Sermon: Joseph and the Power of Words

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 1 December 2018

Perhaps it is Andrew Lloyd Webber’s fault, or that of Tim Rice, that when we think about the beginning of the story of Joseph, the sequence of events that leads him – and ultimately all of Israel – to Egypt, we tend to think of Jacob’s favouritism, of sibling jealousy, and of that pesky coat.
“And when Joseph graced the scene, his brothers turned a shade of green” as they so memorably put it.

But read more carefully the handful of verses that set us up for the long drama that follows, and we discover that – as Noa observed in her D’var Torah – young Joseph is far from blameless.
And, also, that this whole narrative is much more than just a soap opera tale of family rivalry.  There are other factors at play, too.

Just as important a theme as jealousy and favouritism, is that this is a story, at least in part, about speech.  Many of the key moments in these weeks of reading about Joseph, and especially those in our parashah, hang on the power of words, and failure of communication.

What is the first thing that we discover about our new hero?
Before we learn of Jacob’s favouritism, before the coat enters the scene to turn the brothers a shade of green?
‘Va-yavei Yosef et dibatam – ra’ah el avi’hem’ – and Joseph brought evil reports of them [of his brothers] to their father.

The commentators argue about the nature of these bad reports and whether the things Joseph told to his father were true or not.  A handful of rabbinic texts seek to whitewash, to excuse, his behaviour.  But for most midrashim, most commentators, and the Talmuds, it is clear that something goes seriously wrong in this moment.  They understand Joseph, at the start of our portion, as indulging in lashon hara, literally ‘evil tongue’ – loose speech, slander, gossip.

And it is this loose use of words by Joseph that sets us up for that which is to come.
Thus, in Midrash Tanchuma we find – “Because he spoke lashon hara against them, his brothers became embittered, and this set off the chain of events that resulted in the descent of our ancestors to their bondage in Egypt for four hundred years.”

Similarly, Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan – a nineteenth/twentieth century Polish rabbi whose main works focussed on lashon hara, who came to be known as the Chafetz Chaim after the greatest of those works – he wrote: “The descent of Israel into Egypt stemmed from [lashon hara] – “Joseph brought evil reports of them to their father” – whence it was decreed by Heaven that he be sold into slavery.”

Joseph’s behaviour at the start of our portion becomes the classic, the paradigmatic moment of lashon hara in the Torah – the primary scriptural example for our tradition’s deep concern with the ethics of speech.  It must therefore be read alongside some of the most hyperbolic rhetoric in the whole of rabbinic literature.  Ideas associated with lashon hara include a rabbinic statement that slander, tale bearing, and evil talk are worse than the three cardinal sins of murder, sexual deviance and idolatry.  In the Talmud we find an extraordinary statement that of one who gossips, the Holy One states “ein ani-v’hu y’cholin la-dor ba’olam” – “He and I cannot dwell in the same world”.

In making Joseph’s tongue the direct cause of the descent to Egypt, the rabbis emphasise the extraordinary destructive power of careless or vindictive words.  This we find elsewhere, too: A person’s tongue, they say, is more powerful than a sword, for a sword can only kill someone nearby; the tongue can cause the death of someone far away.

Among the most insightful rabbinic phrases on the way we speak is the idea of “avak lashon hara” – the dust of gossip – not downright slander, but the dust of innuendo and insinuation that ultimately comes to cover everything if we are loose in how we speak about others.

If it is Joseph’s failure of language that kicks off the troubles that are to come, it is not just him who suffers a crisis of words.  Just two verses later, we read of the brothers that in their hate for Joseph ‘lo yachlu dibro l’shalom’ – normally translated ‘they could not speak a friendly word to him’, but better, that in their hatred they were not able to speak to him to peace.

Faced with a challenging situation they could not find it in themselves to have the difficult conversation, to express how they felt, to – as we would call it, give feedback.  They couldn’t use their words, find a way to talk with him to reach a peaceful solution in their family.  The head of the yeshivah of Prague in the early 1700s Yonatan Eybeschutz stated that had they just sat together, had they spoken to one another, had they argued with each another, eventually they would have made peace with each other.
But they could not find the courage to find the words.

And then, at the moment of crisis, again they suffer from a tragic failure of language.  Caught up in the drama of the moment – they egg each other on with words.  “Va’yomru ish el achiv”, “They said each to his brother” ‘Here comes that dreamer’ – let’s do this; let’s do that.  That phrase “ish el achiv” is only found in a few places in Torah – another is at the incident of the spies where similarly the people wind each other up in a crisis of communication with terrible consequences.

So, this is far more than simply a story of jealousy, of Joseph and his Technicolour Dreamcoat.  Rather at three points in just our short parasha from this morning, what we encounter is a failure of words, a failure of communication, a failure of language.

And this points to an important truth.

When faced with uncertainty, with challenge, with conflict, with change, with difficulties of relationship or understanding – we must be especially alive to the power of speech – its power to be productive and its power to be deeply destructive.
We must be alert to the temptation of filling gaps with gossip; courageous enough to find it in ourselves to speak to one another l’shalom; conscious of the risk of winding one another up “ish el achiv”.

What the Joseph story reminds us is that the defining feature of any family – and the same is true of community too – is how we speak to, and crucially about one another.  The lesson of this story is not about coats, but about what happens if we forget this important truth.