The repercussions of negative words are so clear – like shot arrows that cannot be returned, says the Talmud. But I often need to remind myself of the power of positive language.
In a world that knows only idol worship, soothsayers, and astrology, Yosef’s first words to Pharaoh are: “Not I, but God (Elohim) will answer and bring peace to Pharaoh.”
What follows is that not only Yosef’s dream interpretations are adopted by Pharaoh, but also his language: “Will we find a man in whom there is the spirit of God?….As God has let you know all this, there is no one as understanding and wise as you.”
Yosef’s words are simultaneously all about God, convincing, practical and positive. He seems to have evolved since his dream interpretations as a boy, which only distanced him from his brothers.
Our words change the course of history and people’s lives.
A good friend who is a math teacher once told me how she called the parents of one of her poorer students and praised him for working so hard and getting such good grades. Thrilled, they let their son know how proud they were of him, he started believing in his abilities, and voila – by the end of the year, he really was one of her best students.
Words are self-fulfilling. If I truly believe that my children can be kind/wise/mature/ neat/successful in any field, I will speak about them only in those terms.
I will ask them to dress warmly, so they stay healthy and strong, versus “so you don’t get deathly ill,” God forbid. And when they are running late, I will say “I’m sure you’ll make the bus now!” And they often actually do!
When a hospital in Israel calls itself a Beit Refuah (a house of Healing) versus a Beit Cholim (home for the Ill), I think the subtle message makes a difference to the patients there.
And so it is no wonder that a custom of Shabbat is also to change our speech on that day. To avoid focusing on politics or other divisive topics. When I taught in a post-high school program for young women from challenging backgrounds, I suggested that they try to refrain at least on Shabbat from the three C’s – Cursing, Criticizing and Complaining!
I am not a big curser, but when I refrain from criticizing and kvetching, our home is a much better place.
When the Chofetz Chaim said that “lashon hara” – negative reporting- was the root of all of our exiles and troubles – from the snake’s falsification of God’s words in Gan Eden, to Yosef’s bad reports about his brothers, and the Spies negative words about the Land of Israel, he was reminding each one of us that positive, sensitive speech has the power to do the opposite.
To refine us, draw us closer together, and bring our personal and national redemptions.