Reading your rabbi’s observations about a baby’s behavior is probably going to be as incongruous as overhearing a cannibal enthusing about a veggie burger made of sweet potato, quinoa and black beans with a little creamy lime aioli drizzled on top. (Not sure what lime aioli is? Me neither.)
Nonetheless, I must tell you of something I recently noticed in an extremely cute little one year-old. While I was talking to him, his eyes were not on the only moving part of my face, my mouth. Instead, he gazed into my eyes. This made no sense to me because in general, babies’ eyes are drawn to movement. Yet while I was talking to him, he watched my motionless eyes instead of my moving mouth.
I was so puzzled by this that I tested it on a few other pre-talking little toddlers and discovered they all had this disconcerting tendency. I am obviously accustomed to adults looking into one another’s eyes. But babies? It would make most sense to me if their eyes were drawn to the mouths of those talking to them. But if they are not going to be looking at the moving mouth, why are they looking at the eyes rather than the conspicuous nose or huge expanse of forehead?
Ancient Jewish wisdom might suggest an explanation. In the Lord’s language, Hebrew, the word for eye is AYIN while the word for mouth is PEH. Those two words, AYIN and PEH are also the names of two consecutive letters in the Hebrew alphabet, the sixteenth and seventeenth letters, respectively.
There is no parallel in English since there is no generally accepted way of spelling a letter’s name. The sixteenth letter, P, is just P rather than PEE (or PEIGH if you attended a prep school). The next letter is just Q and not QUEUE. But in Hebrew, every letter has a name that is spelled in a specific way and has a meaning.
In the Hebrew alphabet, adjacent letters are spiritually connected. For instance, the first two letters, ALEF and BET spell out the Hebrew word for father. This reveals that fathers lead to the rest of the alphabet, in other words, literacy and communication is (perhaps counterintuitively) at risk if we eliminate fathers from society.
Similarly, AYIN (eye) and PEH (mouth) are linked by their adjacent positions in the alphabet. What is more, since AYIN precedes PEH, we get the idea that eyes are vital to communication. This is to say that we are being advised to look before we speak.
Of course, pausing and assessing a situation before speaking is important, but there’s an even more useful message. We should look at the other person’s eyes even before he or she starts speaking. Eyes telegraph a hint about the emotional flavor of the message the mouth is about to deliver. In honest communication, the eyes and mouth deliver the same message. But if the eyes hint callous ruthlessness and the mouth delivers friendly warmth, or the other way around, our emotional alarm bells start jangling.
This is one of the reasons that in-person communication has not been obliterated by technology. Even Skype has a fatal flaw in that the two parties don’t look into each other’s eyes. You see, the little camera lens is off to the side in the bezel surrounding the screen. Yet, we all gaze at the picture of the person we’re talking to. That means our Skype or FaceTime friends never see into our eyes and of course neither do we see into theirs. Whether for business, friendship or romance, talking face-to-face adds a dimension to the relationship because of being able to look into eyes.
It turns out that even from a young age, our babies get this and though their eyes are normally attracted toward movement, in the case of communication, they know that the eyes come first. They are listening to what your mouth says, but their little eyes are fixated upon your eyes. It is from your eyes that they will know what you’re really feeling. I don’t know who first coined the phrase, the eyes are the window into the soul, but it is pretty accurate.
In all interpersonal relations, whether in romance or business, what their mouth says is always important, but first notice what their eyes say.