The weekly Torah portion and its lessons for all people

Vayehee, Gen. 47:28-50:26
Good Words

by Avraham ben Yaakov

"Death and life are in the power of the tongue" (Proverbs 18:21).

The closing portion of the book of Genesis completes the story of the founding fathers of the Torah pathway, the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, with the account of Jacob's final blessings to his twelve sons prior to his death and burial in the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron.

Normally before the head of a family departs this life, he writes a "will", which may include wise advice and instructions for his offspring but most often is concerned primarily with the division of his estate. However, in our portion, with the exception of Jacob's special gift to Joseph of Shechem (Genesis 49:22) we do not hear of any disposition of material property among his sons. Rather, the climax of our portion comes with Jacob's sublimely poetical prophetic blessings to each of them in turn through which he established their future destinies in God's great scheme of history. If he castigated his first three sons over their misdeeds, he did not damn their souls forever; he cursed not them but only their misdirected anger. If he penalized them, it was by scattering them among the other tribes so that their very strength and power would radiate to all (Genesis 49:7).

The blessing and the curse

The history of humanity began with God's blessing to Adam and Eve and their descendants: "And God blessed them; and God said unto them: 'Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that creeps upon the earth'" (Genesis 1:28).

However, a crafty force of evil symbolized by the serpent "bit" into the souls of the once-innocent man and his wife, bringing the very opposite of blessing into the world: "And God said to the serpent: 'Because you have done this, you are cursed.' To the woman He said: I will greatly multiply your pain and travail.' And to the man He said: 'Cursed is the ground for your sake.' (ibid. 3:1-19).

On account of this curse, our lives in this world until this day are accompanied with much pain and travail as we toil to scrape a living and raise new generations. While a blessing is a formula of words that programmatically establishes a glorious future for the blessed, a curse is a poisonous formula aimed by the jealous enemy of the blessed to try to spoil that future.

The story of the Patriarchs traces how each in turn received the power of blessing. In God's opening challenge to Abraham to go to the Land, He said: ".you shall be a blessing; and I shall bless those that bless you, but those that curse you shall I curse, and through you shall all the families of the earth be blessed" (Genesis 12:2-3). From Abraham, the power of blessing passed to Isaac - "And after the death of Abraham, God blessed Isaac his son" (ibid. 25:11). Then Isaac gave the blessing to Jacob: ".and indeed he shall be blessed" (ibid. 27:33).

Abraham's nephew Laban, an idolatrous high priest and master of the occult arts, sought to wrest the power of blessing from Jacob and dispense his own blessings (Genesis 24:31). But Laban looked upon all of the world with an evil eye, the eye of envy and hatred, and was ready to curse his very daughters and all their children and descendants for ever on account of his jealousy of Jacob (Deuteronomy 26:5 and Rashi thereon). Even Laban's blessing to his own sister Rebecca (Genesis 24:60) turned into a curse, because she became barren until God Himself unraveled the curse (ibid. 25:21). Laban's heir in sorcery, Bilaam, sought to curse the Children of Israel, but God intervened and turned all his intended curses into blessings (Numbers 22:2-24:25).

The power of words

God created the world through speech, and the defining trait of His choicest creation, the human, is the gift of language with which He has endowed us. The account of Jacob's blessings in our present portion teaches the importance of carefully measuring our words and using their great power for good and not for evil.

The contemporary world is largely dominated by the sophisticated communications media which continually expose us to streams of words and other messages designed to capture our conscious or unconscious attention, lure and entice us and sweep us into the spin of the seller, promoter, politician or advertiser who wants to bring us under his sway. This constant abuse of language for gain makes many cynical.

The Torah teaches a higher use of human language: for prayer and communication with God; to give thanks and praise to God for the wonders of creation; to voice our hearts' hopes, longings and yearnings in requests, entreaties and supplications for what we need. Likewise the words we speak to others in the course of our everyday lives in the home, the workplace, community and wider world should be intended to spread blessings and not the opposite.

When someone simply asks you how you are, Rabbi Nachman teaches us to answer carefully. "When someone asks his friend how he is and the friend says, 'Not good', this can be an opening for trouble because God says, 'You call this not good? I'll show you what not good is!'

But if when his friend asks how he is, he answers brightly, 'Good, thank God!' even though things really are not so good, God says, 'This you call good? I'll show you what good is!'" (Siach Sarfey Kodesh 1-32).

Many people think that in order to show humility, one must disparage oneself. This is not so. We must believe in ourselves and in the God-given goodness that lies in or very core. And since all those around us are God's creations, they must also contain good. We are not required to turn a blind eye to other's failings and weaknesses or pretend they are other than what they are. At the same time we must have faith that they have good in them, and we should seek it out.

Too often the language with which people talk to and about one another is poisoned with explicit or implied accusation and verbal barbs intended to hurt. But in the language of blessing, words are used for their ameliorative effect - as when one person salutes another with Peace.

Thus did the ancient sages institute that a person should enquire after his friend's welfare invoking the name of God, as it is written: "And behold Boaz was coming from Bethlehem, and he said to the harvesters, 'God be with you', and they said to him, 'May God bless you'" (Ruth 2:4; Mishnah Berachot ch 9).

The tongue rules over all

Once the king of Persia was sick and the doctors told him: 'Your only cure is if they bring you milk of a lioness and then you will be healed.' Someone got up and said: 'I will bring you a lioness's milk if you want: give me ten goats.' The king instructed his servants to give them to him, and they did so. The man went to the lions' den. In the den was a lioness that was suckling her whelps. One day he stood at a distance and threw her one goat and she ate it. The next day he drew a little closer and threw her another. He did so until he was playing with her, and then he took some of her milk and went back.

Half way along the road, he had a dream in which his limbs were quarrelling. The legs were saying, 'None among all the limbs can be compared to us - if we had not gone there he would not have been able to get the milk.' The hands were saying, 'None is like us - if we had not done what we did nothing would have come of it.' The heart said: 'If I had not given you the plan, of what use would any of you have been?' Then the tongue spoke up and said: 'If I had not said the word, what would he have done?' All the other limbs answered: 'How dare you compare yourself to us when you dwell in a place of darkness and you have no counsel like the other limbs.' She said to them: 'Today you will admit that I am in control of you.'

The man heard these words and went to the king and said: "My lord the king, here is the milk of a kalba (dog)." The king was furious and ordered him to be hanged. As he went to his execution the limbs began to cry. The tongue said to them: 'Did I not tell you that you are useless. If I save you, you will know that I am above you.' 'Yes,' they said. The man said to his executioners: 'Take me back to the king, maybe I will be saved.'

They brought him back, and he said to the king: 'Why did you give the order to hang me?' He said: 'Because you brought me the milk of a dog.' The man replied: 'What should that matter to you? This will heal you - people do call a lioness a kalba '. They took some of it and tested it and found it to be lioness's milk. The limbs said to the tongue: 'We hereby acknowledge that life and death are in the power of the tongue.

See! The tongue is greater than the sacrifices, for it says: "I shall praise the name of God in song and I shall magnify Him in thanks, and this will find greater favor from God than an ox offering" (Psalms 69:31-32; Midrash Yalkut Shimoni on Psalms #721).




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