach are concerned, they are only two of the Ten Sefirot or “Ten Divine Emanations” that are foundational to Kabbalah. While Kabbalah isn’t for everyone, Rabbi Wolf’s book Practical Kabbalah makes the nuts and bolts of this form of understanding really accessible. You don’t have to be a scholar or a mystic to gain something from what he’s written. The focus of his book is personal development and it’s not that different than other self-help type books. He references a number of sources outside of Kabbalah and Judaism including Steven Covey’s book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People (and I believe Covey is a Christian).

    If you want to get a basic understanding of how the Sefirot work in human interactions, I’d recommend Rabbi Wolf’s book. I think you can pick up a copy pretty inexpensively on Amazon.

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