Improving Our Speech

The consequences of our speech are extremely far-reaching, demanding that we choose our words carefully.

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Provided by the UJA-Federation of New York, which cares for those in need, strengthens Jewish peoplehood, and fosters Jewish renaissance.The following article is reprinted with permission from the UJA-Federation of New York.

Vayashev is an action-packed parashah, memorable particularly for its exciting stories of Joseph in Egypt. This dvar torah focuses on how and why Joseph arrived there.

Joseph's Mistake

In The Five Books of Miriam, Ellen Frankel has one of her commentators, in the guise of Lilith, remark that this Torah portion is "nothing but a fairy tale! It's got all the right ingredients: reversals of fate, villains, a prince in disguise, and a happy ending..." It also features a kidnapping, dream interpretation, fortune-telling, lust, jealousy, attempted fratricide, inappropriate sexual unions, and accusations of rape.

In addition, Vayashev contains one of only two instances in the Bible of a person speaking loshon hora, the term loosely translated as gossip, but encompassing a wider range of speech that can be derogatory or harmful. Of all the sins in this reading, gossip may not necessarily sound like the most interesting. But according to the commentary and midrash from the Ze'enah u-Re'enah (an anthology of Torah lore and midrashic commentary) below, it’s one of Joseph's key missteps, one that leads to many other problems.

The Jewish expert on the issue of gossip is Rabbi Yisrael Maier Kagan, who wrote the definitive work on this topic, called Chofetz Chaim ("lover of life"). His book became so popular that Rabbi Kagan himself became known as "The Chofetz Chaim." In this classic text, the he cites the Bible’s two instances of gossip. One occurs here, when Joseph reported his brother's faults to Jacob, his father. (The other was when Miriam complained to Aaron about Moshe's behavior.)

In this reading, Jacob has fathered children by his wives Rachel and Leah, as well as their servants, Bilhah and Zilpah, respectively. According to the text, when Joseph is seventeen, he "fed the flock with his brethren…the sons of Bilhah and…Zilpah; and Joseph brought evil report of them unto their father" (Genesis 37:2).

The text does not say what the "evil report" was. But according to another Jewish classic text, Ze'enah u-Re'enah, "Yosef judged his brothers mistakenly. He saw them slaughter a cow and eat the calf that was within it without benefit of ritual slaughter. He was unaware that this is permissible, and told his father that they had eaten the meat of a living animal. They used to call the maids' children servants, and Yosef thought that this was forbidden. He saw them having business dealings with gentiles' wives and assumed that they had a close relationship with these women."

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Marjorie Rothenberg is the Manager of Major Grants at the New York Blood Center. She is the former senior writer with the Capital Development and Special Gifts Department of UJA-Federation of New York.