Vayechi 5770

December 24, 2009

7 min read


Vayechi (Genesis 47:28-50:26 )

GOOD MORNING! The other day I was speaking with a friend who tended to punctuate his speech with earthy, coarse words. I said to him, "You are such a good neshama (soul) and such an elevated, educated person. Such words do not reflect who you really are." He thought for a moment and said, "You're right. I'll stop using them."

One of the distinguishing features of human beings from other species is that we can talk. And one of the distinguishing features amongst human beings is how we use the gift of speech. Do we speak in an elevated manner or in a crass manner? They way we speak says a lot about us - who we are, how we perceive ourselves, who we identify with.

The Torah teaches that human beings were created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). Since God has no corporeal image, the Torah is telling us that we were created in a spiritual image of the Almighty - that we can emulate the Almighty in doing kindness and that we can use speech to perfect this world.

Many times people are not aware of how they speak. Use of curse words demeans the speaker who, after all, should look upon him/herself as a holy individual created in the image of the Almighty! Also, people need to be aware of how they use speech when talking with someone or about someone. Loshon hora (literally, "evil speech") is derogatory speech and is forbidden by Jewish law even when it's true - unless there is a compelling requirement to share the information. Loshon hora is the fuel for hatred, jealousy and contention. It can break an engagement, end a marriage, destroy a partnership, ruin a life. However, proper speech can bring harmony and build relationships. Words can hurt, words can heal.

How do we know what to say, when to say and how to say it? Many of the laws governing speech were compiled by Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan in a book entitled "Chofetz Chaim (desires life)". He entitled his book after the verse in King David's Psalms 34:12-14, "Who is the one who desires life ...? Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit." The book is available in English, adapted by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin and aptly titled Guard Your Tongue (available at your local Jewish bookstore, at or by calling toll-free to 877-758-3242). Here are a few guidelines:



  1. Do not express damaging or derogatory information about someone that might cause him physical, psychological or financial harm, even if it is true and deserved.
  2. Promote people's well being. When in doubt, don't speak out.
  3. Humor is great, but make sure jokes aren't at someone else's expense.
  4. Be kind to yourself. Speaking badly even about yourself is unethical.
  5. Don't listen to gossip. If you can't change the direction of the conversation, it is advisable to leave.
  6. If you inadvertently hear damaging information, you should believe that it is NOT true.
  7. Always give others the benefit of the doubt and focus on the positive.
  8. Words once spoken can't be erased. Think before you speak, especially if you are angry, hurt or jealous.
  9. Use kind and supportive words with your children and spouse whenever possible. Harsh words can cause irreparable harm as can speaking derogatorily to others about the ones you love most.
  10. It is not only permitted, but required, to warn a person about potential harm - for example, that a potential business partner has a repeated record of embezzlement.

Why do people speak loshon hora, derogatory speech? The Chofetz Chaim (as Rabbi Kagan was called in the tradition of referring to a rabbi by the name of the book he wrote) enumerated 7 basic reasons: (1) Anger - losing control. (2) Joking - seeking a laugh no matter who the joke hurts. (3) Arrogance - to aggrandize oneself at the expense of others (4) Giving up hope - thinking that it is impossible not to speak loshon hora. (5) Seeing that others aren't careful - following the bad example of others. (6) Judging others unfavorably - we tend to see the negativity in others that we have in ourselves. (7) Ignorance - not knowing the laws governing proper speech. If we understand what motivates us to speak poorly of others, we can correct our ways in order to speak properly. May I suggest in order to learn more about this vital mitzvah?

For more on "Proper Speech" go to!


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Torah Portion of the Week

The parsha, Torah portion, opens with Jacob on his deathbed 17 years after arriving in Egypt. Jacob blesses Joseph's two sons, Manasseh (Menashe) and Ephraim (to this day it is a tradition to bless our sons every Shabbat evening with the blessing, "May the Almighty make you like Ephraim and Manasseh" - they grew up in the Diaspora amongst foreign influences and still remained devoted to the Torah. The Shabbat evening blessing for girls is "to be like Sarah, Rivka, Rachel and Leah.") He then individually blesses each of his sons. The blessings are prophetic and give reproof, where necessary.

A large retinue from Pharaoh's court accompanies the family to Hebron to bury Jacob in the Ma'arat Hamachpela, the burial cave purchased by Abraham. The Torah portion ends with the death of Joseph and his binding the Israelites to bring his remains with them for burial when they are redeemed from slavery and go to the land of Israel. Thus ends the book of Genesis!

* * *

Dvar Torah
based on Growth Through Torah by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin

The Torah states that in giving Judah (Yehuda) his blessing, Jacob said:

"Yehuda is a lion's whelp. From the prey, my son, you have gone up" (Genesis 49:4).

Rashi, the premier commentator, tells us that Yehuda elevated himself by two actions: (1) he stopped his brothers from killing Joseph, and (2) he publicly embarrassed himself to save the life of his former daughter-in-law, Tamar. Why is it important for us to know how Yehuda behaved in a praiseworthy manner?

Yehuda is the progenitor of the tribe from which came the future kings of Israel. It was precisely because of these exhibitions of character that Yehuda merited this honor and responsibility. In Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, the question is asked, "Who is the mighty person?" and answered, "He who rules over his own desires." Such a person is worthy to rule over others because he will rule over them with the same righteousness as he rules over himself.

In saving Joseph, he ruled over himself not to be influenced by the other brothers who wanted to kill Joseph. In saving Tamar, he did not let personal pride stand in the way of doing the right thing. The ability to rule over one's own passions makes any person a true king.


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