"We need to talk." I apologize if these words create residual trauma and I've probably already scared you off. But at least we're in this together. Each of us has likely been on the other side of this ominous phrase at one point or another, and probably guilty of saying it, too. It just stings.
Let's harness the pain, briefly, and take a moment to reflect on the elusive art form of difficult-conversation starters. The book of Leviticus, Va-Yikr'a, begins:
And God called to Moses, and God spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting, saying... (Lev. 1:1)
At first glance this feels pretty direct. God has what to say to Moses, so God calls him and begins a lengthy discourse on all means of sacrifice. A closer look, though, reveals a slight difficulty. Namely, why did God have to call to Moses before speaking to him? They are both in the Tent of Meeting and a simple, "And God spoke to Moses," would have been enough of an introduction to the communication that follows.
The prodigious commentator, Rashi, smoothes this over by explaining that the 'call' was not of the dinner-bell variety, a 'come and get it' scene many of us experienced in our youths as supper approached. Rather, this was a gentle and thoughtful invitation, a tender communication from God to Moses.
As Rashi puts it: "The language of "calling" is an expression of affection, a similar articulation used by the ministering angels in conversation with one another, as it says, 'And one called to the other (v'ka-ra zeh-el-zeh ve-amar)…' " (Rashi to Lev. 1:1)
The paradigm set forth is of angels seamlessly interacting. How potent. It didn't matter, therefore, what God called to Moses before giving him endless instructions, and it wasn't important that Moses and God were already occupying the same space. Rather, it was the caring way in which God called Moses. God asked Moses to join the conversation and allowed Moses to be as fully present as possible. While God and Moses were not necessarily about to get into an awkward or dicey conversation (okay, maybe dicey), this interpretation does offer insight into precarious-conversation starters.
How often do we find ourselves in the same room with another person, poised to enter into a difficult conversation, but also at a loss for words? How does one create an inviting space with room for both participants to express themselves, authentically, while still willing to give something to the other? Our natural tendencies of avoidance, discomfort and/or nervous anticipation often result in communication that is more passive-aggressive, or likely just aggressive: In our homes, synagogues, schools, or offices, all potentially sacred and safe spaces, all potentially hazardous and contentious.
The Torah offers us a slightly different model of engagement: loving invitation. Even in an assumed safe space, an ohel mo'ed interaction demands thoughtful, kind, and honest entry. Jumping right in with a "we need to talk" followed by whatever needs to be said may not allow the listener to prepare for the difficult message to be delivered. The example set forth by God and angels offers an alternative access point for the adrenaline-filled moments that can consume our day-to-day experience. I wish I could offer a one-size-fits-all phrase or invitation. The challenge is that each opportunity demands precisely the kind of warmth that Moses must have heard when God called him in that Tent. And that differs, significantly, in every friendship, partnership, and union.
There is no avoiding confrontation in any relationship. That is a truth. But thoughtfully and intentionally introducing and transforming potentially heated interactions into fertile ground for openness and readiness may go a long way in warding off some of the residual discomfort that often lingers for much too long.
Actually, I think I want to go back and start this commentary differently. Do over?