Saturday 5th December 2020 19th Kislev 5781
Genesis 32:4 – 36:43; Obadiah 1-21; Matthew 2:13-23
WORDS STILL STICK—FOR GOOD OR ILL Rabbi Russ Resnik
When the time came for our father Jacob to return to the land promised to him by the Lord, after twenty years of servitude under his father-in-law, Uncle Laban, it wasn’t easy. He had set out alone as a young man with few possessions and he came back with two wives, their two handmaids, eleven sons, a daughter, and great wealth in flocks and herds. But Jacob had needed to slip away with this whole household while Laban was off shearing his sheep.
Just before he got back to his land, he had to wrestle all night with a mysterious “man,” who left him lame and leaning on a staff. When it was time to meet up with Esau, the brother he’d wronged so many years before, Esau came to greet him with a contingent of 400 men. Amazingly Esau embraced Jacob and welcomed him back, but more trials awaited: Dinah was raped by a local prince, and her brothers, two of Jacob’s sons, retaliated with a brutal attack on the prince’s entire city, setting the stage for what Jacob feared would be the next round of retaliation—against him.
But the final blow, and undoubtedly the most painful, came after Jacob had returned to Beth-El, where his journey had begun twenty years before. There God appeared to him again, and spoke words of blessing over him.
Then they travelled from Beth-El, and while they were still a distance from entering Ephrath, Rachel began to give birth, but her labor was difficult. While she was struggling to give birth, the midwife said to her, “Don’t be afraid, for this is also a son for you.” Now as her soul was departing (for she died), she named him Ben-Oni, but his father named him Benjamin. Then Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem). (Gen 35:16–19 TLV)
In Midrash Rabbah, the sages interpret this tragic death in light of an earlier incident. When Jacob and his family escaped from Laban, Rachel for some reason had stolen his household idols. Laban caught up with Jacob and his encampment and demanded his idols back. Jacob denied that anyone had taken them, saying,
“Anyone with whom you find your gods shall not live. In front of our relatives, identify whatever is yours that is with me, and take it back.” (But Jacob did not know that Rachel had stolen them.) (Gen 31:32 TLV)
The sages cite this story to explain why Rachel, the younger sister, dies long before her older sister, Leah. One of the sages, Rabbi Jose, says, “She died because of the patriarch’s curse” (Genesis R. 74:4). We may disagree with this explanation, but the principle remains: Words have the power to create reality. We can trace this principle at work throughout Genesis, beginning with God creating all things, the heavens and the earth, through his words. “Life and death are in the power of the tongue” (Prov 18:21 ESV). Life-giving words, words of appreciation, gratitude, and affirmation, aren’t just sounds—they are a creative force that elevates the world we live in.
Moreover, in the world of Genesis, words once spoken stick. Before Jacob left home, he had joined his mother, Rebekah, in tricking Isaac his father into giving the blessing Isaac intended for Esau to Jacob instead. When Esau discovered that his blessing had been given to his brother, he begged his father, “Haven’t you saved a blessing for me?”
Isaac answered and said to Esau, “Behold, I’ve made him master over you, and all your brothers I’ve given to him as servants. I’ve provided him with grain and new wine. What then can I do for you, my son?”
Esau said to his father, “Do you just have one blessing, my father? Bless me too, my father!” (Gen 27:36–38 TLV)
Esau can’t ask Isaac to take the blessing back from Jacob and give it to him. He knows that words stick, and the blessing once spoken cannot be undone. The best Esau can hope for is a different blessing of his own. Words once spoken cannot be made silent. But we might wonder, in our day of inflated verbosity, whether words still have such power and durability. I’d suggest that the Torah is telling us they do. Despite the flood of words in the digital era, words still have creative power, and words stick. Therefore we need to measure our words with care for, as our Master reminds us, “whatever you have said in the dark shall be heard in the light, and what you have whispered in private rooms shall be proclaimed on the housetops” (Luke 12:3 ESV).
The stories of our ancestors also reveal the power of words not spoken. If Rebekah had told Isaac about the prophetic words she’d heard before Jacob and Esau were even born, that the older would serve the younger, Isaac could have planned how best to impart blessings to his sons instead of being tricked into a fraught situation. If Rachel had told Jacob that she’d run off with her father’s household idols, Jacob wouldn’t have responded with what amounted to her death sentence.
So we need to be careful with our words, but not so careful that we clam up and don’t speak the positive, life-giving words that need to be said. Rebekah and Rachel both withheld information from their husbands. In counseling with married couples I often see the opposite—husbands who withhold too much from their wives, not just information, but simple words of affirmation and encouragement. They neglect the creative, sticking power of positive words: “Wow, honey, that dinner smells fabulous. I can’t believe you’ve even had time to make it while you’ve had to run around after the kids all day long!” Or “. . . after you came home from your tough day at the office!”
The current Netflix series The Crown portrays the younger Prince Charles as arrogant and self-absorbed, unable to build a happy marriage with the beautiful Princess Diana. Finally she bursts out to complain of being neglected and overlooked by him, and he responds:
I know what being overlooked feels like. I’ve spent my whole life being unthanked, unappreciated, uncared for. And if I’ve been cold or distant with you, perhaps it’s because I don’t feel truly understood by you. I sometimes think you see me as an old man. Or worse, a gargoyle above the church door. Gray, made of stone, unemotional, but I’m not. You think I don’t crave the occasional “Well done,” or … “Aren’t you clever?” Or even just a thank-you. I need encouragement and the occasional pat on the back too. (https://subslikescript.com/series/The_Crown-4786824/season-4/episode-6)
Whether or not this scene is historically accurate, it’s an accurate portrayal of the human condition. If one so favored and honored as the Prince of Wales needs the occasional pat on the back, so must we and those around us.
Words have power for good and ill; words stick and their absence sticks too. The power of words gives us an opportunity to create good amidst the confusion, chaos, and anxiety of the days we’re living in. Life and death are in the power of the tongue; let’s be generous in speaking words of life to those around us, beginning with those who are the closest.
From the Amidah Prayer:
My L-rd, open my lips, and my mouth shall declare Your praise.
My G‑d, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking deceitfully. Let my soul be silent to those who curse me; let my soul be as dust to all. Open my heart to Your Torah, and let my soul eagerly pursue Your commandments. As for all those who plot evil against me, hasten to annul their counsel and frustrate their design. Let them be as chaff before the wind; let the angel of the L-rd thrust them away. That Your beloved ones may be delivered, help with Your right hand and answer me. Do it for the sake of Your Name; do it for the sake of Your right hand; do it for the sake of Your Torah; do it for the sake of Your holiness. May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable before You, L-rd, my Strength and my Redeemer.
Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips!
1 Peter 3:10
For Whoever desires to love life and see good days, let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deceit.