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Parshas Vayigash - Reading Between the Lines        5 Teves 5783

12/29/2022 09:51:43 AM


One of the many areas of Shlomo HaMelech’s --King Solomon’s --wisdom was transmitted came through  understanding the language of the animal kingdom, and, according to some, was even expressed by communicating directly with them. Although not mentioned explicitly, this was  derived from the verse in Kings I 5:13: “…Shlomo spoke of the trees, from the cedar of Lebanon down to the hyssop which grows out of the wall; he spoke of animal, of fowl, of crawling creature, and of fish”. But in sefer Targum Sheini Esther 3:1, it clearly states that Shlomo understood the speech and communication methods of the animal kingdom. The commentary Pas’shegen HaKesav explains that the animals knew Shlomo’s language as well. Interestingly,  there is a certain irony regarding the communication animals have with other animals of their kind, compared to that of humans to humans.

As far as I understand, animals do not have the same level of communication ability as humans. In Bereishis we are told of mankind’s ability to speak, giving them superiority to the animal kingdom. The last time I visited the zoo, I did not notice any animals asking for clarification regarding something they said to each other. I didn’t hear one animal grow insulted by another or completely misunderstand the message his fellow animal was trying to tell him. Yet, when it comes to humans, we tend to have serious regarding with our communication abilities despite having the highest intelligence of all living creatures. Since the beginning of time, man’s communication has evolved to the point where we are able to communicate half-way across the world instantaneously yet still manage to be misunderstood. How so? During the time of Adam Harishon, any communication was done face to face, leaving little room for not hearing or not understanding what the other person was saying. Furthermore, the person being spoken to could even read the expression and tone of what was being said. Fast forward a few thousand years. Today, we communicate through social media, apps for texting, messaging, and the like. In my own personal experience, I have misunderstood a person’s text message, thanks to poor  inflection, tone, or just poor writing.

Moreover, to add to the complexity of human communication, there is another way of getting a message across or to be understood – the ability to ‘read between the lines’. There is  much to be said,  written, or omitted altogether, intentionally or accidently, which frequently misconstrues and twists messaging.     Too often, omitting even a seemingly minor piece of information or a ‘minor’ detail here or there changes the entire meaning of the message. An astrophysicist, Carl Sagan, once said, ”The absence of something is often more telling then what is there.” Therefore, when reading something, one must not only read the words that are printed, but also the words that are not there. I heard this idea from Rabbi Wein many years ago. Rabbi Wein mentions this concept in his autobiography “Teach Them Diligently”.  He writes about one of his Rabbeim, Reb Mendel Kaplan zt” l, who was a disciple of both Rabbi Yerucham Levovitz, the famed mashgiach of the Mir Yeshiva, and Rabbi Elchanan Wasserman, Rosh yeshiva of Baranovitch. Rabbi Wein writes, “Reb Mendel’s aphorisms remained with me. I can still hear him say life is like chewing gum – a little flavor and the rest is chew, chew, chew.” Rabbi Mendel Kaplan taught me how to read a newspaper, spotting its unintended lessons in life.

I believe that this notion of ‘things being omitted’ or ‘reading between the lines’ and the ‘unintended lessons in life’ are means of communication that must be read and processed  with a keen eye. The Torah, as we know it, is not a history book. Even though Bereishis and some of Shmos reads like a history book, it is not. Nevertheless, even within the storylines of the Torah, there are always background and back drop to all the scenes of Tanach. A fascinating example comes in the way of this week’s Parshas Vayigash. The Torah in Bereishis 44:32 states "כי עבדך ערב את הנער מעם אבי לאמר, אם-לא אביאנו אליך וחטאתי לאבי כל הימים" “-  "Besides, I offered myself to my father as a guarantee for the lad, and I said, “If I do not bring him back to you, I will have sinned to my father for all time”. At this point Yehuda is fed up with the Viceroy’s shenanigans and is growing restless. Rabbeinu Bachya shares some of the details of the heated exchange between Yehuda and Yosef that are not in the actual text. Rabbeinu Bachya writes:

“After this outburst by Yehudah, Yosef told him that if he dared draw his sword, he, Yosef, would strangle him with it by wrapping it around his own neck. To this Yehuda replied: ”"If I so much as open my mouth I will swallow you”. Yosef countered: ”If you open your mouth, I will shut it with a rock.” Yehuda then asked: ”What shall I tell my father if I return without Binyamin?” To this Yosef replied,  “Tell him that the rope followed the bucket” [This is an allusion to Binyamin having a ‘genetic’ tendency to steal. Rochel, Benyamin’s mother, had stolen the teraphim having given birth to a son who also became a thief.].  Yehuda shot back that Yosef was framing them and judging them for a sin they had not committed. Yosef retorted that the only perverted justice at stake was the sale of their brother. Yehuda retorted that the holy fervor which had imbued him in their fight against Shechem, which was caused because of sin involving illegitimate relations, was beginning to fill him now. Thereupon, Yosef replied that the sin of illegitimate relations he should be thinking about was that of sleeping with his daughter-in-law Tamar. Yosef implied that it did not take much to extinguish Yehuda’s supposedly sincere fervor. Yehuda responded, shouting, “I am boiling over with fury, and no one takes me seriously!” Yosef said it would be easy to cool down Yehuda’s anger. Thereupon Yehuda announced that he was about to go paint the marketplaces of Egypt with the blood of its people. To this Yosef replied that this was nothing new, referring to his brothers who had experience in painting Yosef’s coat with blood, then bringing the bloodied coat to their father, suggesting it was Yosef’s blood, and that Yosef had been attacked and killed by a ferocious beast. At that point all the brothers agreed to destroy Egypt. When Yosef realized this, he said to himself, “I have to reveal myself to them so that they will not destroy Egypt.” At this point he faced his brothers, declaring  the famous words: “I am your brother, Yosef.”

From Rabbeinu Bachya’s explanation, in conjunction with the prior discussion of ‘reading between the lines’, we should all take a lesson concerning the importance of care with regard to  how and what we say when conveying a message. The last thing in the world we want is to be misunderstood and misguided by our language. When possible, make the effort to communicate the old-fashioned way - speaking face to face as human beings should, using their God-given power of speech with care and respect.  

Ah Gutten Shabbos

Rabbi Avraham Bogopulsky

Fri, December 8 2023 25 Kislev 5784