Words with Friends: what you say, how you say it

I have always been bothered by an obvious question: Why Joseph’s brothers recognize him? His screaming visage as he was cast into the pit must have been traumatically seared into their memory, yet now they can’t make the connection?
A careful look at this week’s Torah portion, and the ones that precede it, shows the role that language plays in clarifying, or obfuscating, communication. Joseph employs stinging words to convey contempt for his brothers.
Genesis 42:7
When Joseph saw his brothers, he recognized them; but he acted like a stranger toward them and spoke harshly to them. He asked them, “Where do you come from?” And they said, “From the land of Canaan, to procure food.”
At the same time, every deferential word Judah utters in his passionate speech to Joseph actually means the opposite of what he says:
Genesis 44:18
Then Judah went up to him and said, “Please, my lord, let your servant appeal to my lord, and do not be impatient with your servant, you who are the equal of Pharaoh.”
Rabbi Shlomo Rabinowicz (1801-1866), the first Rebbe of the Radomsk dynasty, wrote a masterful Chassidic commentary on the Torah called Tiferet Shlomo. In it, he suggests that this may be why Joseph’s brothers didn’t recognize him after such a lengthy separation. The Joseph they left in the pit was deferential and meek, only animated by his outlandish dreams. In no way could they imagine his transformation into an assertive and powerful viceroy, whose draconian policies and cruel verdicts would leave them reeling. Joseph did not conceal his true identity with a clean shave and Egyptian royal garb; he used his tongue, instead, as the ultimate disguise.
If you’ve ever felt distant from a brother, or someone close enough to be one, but you can’t figure out why you grew apart, the search for a specific crime or affront may be fruitless. Sometimes, it’s that we are not speaking, or that we are not speaking what is in our hearts. Consider the way we do this in the use of our everyday discourse. We don’t directly assault others through words that are intended to sting, but we cloud our true intentions through intentionally imprecise words. How many of us have told friends or acquaintances “We should get together” or “we should speak more often” — yet had no intention of doing so, or no plan for making it happen? We tell someone, “We’d love to have you for Shabbat” and never follow through. We use the phrase “with all due respect,” a phrase seldom followed by an expression of respect. We say “that’s interesting” when what we mean is that what we heard is crushingly boring, and we say “I hear you” when we just don’t have the strength for an argument or don’t feel as passionately about the subject under discussion. And we adopt a cavalier attitude toward these empty, offensive or deceitful expressions because they are just words, and we assume that words are meaningless. But the Rabbi Shlomo of Radomsk reminds us that words can drive people apart, they can render you utterly unrecognizable to your sibling or friend.
While we rarely avoid it, it’s obvious to us that slanderous and malicious speech is toxic and best excised from our behavior. But perhaps a way to ensure that we don’t fall into corrosive speech patterns is to employ precise and refined language, taking a second or two more to formulate our thoughts before speaking, so that we mean what we say, and say what we mean. If speech can drive us apart, it surely has the power to bring us closer again.
Rabbi Ariel Rackovsky is rabbi of Congregation Shaare Tefilla and a member and former president of the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas.

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