December 5, 2012
Power of words
Parashat Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1-40:23)
In our age of Facebook and Twitter, we know all too well how fast words can spread. When I was a kid, we played the game telephone, passing a word or phrase around the circle by whispering it into each other’s ear, knowing that by the time it went all the way around, it would probably be transformed into something completely different — that was funny!
Words are some of the most powerful tools we have in our human arsenal, and they can be used for incredible good or immense evil. Speaking into the microphone of today’s hyper-connected world enables us to both spread positive energy into the universe, and, sadly more often, spread negative energy, sometimes leading to violence. Both are known as going viral, and both are as ancient as the creation of the world and the essence of this week’s parashah.
Vayeshev begins the Joseph cycle, which will carry through for the rest of Genesis. Words are central to this parashah, as they are to the Jewish people as a whole. Our liturgy reminds us every morning, “Baruch she’amar v’haya ha’olam” (Blessed is the one who spoke and the world came into being). In Vayeshev, words are crucial to the plot as Joseph “brings evil reports of his brothers” to his father (Genesis 37:2), and shares his dreams with his brothers and family, vocalizing private thoughts out loud without necessarily thinking about the consequences. Jacob, continuing the family tradition, expresses favoritism for Joseph in both words and actions, giving him the famous cloak of many colors, thereby driving his brothers to hate him so much that “they could not speak a friendly word to him” (Genesis 37:4). Emotions are heated and the sibling rivalry is quite extreme. The Hebrew text in this parashah is replete with the words deebah (word), daber (speak), yaged (tell) and, sadly, sinah (hate). All of the words that Joseph and his brothers exchange only lead to more and more hate, eventually driving them to do the unthinkable: throw Joseph in a pit, sell him down to Egypt, and lie to their father by saying he died, ironically using the cloak of many colors, drenched in blood, as their alibi. Words, language, the very power God used to create our world, are thrown around in this parashah in such a negative way that the consequences are legendary. However, in the one place that words could have saved the situation, the text reports silence. Jacob has a chance to reprimand Joseph and the brothers, after the dreams, and the text says Jacob “shamar et ha’davar” (he guarded the matter). Rashi interprets this to mean, “He waited to see what would happen.” Precisely when words were needed to save the family unit, Jacob waited and was silent. It is not the only time this happens in Jacob’s life.
The lessons of this parashah, to me, are: When do we speak and when do we hold our tongue? When do we share what we are feeling and when do we keep it to ourselves? Words, the precious gift that God gave us humans to communicate, can change the world, as in the great oratory of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and the writings of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, or they can destroy worlds, as in hate speech or bullying a kid at school. I see this parashah as calling us to teach our children how and when to speak, and how and when to keep quiet. Standing up for someone in need demands the courage of words; knowing when to ignore someone with silence or keeping our negative thoughts to ourselves demands wisdom. Joseph learns well, as the very dream-work that gets him into trouble at the beginning of the parashah is what saves his life in the dungeon of Pharaoh.
Kohelet said it best: “There is a time for speech and a time for silence.” May the Torah this week, and the lessons learned from some of the painful experiences we read about, teach us what to do before we speak, write or hit the reply/send button on our computers. Blessed is the one Who spoke and the world came into being: This is a great personal meditation before uttering, or choosing not to utter, our words. Shabbat shalom!