Let our better thoughts guide our speech

Rabbi Andrea Goldstein serves Congregation Shaare Emeth and is a member of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association.   


In Vayeshev, our Torah portion this week, we meet Joseph. At this point in the story, Joseph is 17, brazen and clearly his father’s favorite. 

He also is a dreamer who has no qualms about sharing his dreams, which depict him as ruling over his parents and siblings, with his family. These dreams fuel his brothers’ jealousy of him, and in the Torah, we read:

“And when his brothers saw that their father loved him more than any of his brothers, they hated him so that they could not speak a friendly word to him. … So his brothers were wrought up at him, and his father kept the matter in mind” (Gen. 37:4, 11).

What does it mean that Jacob “kept the matter in mind?” Rashi interprets this to mean that Jacob “waited and looked forward to the time when this would come to pass.” While Jacob may have realized that Joseph’s sharing of his dreams was upsetting to his family now, he also understood that if these dreams were, indeed, a prediction of what was to come, Joseph’s leadership could be a good thing, not only for their family, but for the entire region. Jacob held on to this hope for their collective future, trusting in God and in his family, that the matter would resolve itself in a way that was positive for all.

InSefer Baal Shem Tov,we come across a different interpretation of these words.Taking the verse completely out of context, we read: 

“When it comes to thought and speech, thought precedes speech; that is, it gives birth to speech. For this reason, thought is considered the parent (av) while speech is the offspring. This is in alignment with the words of the holy saint of Israel the Ba’al Shem Tov of blessed memory: ‘And his father (av) kept (shamar) the matter (hadavar) in mind,’ for thought guards speech so that we can restrain ourselves from speaking any utterance save one that is wholesome.”

In this reinterpretation of the verse, the wordav(father) is read as our thoughts; the wordshamaris defined as “guarded” or “protected”; and the worddavar, which can be defined as “matter,” also means “word” or “speech.” The Baal Shem Tov asks us to imagine our thoughts as the gatekeepers of what we utter and wants us to use our thoughts to monitor what we say so that our words reflect the best that is within us.

Judaism teaches us that words have great power.God created our entire world through the power of speech.God said, “Let there be …” and there was. If we are created in God’s image, then our words have this same creative power as well. And if words give us the power to create, they also give us the power to destroy. 

It can be argued that in this age of electronic communications and “fake news,” in a time when our leaders thoughtlessly take to Twitter excoriating those whom they perceive to be their enemies, cultivating a practice of mindful speech is more important than ever.

One way to do this is to ask ourselves three questions before we speak or send an email or post something on social media:

Are these words necessary? Are they true? And are they kind?

If each of us would commit to allowing our thoughts to pass through these three “gates” before concretizing our thoughts into speech, we could begin to build a climate of true civil discourse, compassionate understanding and respectful discourse that we all desire.