An environment in which people speak negatively of one another becomes rife with tension, distrust and toxicity. Indeed, the original exile of the Jewish people came about due to the tension between Yosef and his brothers and Yosef’s badmouthing them to their father. Moshe would later attribute the Jewish people’s bondage to their failings in this same area of toxic speech (see Rashi to Shemos 2:14).
Yet, when we reencounter Yosef later in his life, he has completely changed this behavior. A midrash (Pesikta Rabbati 3) goes so far as to say that Yosef avoided being alone with his father for the 17 years that they lived together in Egypt to avoid having to answer his questions about what had transpired between him and his brothers. In fact, he hardly spoke ill of anything, with the notable exception of his complaint to the butler and baker about his imprisonment.
How did Yosef turn around so dramatically?
In Egypt, as the Torah clearly attests, Yosef developed the ability to see the divine hand in everything. This enabled him to see and articulate the good in his situation, how even the difficulties he experienced were all positioning him to provide salvation for his family. In his eyes all was good, and so there was little motivation or urge to speak negatively about his situation or about others.
This is indeed the critical phrase in the verses (Tehillim 34) that discourage us from badmouthing others: “Who desires life, loving each day to see good? Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit, turn from evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it.” It is indeed difficult to refrain from letting out the negativity and bitterness that may reside inside us. If, however, we can follow the path of Yosef and allow our faith in God to inform our outlook, we can succeed in transforming our perspective, and therefore our words, to reflect positivity and sweetness, creating a beautiful environment around us.
Rabbi Moshe Hauer is executive vice president of the Orthodox Union (OU), the nation’s largest Orthodox Jewish umbrella organization.