Improving Our Speech

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

Commentary on Parashat Vayeshev, Genesis 37:1 - 40:23

Vayashev is an action-packed Torah portion, 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.”

Why Joseph Was Punished

Ze’enah u-Re’enah then reports on the cost of Joseph’s tale-bearing, neatly assigning a punishment for each “evil report:”

“Yosef was therefore punished in due course with these three things. Because he had accused them of eating a live animal, his brothers killed a kid and dipped his coat in its blood when he was sold; because he accused them of calling the maids’ children servants, he himself was sold as a servant; and for saying that they had had a close relationship with the gentile women, his master’s wife tried to seduce him.”

The message of the midrashic interpretation of these subsequent events in the biblical text is clear: repetition of information that reflects badly on someone — whether the report is true or false — is wrong and subject to severe punishment.

The issue of gossip has fascinated me for many years. We all sometimes complain about gossip, and most, if not all, of us gossip ourselves from time to time. But I have found that the effort involved in at least attempting to hold oneself back from speaking about someone else can help anyone on a path to more ethical, self-aware speech and right living, an ideal to which we can all aspire.

Awareness of how we speak and what we say can direct our thoughts to more conscious verbal expression and more deliberative thinking in preparation for that speech. With such effort, one can hope that what actually comes out of one’s mouth is positive and more thoughtful. Ultimately, by being more aware, anyone can make an impact, and assist in the establishment of a better world.

A Step To Improve Speech

At this point in my own life, I can only say that I aspire to refraining from loshon hora. However, I was delighted to learn about a community-wide effort to curb the “evil tongue.”

In the fall of 1999, some of the foremost Jewish philanthropic foundations banded together to discourage sensationalism and slanderous speech. They included the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, Steven Spielberg’s Righteous Persons Foundation, Michael and Judy Steinhardt’s Jewish Life Network, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation, and the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation of Baltimore

Finally, an effort toward civil behavior and thoughtful speech that has “legs!” These foundations will tend to decline funding requests to institutions whose leaders’ “irresponsible rhetoric negatively impacts the Jewish community.” In other words — you’ll be punished if you bad-mouth other Jews. What a wonderful, refreshing stance.

In an article in the New York Jewish Week describing this effort, the vice president of the Bronfman Foundation, Mark Charendoff, was quoted as saying, “We want potential grantees to understand there are economic consequences to one’s language and behavior, and we’d like to see federations and other Jewish foundations adopt this kind of policy.”

These foundations must have learned from Joseph’s experiences, as well as from the accompanying midrash. Amen to their words and their efforts.

Note: I am indebted to:

The Red Tent, in which Anita Diamant brilliantly fleshes out the biblical personages in this chapter, and clearly sets out the complicated familial relations.

Guard Your Tongue, Rabbi Zelig Pliskin’s English adaptation of the writings of the Chofetz Chaim.

The Five Books of Miriam by Ellen Frankel, and Ze’enah u-Re’enah

Provided by the UJA-Federation of New York, which cares for those in need, strengthens Jewish peoplehood, and fosters Jewish renaissance.

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