Torah: The mighty power of words to hurt, heal and fashion reality

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Genesis 37:1-40:23

Amos 2:6-3:8

Language determines reality. What we say and don’t say influences events and our perception of those events. Within the context of relationships, language determines the meaning of moments. Yet so often we either say something wrong, or we fail to say something right.

This is the challenge of Joseph’s youth. As a teenager filled with all the inadequacies and arrogance that come from being the most talented and youngest of 12 brothers, Joseph uses language inappropriately to inspire his father’s love.

Joseph brings “bad speech,” perhaps meaning vicious rumors, about the behavior of his brothers. According to the Midrash, Joseph is telling the truth. The brothers are involved in all sorts of questionable behavior as they care for their father’s flocks. Even so, these true reports are called “bad speech.”

They are bad because of Joseph’s motivation. Language can be used to inspire change and repentance, but Joseph’s intentions are otherwise. He is trying to establish intimacy with his father. He is trying to say, “I am the one true loyal son — look at the disloyalty and immorality of my brothers.” Jacob now reaps his own past as a trickster and manipulator of people, as his own son manipulates the deep love Jacob feels for Joseph.

Too much speech is just as bad as not enough. Later, Jacob, the father in this unfolding horror story, fails to speak. He is aware of the rivalry between brothers that is turning into hatred. He sees Joseph’s immense talents and also his arrogance. Watching this drama unfold, Jacob “keeps the matter to himself.” At a time when a father’s speech could defuse the potential for violence, Jacob remains silent.

The use of language remains a focus of the Joseph stories. Joseph, on his way to visit his brothers, is asked by a mysterious man from Dotan, “Where are you going?” Joseph — in language reminiscent of Cain’s response to God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” — responds “It is my brothers that I seek.” The Midrash teaches us that he genuinely wanted a renewed relationship with his brothers. He sought them to establish intimacy, friendship, love.

Language remains a mighty force in Joseph’s life. He comes to see his brothers out tending the flocks, and they throw him into the pit. In perhaps the most explicit example of language determining reality, the brothers tear Joseph’s beautiful coat and dip it in blood. Then they say, “Our father will say he was eaten by wild animals.” This is exactly what Jacob says and believes.

Later, in Egypt, Joseph comes to serve Potiphar, the chief of Pharaoh’s prisons. Mrs. Potiphar fails to seduce Joseph and then falsely accuses him of rape. Her words are believed and he is imprisoned for many years. Again and again, words shape people’s understanding of reality even when the words are untrue.

Words can heal, too. Later in the story, Joseph, unrecognized by his brothers, threatens to imprison Benjamin forever. Judah, the eldest, says, “Take me instead.” Though Judah never sacrifices anything, his verbal readiness transforms the encounter between brothers into a tearful reunion. Joseph begins to cry and reveals his presence.

Joseph never accuses, never unleashes his anger or his hurt, for he sees that the brothers have changed. Such accusations would only enter again into the cycle of hurt and recrimination. Instead, he uses words to heal them of their guilt: “Don’t worry or feel guilty, for God sent me ahead of you to save lives!” All has been part of a good plan, preordained.

Words and their power to influence events by interpreting and explaining them is an ongoing theme of the Joseph story. It is also a theme in each of our lives. The ways we speak to others potentially damages, hurts, abuses. By the same token, the words of blessing that conclude the book of Genesis show the redemptive and healing power possessed by language.

We bless through speech and so inspire. We can speak with caring, and heal. Sometimes we even keep silent and create a place of reconciliation. This is the lesson of the Joseph story. May we all be blessed to take its words to heart.

Rabbi David Booth is the spiritual leader at Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto. He can be reached at [email protected].