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Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Vayeishev: The Power of Words

A few years ago, a friend and I took our ten-year-old daughters to participate in a community art activity. At lunchtime, we walked into the one nearby deli. It was the type where  you get your food at the counter, and because it was so busy, so my daughter and I quickly ordered a couple of kosher hot dogs.

As my daughter went to get mustard and I looked around for a free table, I heard my friend's daughter from behind me, talking loudly enough so there was no doubt I'd hear. "Mom, even if it's kosher, you'd never let me eat a hot dog, right?" she said. "They're really unhealthy, right?"

Now, I don't usually let kids' offhand comments bother me, but that one went through me like a knife. I'm not a big server of hot dogs, but they are easy and tasty, and they seemed like a good choice at the time. Still, I couldn't help feeling embarrassed and regretful for feeding my daughter something that others considered off-limits. I'm sure this little girl didn't intend for me to feel bad (and, incidentally, her mom ended up buying her a bag of  greasy chips that were probably more unhealthy than the hot dogs); but I did. The fact is, words can hurt.

I think about this event when I teach Vayeishev, this week's Torah portion, which centers around the famed character Joseph and his tense relationship with his 11 brothers. As you probably know, Joseph is his father Jacob's favorite son. He showers praise on the boy, which makes the other brothers mad, and gives him -- and only him -- a fancy, colorful coat. The brothers' jealousy gets the best of them, and they end up selling  him to a slaveowner and convincing their dad that Joseph died. They think this will make their lives better.

Much has been written about the character flaws that drive the action. Joseph, some suggest, is at fault for flaunting his colorful coat in front of his brothers, and for recounting dreams that suggest he is bound for greatness while his brothers are not. Many say that Joseph, at least at this point is the story, is a vain, boastful boy.

But I don't agree that Joseph has a personality defect, and I don't think he is narcissistic or insensitive. I think he is simply young.

Because I teach middle schoolers, I tend to see coming-of-age themes in many works of literature, but I think it's a particularly important aspect to this Torah portion. When Joseph recounts his dreams, he seems, at least to me, as free of malice as my friend's daughter was. He and she were both relaying stories and thoughts entirely about themselves. They didn't realize what impact their words would have, because they just weren't thinking about others.

One of the most important changes that happen in the middle-school years is that children start thinking more about what others are thinking. Considering how others hear comments or perceive actions boosts clarity and often leads to better decisions. As adults and teachers, we can help them get in the habit of always looking for other perspectives. With both my students and well as my own children, one of my favorite things to say is, "I know how you feel, but how do you think he (or she) feels?"

"We can't invite her to the concert because there would be too many of us!"
"I know how you feel, but how do you think she'll feel when she learns you're all going?"

"We don't want him to be in our study group because he talks too much."
"Okay, but how do you think he'll feel when he sees you studying without him?"

The Joseph story concludes with Joseph engineering a plot that shows not only that he has learned to think before he speaks or acts -- but that he is ready to teach that lesson to others. But that's for another week.

Not too long ago, I observed a teacher trying to manage a fifth-grade class. Now, these kids were being unruly, perhaps even disrespectful. But rather than asking them to think about how she felt, and helping them become more aware of the effects of their behavior, this teacher proceeded to single individual students out, stand over them, bark orders at them, and basically intimidate them. Sure, they behaved; but they also felt humiliated and defeated.

Sometimes adults need to learn the lessons of Joseph as well.

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