Words as Real as Actions

Speech can make worlds come into being--and must therefore be used with utmost care.

"Actions," they say, "speak louder than words." People "talk, talk, talk"-- but what really counts is action.

Given the power of these maxims in our culture, you might think that the Bible would model a preference for deeds over words. You might think biblical figures would pay more dearly for their deeds than their words.

But in the world of the Bible, speech is as powerful as action, maybe more so. Its consequences are real and enduring.

God speaks into the void, and, sentence by sentence, with each "Let there be!" a world comes into being. God speaks to Abraham, telling him, "I will maintain my covenant between me and you...." And with these words, a complicated covenantal relationship of thousands of years is set into motion.


Linguists call such world-changing utterances performative acts: when you speak words and a new reality comes into being. "I now pronounce you man and wife" is a good example, for after those words are spoken, not only is the couple married but their children are considered legitimate, they get to file for taxes as a pair, and they can receive a spouse's medical benefits.

The Torah portion we read this week, Vayeshev, is chockfull of various kinds of utterances with implications that ripple out and endure. There are unkind words spoken that cannot be taken back. There are words that don't literally come to pass but ignite huge explosions of events. And there are words of kindness that when spoken restore life.

Consider some of the different speech acts made by the biblical figures we encounter in Vayeshev, and consider their heavy consequences:Joseph brings back "bad reports" (Genesis 37:2) of his brothers' flock-tending practices to his father, Jacob. That is to say, Joseph doesn't keep his critique to himself. Filled with righteousness, he makes a




speaking truth to power.

What are the consequences of Joseph's lust for reporting such tales? The flow of words moves Jacob to affirm that he loves Joseph more than he loves his other sons, a situation that causes them to hate Joseph so much that, ironically, they are silenced, unable to "speak peaceably with him" (37:4). (Their speechlessness, for the exegete Rashi, earns praise for these otherwise most naughty boys: They were right


to give voice to their bitter feelings or to feel one thing but say another.)

Joseph then has a dream--which could, had he remained silent, have had no social consequence. But he reports it to his brothers, increasing their hatred for him even more. (Just imagine if we felt compelled to sit at the breakfast table and broadcast the content of our dreams involving family members, or compelled to stand around the copier and report our dreams to our colleagues who "starred" in them.) A second dream, a second report. This time, Joseph's words--more so than his dreams--anger his brothers enough to cause them to conspire against him. Jacob rebukes Joseph, not for having such dreams but for speaking of them. He rebukes Joseph because such words, as Rashi explains, can only give rise to enmity. The problems with words is that they make what one feels indelibly true. Sometimes too true, sometimes truer than need be expressed.

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