"Joseph Converses With Judah, His Brother" by James Tissot, ca. 1900
"Joseph Converses With Judah, His Brother" by James Tissot, ca. 1900

Judah’s lesson: Words have the power to create worlds — choose carefully


Vayigash

Genesis 44:18–47:27

Ezekiel 37:15-37:28


One of my all-time favorite morning prayers is Baruch She’amar. It says, “Blessed is the one whose word called the world into being. Blessed is the one who created the world. Blessed is the one who speaks and it is done.”

This prayer addresses the question: How did God create?  The answer, evoked by the creation story in Genesis, is that God creates by speaking. By uttering words, the world came into being.

In the Garden of Eden, we find Adam and Eve, who are made in the image of God. This story extends to all of humanity: We are all made in the image of God.

This primary Jewish value continually spurs us to remember that we too can create worlds with our thoughtful speech, or destroy worlds with our thoughtless speech. Words can heal, words can hurt.  Kind and gentle words are like spun gold: they surely enrich the world and make it a more beautiful place in which to live. They enhance our relationships with one another and they bring peace.

In this week’s parashah, we have a brilliant example of golden-tongued speech. Joseph’s brother Judah emerges as the lone voice to plea on behalf of his younger brother Benjamin, saying, “Please let your servant appeal to my lord, and do not be impatient with your servant, you who are the equal of Pharoah … If I come to your servant my father and the boy Benjamin is not with us — since his own life is bound up with his — when he sees that the boy is not with us, he will die and your servant will send your father down in grief … Please let your servant remain as a slave to my lord instead of the boy and let the boy go back with his brothers … Let me not be witness to the woe that would overtake my father!”

Judah’s monologue continues uninterrupted for 16 verses! He describes the back-and-forth conversation with his father, Jacob, and is filled with the pain of these exchanges.

Eventually, as Judah’s words are so effective and passionate, Joseph breaks down at the end of the monologue, and sends his royal attendants out of the room so he can process alone what has just happened. Finally and dramatically, Joseph reveals himself to his brothers in the long-awaited reunion.

Apples of gold in silver settings are the words that are spoken in a fitting manner.

The midrash poetically describes Judah’s words by quoting a verse from the book of Proverbs, “Apples of gold in silver settings are the words that are spoken in a fitting manner.”

Judah’s carefully chosen words were like apples of gold because they were so fitting and they passionately persuaded Joseph to reveal himself to his brothers and to reconcile with them.

But ofen, the Hebrew word for “manner,” can also mean “wheel.” The rabbis reflect on this double meaning by saying that just as a wheel is beautiful to look at from all sides, so, too, words spoken in a fitting manner are beautiful from the perspective of all listeners. No doubt the brothers were ecstatic that Judah’s monologue effected Benjamin’s release from danger, even as unexpected as this was to all of them.

Not all of us are golden-tongued like Judah was in this particular moment, but our words still have power.

As I sat by the bedside of several members of our community recently, I was reminded of the poignant power of well-chosen words. As people struggle to be escorted from this world to the next, we have the opportunity to help the process by what we say or what we refrain from saying.

Baruch she’amar — blessed is the one who spoke and the world came into being. We can all bless the world by choosing our words carefully. In this, we aspire to be like Judah in this moment of greatness, as he gathered his courage to speak to Joseph. In so doing, he brought about the reunification of fractured family.

We have the power to do the same. In a world where we hear so many words that destroy, confuse and divide, may golden words pour from our lips — words of healing and good, of unity and generosity. We literally choose life when we choose the right words.

May we all be blessed with producing these “apples of gold in silver settings” as we navigate precious relationships with each other and, by doing so, bring light into the world.

leider-rabbi-susan-WEB
Rabbi Susan Leider

Rabbi Susan Leider is the senior rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon. She can be reached at sleider@kolshofar.org.