“Parsha and Purpose” – Miketz 5781
Rabbi Kenneth Brander’s weekly insights into the parsha 

“The Power of Words to Build and Destroy”

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The Power of Words to Build and Destroy

On a beautiful January evening in Florida many years ago, we took our visiting “snowbird” guests from New York to a local kosher restaurant. I’ll never forget the excitement at a nearby table, where a group of parents and their children were proudly celebrating their success at getting Disneyworld tickets at a discount. You see, some of the theme parks charge less money for children under 10. And even though some of the kids at the table had already celebrated their Bar Mitzvah, they looked younger than their age. These parents were literally bragging about how they passed their 13-year-olds off as under ten, saving a bundle of money. I remember wondering to myself: day school education at that time was about $15-20,000 a year per child. And in those schools, their kids were learning that our words matter. That we must be truthful. And that lying is wrong. How did they not see that saving a few dollars at the ticket booth risked their $20,000 education investment a year they were giving their children? It seemed to me that those tickets were perhaps the most expensive Disney tickets that anyone had ever purchased. How did their children feel at the ticket booth, seeing their parents – their role models – lying and stealing? Can you put a price on the cost of losing your child’s belief that your word is credible? Jewish tradition places great emphasis on the power of words. In Pirkei Avot, we learn that God used words to create the world: Avot 5:1

בַּעֲשָׂרָה מַאֲמָרוֹת נִבְרָא הָעוֹלָם – With ten utterances was the world created

And the Zohar asserts that words build worlds and can destroy worlds. These are not slogans or cliches. The impact of our words have real consequences. Look no further than our parsha, Parshat Miketz, for a startling example. Yosef subjects his brothers to a harsh test, framing Binyamin by planting his royal goblet in Binyamin’s bag, to see how his other brothers will react when Binyamin is accused of theft. The brothers’ initial response reflects total confidence that none of them had committed the crime: Genesis 44:9

 אֲשֶׁ֨ר יִמָּצֵ֥א אִתּ֛וֹ מֵעֲבָדֶ֖יךָ וָמֵ֑ת – Whichever of your servants the goblet is found with shall die

Wait a minute! Those words sound familiar. It’s because we heard a similar declaration in Parshat Vayishlach, when Yaakov – certain that no one in his caravan had stolen Lavan’s idols – declared:

עִ֠ם אֲשֶׁ֨ר תִּמְצָ֣א אֶת־אֱלֹהֶיךָ֮ לֹ֣א יִֽחְיֶה֒ –

But anyone with whom you find your gods shall not remain alive Genesis 31:32

As we learned then, the results were tragic, ending with Rachel’s death. And yet, Yaakov’s sons now make a strikingly similar declaration! Often children when they are in same circumstance as their parents – repeat the same words – the same actions. Yaakov is confronted – Shall not remain alive, His children are confronted – they use the same language. When the goblet is found in Binyamin’s sack, the brothers are shattered, for they realize that with their own words, they have sentenced their youngest brother to death. To the brother’s credit – and to Yosef’s pleasant surprise, they don’t let words doom Binyamin – and that begins the healing process between Yosef and his brothers. The words we use with anyone, anywhere, have repercussions! Words matter! What we say carries a life longer than we remember. So let us choose our words carefully, and let us use them to build ourselves, our families, our communities and the world at large. Shabbat Shalom.

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