Friday, October 20, 2017

Parashat Noah: Dialogue

A Message for Parashat Noah 2017
Click here to view as PDF.

Forty years ago, renowned American psychologist Carl Rogers joined a few colleagues on a trip to Brazil, where they conducted several “large-group” workshops. The therapists took the risk of putting their trust in the wisdom and self-guided direction of the enormous gathering of diverse individuals. They were fascinated by what ensued.

Over the course of four sessions, nearly eight hundred people assembled together, without any formally structured agenda. The therapists and participants sat in a huge circle, as microphones were passed around for anyone who wished to speak. An air of tension filled the room. The widespread expressions of uncertainty and confusion were noticeable. Many who took the microphone demanded that Rogers lecture to them. Others asked him specific questions. He responded to all with silence. 

A woman spoke up: “I came to listen to Rogers, not to listen to questions without answers. Let’s all leave.” A short while later, another woman responded: “Listen. I came here to give, not just to receive. I want to give something here.” And from the midst of those few hours of “controlled chaos,” an important lesson began to emerge. A man far back in the audience finally remarked: “It’s always like this. Everybody is expecting someone to come and tell us what to do. We are always eager to receive packaged knowledge. I think we should go back to ourselves and look within ourselves for the answers as to what we want to do.” As a similar sentiment was voiced by others, Rogers took hold of the microphone and remarked: “I’m not certain what is happening, but I do know that groups, when they realize they are free and autonomous, have enormous strength and force.”

Rogers later observed that the people initially hoped to avoid the uncomfortable feelings of confusion and chaos by demanding leadership. They desired “packaged knowledge,” structure, and imposed order. Most of all, they wanted to do something, anything, rather than continue with the anxiety created by “the unknown.” Sitting through the session, however, taught the group about the importance of hearing the “small voices” – the different and hesitant opinions of each member of the group. In the absence of a defined consequence, they discovered that outcome played a minimal role in their success, and became driven instead by the process. One of the staff members summarized the experience: “There is an order here. Not the order of rules and rigidity, but an order more like the dynamic organization in a living system…People are listening to each other, responding and taking time to be silent together.”[1]

Carl Rogers’s description of the lessons of “large-group workshops helped inform my understanding of a particularly cryptic episode in Parashat Noah:

And all the earth was one language, one set of words. And it happened as they journeyed from the east that they found a valley in the land of Shinar and settled there. And they said to each other, “Come, let us bake bricks and burn them hard.” … And they said, “Come, let us build us a city and a tower with its top in the heavens that we may make us a name, lest we be scattered over all the earth.” (Bereshit 11:1-4)

The backdrop of the episode of Migdal Bavel is painted by a general feeling of instability. The people feared being “scattered over all the earth,” and therefore began the “stabilizing” project of building a city and tower. Rather than “speaking with one another,” their plan was “said to each other.” The unsettling feeling of uncertainty had seized the people. It silenced all dialogue and unified their sights on a concrete “mission.” 

Parallel to the defined lecture and instructions of Carl Rogers that was desired by the group during their early hours together, the people in this episode formed a mission to build a city and tower.

And God came down to see the city and the tower that the human creatures had built. And God said, “As one people with one language for all, if this is what they have begun to do, now nothing they plot to do will elude them. Come, let us go down and baffle their language there so that they will not understand each other’s language.” And God scattered them from there over all the earth and they left off building the city. (11:5-8)

Since foreign languages are only understood through sensitive listening, God forced the people to carefully listen to one another by baffling their languages. He caused the people to abandon their focus on the external outcome of a city and tower, and to instead search for order from within. Carl Rogers found this to be a fundamental lesson that was learned by the large-group sessions. He wrote, “The basis for values will be recognized within, rather than out in the material world,” and he stressed its importance for our current generation.[2]

The story of Migdal Bavel cautions us from superficiality. It teaches us to embrace the chaos born out of diversity of thought and opinion. And it tells the tale human life, which is ordered by the process and not the outcome. 

In our continued search for meaning in life, we are often lured beyond the proper areas of inspection. We seek the “lecture by Carl Rogers,” or the “city and tower” of Parashat Noah. The episode of Migdal Bavel reminds us that our success is best realized when we instead search within. Turn to your family members and neighbors. Listen to their concerns, beliefs and opinions. Share your own thoughts with them. Allow the shared dialogue and understanding to build our own cities and towers.

Shabbat shalom!

Rabbi Avi Harari

[1] Carl R. Rogers, A Way of Being (New York, NY, 1995), pg. 316-27.

[2] Ibid., pg. 332.