With the first snow of the season expected last Shabbos morning, I ventured out to a local supermarket to buy my first bag of salt for the winter last Friday morning. After parking my car and approaching the store, the different brands of salt were lined up outside. While there were four different options to choose from, only one bag had a label underneath that stated the price. That brand seemed to be quite expensive, I guessed that the price of salt must have shot up since last winter. After picking up a bag and placing it in my cart, I proceeded to collect the other few items that I needed and then went to the checkout counter. As my last few items were processed by the cashier, it came time for me to pull my big bag of salt out of my cart and place it on the conveyer belt. While looking back, I noticed that the woman behind me had just placed a bag of salt of a different variety on the conveyer belt. I figured that I would ask her what it cost just in case there was a difference in price with the expensive one that I was about to purchase. “Excuse me, would you know how much your bag of salt is, please?” I asked. “You just have to get it no matter what it costs,” she responded. I couldn’t help myself being offended by her response. Then I thought, was what she said so bad? I suppose I looked at her face for a little bit of a friendly expression or response to my question, and I didn’t find it. I am not sure what she had really intended, but to me the tone that she used made her response seem very insulting. I didn’t really respond to her comment, and instead opted to pay my bill and left. I went back into the store with the brand of salt that the woman at the checkout counter had, and found that her bag of salt was six dollars less than the one I purchased. I left the store wondering what the woman at the checkout really intended to convey to me. Perhaps she was trying to tell me not to worry and just buy the product because they are all the same. The other possibility was that she was just annoyed and concerned that I was going to delay my purchase by switching the product and keep her longer at the checkout counter. The reality is that I will never know what she intended, but walked away feeling a bit injured by the encounter for one reason—her tone.
When learning Parshat Vayeshev, we can’t help but wonder why Yaakov didn’t intervene and forge peace between his sons. The truth, however, is that he actually did urge Yosef to reach out to his brothers. The Torah tells us that Yaakov urged Yosef to “seek the peace of your brothers and of the sheep in Shechem.” What was Yaakov really expecting and requesting from Yosef? Yaakov was aware of the hatred the brothers had for Yosef. Didn’t he realize that Yosef was doomed to fail in any effort to make peace? He clearly knew that Yosef had a history of antagonizing his brothers by speaking of his dreams, which subjugated them to him as is seen earlier in the parsha. In fact, the pasuk tells us that Yaakov chastised Yosef for his behavior. Why, then, would Yaakov send Yosef to check on his brothers and expect a different result? Rav Bunim of Peshischa, zt”l, explains that Yaakov was asking Yosef to change his approach to his brothers. He wanted Yosef to strive to see his brothers in a positive light and to focus on their positive traits as opposed to their negative traits. Yaakov was hoping that Yosef would change his tone toward his brothers by the way he approached them and how he spoke to them. By this time, however, the brothers had already made their decision. It is interesting to note that the Torah does not describe any conversation between Yosef and his brothers in Shechem. They didn’t even give him a chance. They were certain that his tone would be the same, so therefore they acted without verbally engaging with him.
Sometimes we have preconceived expectations when people we are familiar with or strangers begin to talk to us. Our guard may be up from past experiences with these individuals or others, as past interactions convince us that their tone is without a doubt threatening or critical toward us. It would do us well to give everyone a chance to surprise us, and give their tone of voice the benefit of the doubt. Often, in relationships, prolonged conflict can be avoided by our careful consideration when it comes to tone and our sensitivity to it. We would sometimes be embarrassed if we actually heard the tone we used to speak to our loved ones when we are bothered by something. Tone sets the course for the conversation or the lack of it that thereby ensues. If we are more careful about the tone that we use when speaking to others, we can become inherently more sensitive, communicative and closer with those we care about. Who knows, we may even save some people money at the checkout counter.
By Rabbi Eliezer Zwickler
Rabbi Eliezer Zwickler is rabbi of Congregation AABJ&D in West Orange, New Jersey, and is a licensed clinical social worker in private practice. Rabbi Zwickler can be reached at [email protected].