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Va'yeshev – the power of words

The power of words

The words that changed the world

The Midrash Rabbah on Vayikra (16:2) relates the following incident:  There was a certain peddler who would travel around the towns near Tzipori, calling out “Who wants to buy the elixir of life?” … [R. Yanai] heard his announcement. He called the peddler over and said to him: “Show me the elixir of life that you are selling!” He took out a book of Tehillim, and showed him the verse, “Who is the person who desires life?” What does it say afterwards? “Guard your tongue from evil … Turn from evil and do good.” (Tehillim 34:13-15)…

Using words  correctly is the elixir of life: not knowing the correct use of speech i.e. Lashon Hara is the gravest of sins. Poorly chosen words can kill enthusiasm, impact self-esteem, and lower expectations and hold people back. Well chosen ones can motivate, offer hope, create vision, influence thinking, alter results and even change history.

The use of four words by Joseph, changed history.  His whole life took a different course because of the four words he uttered, without any ulterior motive. As a result he became Viceroy of Egypt and he brought about a turn in history.

Joseph is imprisoned in Egypt. Shortly afterwards, two members of Pharaoh’s Court were also thrown into jail.  . They sat in jail with a Hebrew slave — the lowest rung of society, someone with no connections, a slave, a foreigner with no one to take an interest in him and with no hope of salvation.  He was serving time for a major crime –  that of attempting to molest the wife of one of Egypt’s distinguished citizens who had been gracious enough to give Joseph a home and work. Despite that Joseph had seemingly taken advantage of the goodness and kindness of his benefactor. Joseph must have been considered a worthless ingrate –  the lowest of the low. The members of Pharaoh’s Court had been his Chief Baker and Butler –  people of influence and character, of high status and not the type to take the time of day to even look at the slave prisoner.  Joseph was certainly no companion for them.

We can be sure that no spirit of familiarity or trust existed between Joseph and Pharaoh’s officials. There was no familiarity between them and they would definitely look with disdain at the slave boy addressing them.

Yet Joseph ignores convention and seeing them looking depressed he turns to them and asks after their welfare. They both had dreams that had upset them. Joseph saw that they were depressed and using the four words : “Madua peneichem ra’im hayom?” (Why are your faces troubled today?) changed history.

Joseph hears their dreams and interprets. The Butler sees that Joseph has special powers. The Butler is eventually released from jail. Years later, he remembers Joseph and brings him to Court to interpret Pharaoh’s dreams.  He becomes the second in command. He feeds the entire world including his own brothers and father. All due to that remark, because of those four words  he created new opportunities!

Words can change history — “Good Morning” “How are you today?” “How are you doing?” “How was your holiday?” “How is your wife?” “How are your children?” These are the types of words that can make a difference. They made a vast difference in Joseph’s life and to Klal Yisrael [The Jewish Nation’s].

We not only have an obligation to greet each person in a cheerful and pleasant manner; we also have the obligation try to initiate the greeting, as Joseph did to the two members of Pharaoh’s Court. The Talmud states in the name of Rabbi Masya ben Charash: “Initiate a greeting to every human being” (Pirkei Avos 4:20). In this spirit, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai, a leading sage in the Land of Israel at the end of the Second Temple period, would initiate a greeting with each and every person he met in the marketplace,regardless of status (Brachot 17a).

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