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 tsimmis, speaking truth to power.
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.
Yet in the passages of this portion, we see, time and again, that some words that are spoken don't necessarily become real. There are the words that constitute a threat: The brothers propose, "Let us kill Joseph," but the spoken plan gets undone. Jacob sees what he is led to believe is Joseph's "bloodied" tunic and announces Joseph's death: "A wild beast has devoured him!" But he is wrong: The reality spoken of does not conform to the reality that is indeed real.
There are the words that constitute a false promise: Brother Judah will speak a promise to his daughter-in-law Tamar that she should "stay a widow in your father's home until my son Shelah grows up," but he has no intention of keeping his words and giving his third son to Tamar, fearing that he, like his older brothers, will die.
And then there are words of kindness that need to be spoken, which if they are expressed, can restore life. A prominent instance involves Judah and Tamar: Judah is made to realize that had Tamar not pretended she was a harlot, had she not conceived a baby with Judah, their line--a messianic one--would have never been continued. Face to face, and in public, he tells her that: "She is more righteous than I am" (Genesis 38:26). With these words, one imagines, he restores Tamar's honor and also heals the rift between them.
The second instance involves Joseph and the cup-bearer, who came to Joseph in prison and asked him to interpret his dream. Joseph's interpretation is favorable. He predicts that the cup-bearer will be restored to honor once again in Pharaoh's court. Joseph--who has learned his lesson that spoken words can make worlds come into being--entreats him: "Think of me when all is well with you again, and do me the kindness of mentioning me to Pharaoh, so as to free me from this place" (Genesis 40: 14). But the cup-bearer forgets, apparently fearing that telling Pharaoh the story of Joseph helping him in prison will require him to remind Pharaoh of whatever misdemeanor got him into prison in the first place. Only when the cup-bearer feels secure that his bringing Joseph to interpret Pharaoh's troubling dream will enhance, and not tarnish, his ownreputation does he put in the few good words that save Joseph from the dungeon and lead to his dream interpretations, which save an entire nation from famine.
God, we learn in Vayeshev, gives us dreams but leaves us to interpret them, to discern how they will come to pass. We learn that the words we speak are like dreams we put forth into the world. Like God, we need to plant them with utmost care.