Speech is open to question, the question of when to speak and when to stay silent, what to say and what not to say. Some people think that one must be careful with one’s words, weighing every one of them, and to others the idea is ridiculous. I have some friends who do not agree that there is any reason or any point in restraining oneself.
In the 19th century, Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan was a ‘profound and consummate scholar in all the fields of Torah’. He wrote major works of commentary and added to the understanding of Jewish law. He is best known among those of us who are less learned for his book Chefetz Chayim and that is how he himself is known, named after his book, the Chefetz Chayim.
The topic of the book is the harm that can be caused by speech. And this is illustrated in the early part of this Parashah, once in verse 2 when Joseph runs to his father bearing tales about his brothers, and later on when he tells his brothers about his dreams.
Lashon HaRa means 'evil speech', which consists of relating derogatory information about others. It does not matter if this is true or not. It is not acceptable for us to talk about other people’s weaknesses and failures. In fact the recommendation is simply not to talk about people who are not there with you, unless there is a clear need to do so. Because even when you think you are saying something good or even quite neutral about someone, you don’t know what trouble may come from it.
Jewish law distinguishes between gossip, which we call Rechilut and Lashon HaRa. If I were to report to a person that someone has spoken against her or acted against her interests, that has a different name, that is called Rechilut.
I own a book on Lashon HaRa, which my very Orthodox sister kindly sent me at my request. It is a bit embarrassing, because it is written as if the reader is a bit simple. But it is nevertheless full of wisdom. In the introduction it says: “Lashon HaRa has caused the dissolution of numerous friendships, the termination of countless marriages and has generated immeasurable suffering”.
Even if what we say is true, it may nevertheless be wrong of us to mention it. Al pi camah ve camah if it is untrue. Meaning, all the more so if it is untrue. And if you reflect on how often we are tempted to repeat what we have heard, which is not direct knowledge, you can see how sometimes misunderstandings may arise.
I grew up in a house where this was practiced, and I didn’t know it. This topic wasn’t discussed. I don’t think that my parents were aware that they did this or rather I don’t think they were aware of what they didn’t do or rarely did. There was a man that my father worked with and my mother once mentioned that he called him “That Bastard so and so”. I myself never heard him say that. For me, home was a peaceful place. I was not aware that my parents did not speak about other people much.
But when I was 18, for the first time it happened that I was living away from home with a group of other girls and people who were not there were reported on, discussed and analyzed, and I was fascinated by it, I found these sessions delicious, great fun! It is nice to feel that you are part of a group, warm and cosy, and that these other people who are in some way deficient are on the outer. I wasn’t very insightful, didn’t reflect on the fact that if by chance I wasn’t with the group, they might turn their sights on me, and tear me to bits just as well, in just such a juicy and ridiculing way.
In this parashah, in the second verse, Joseph runs to his father and tells him about his brothers’ misdeeds. Vayaveh Yosef et dibatam ra’ah el avihem. He is at this time 17 years old, it says so in the same verse, and it also there says that despite being 17 years old, well above the age of 13 when a child is supposed to reach maturity, he was childish. And it says that Jacob had a preference for him, which is maybe why he did not rebuke his son and cure him of this bad habit of tale-bearing.
Another commentary says: "He spoke evil of all the brothers, which is why they all hated him. He did not reflect on this at the time." That was the journey Joseph had to make to achieve greater understanding.
And immediately after that, in verses 5 to 11, we have the telling of the two dreams: the Torah says directly, in verse 5: he told them the dream and they hated him for it. This is the dream about the sheaves of corn, where his sheaf stands straight and their sheaves all bow down to him. And everybody understands immediately what this is about.
And in verse 8 the brothers say: "And will you indeed reign over us? Or shall you have dominion over us? And they hated him all the more for his dreams and for his words." That is an interesting distinction: for his dreams and for his words. One thing is that he had those dreams, and the other is that he spoke about them. Had he kept quiet about them, they would not have known and both causes would have been removed.
The dreams showed clearly that he was to be their superior in some way. And it is likely that this was evident to Joseph, that he knew this about himself, that he had greater ability and insight than his brothers, and they would maybe have been aware of this, maybe not. But they would not have liked this little squirt of a boy telling them that he was going to be their superior. It was bad enough that Jacob favoured him above them.
In Joseph’s speech, there is of itself nothing wrong. He is telling about something that happened to him and no one is suggesting that it was untrue or wrong. But it was unwise: he did not reflect on the effect of his words on his brothers, he did not ask himself how his brothers would feel. For he did not have the ability to reflect at this stage, he was spoilt and happy-go-lucky, all was well in his world and he saw no reason to measure his words. He felt safe. Maybe if his mother had been alive, she would have taught him to be more careful, to be more sparing of other people’s feelings.
Sometimes this whole business of how members of a community talk to each other seems so difficult and tricky that one feels that the only solution is to simply shut up once and for all. And yet it is said that once someone spent a whole day with the Chefetz Chaim trying to get him to say a single condemnatory thing, a single statement which could be construed as Lashon HaRa, and they did not succeed. I think that it is hard work, but that does not mean that it is not to be undertaken.
It is an art that seems to me to be very worthwhile.