Finding the right words


In this episode, Rabbi Josh Feigelson highlights the importance of thoughtful communication. Using the acronym WAIT (Why am I talking?), he encourages purposeful speech to bring about positive changes.

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Back in the day, I used to work as the rabbi at Northwestern University Hillel. And while I was there, I was also working on my doctorate, where I studied the history of religion and higher education, and specifically the history of Jews and higher education. 

So one day, there’s a new president of the university. And, to my surprise, he told our group of campus chaplains that he wanted to come to our monthly meeting to have a conversation about religion and higher education. 

You can imagine, I was excited. I’m thinking, “Yeah, baby: I’m gonna show off for this guy. I’m gonna drop some serious knowledge.”

This voice inside me was a familiar one. It was the same voice that, as a kid, led me to be a Hermione Granger type in school: smart, overachiever, and, as Professor Snape calls her at one point, “an insufferable know-it-all.”

While I had taken my lumps for that over the years, like Hermione, I found the voice was hard to suppress, even as a grownup. 

Fortunately, by the time the meeting happened, another voice emerged inside me that wisely counseled a different approach. “Josh,” it said, “maybe take a beat. In other words, shut up for a second. Try to listen before you speak.”

(Photo: Shutterstock)

By this point in my life, it seems, I had acquired some wisdom that encouraged me to resist my initial impulse — not to stay silent forever, but just to compensate for my own over-eagerness.

The meeting came and I stayed true to my intention. I waited for everyone else to speak once or even twice before I went. Eventually the time came for me to say something.

I don’t remember what I said, but I’m sure I did, in fact, drop some knowledge about the history of religion and American higher education. But now I did so in a way that was less young Hermione Granger and more a bit of wise old Albus Dumbledore. 

The meeting ended, and by the time I got back to my office, there was an email in my inbox from the president thanking me for my comments and asking to meet again soon to follow up on them. It seemed that my intention was a good one and that my actions had paid off. I had done something right.

The Torah portion of Vayigash, which we read this week, is the climax of the story of Joseph. Many years after his brothers sold him into slavery and presumed him dead, they encounter Joseph, who is now the second most powerful man in Egypt — only, plot twist, while Joseph recognizes his brothers, they don’t recognize him. (It’s almost like he’s wearing an invisibility cloak. Okay, I’ll stop.) 

Anyway, at this point, Joseph has decided to test his brothers by imprisoning one of them on trumped-up charges of theft. And he’s demanding that the brothers bring their youngest brother, Benjamin, to exchange for him. Basically, he’s putting them in the same position they were in many years earlier and seeing if they’ve changed.

Good news: they have! And the proof comes in a dramatic speech offered by Judah that opens the Torah portion. This is one of the most beautiful and dramatic speeches in the Torah, and it opens with the words, “Please, sir, let your humble servant speak to you, and please don’t be angry.”

That’s not quite a literal translation. What Judah literally says is, “Let your servant speak words in the ears of my master.” The ancient rabbis of the Midrash pick up on this and comment that what Judah is asking is that his words, like, literally penetrate inside Joseph’s ears. 

While that’s a little bit of a gross image, it’s also a powerful description of what speech and communication are all about.

George Bernard Shaw is said to have quipped that the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place. Put less cynically, we might that the biggest miracle of communication is that it, in fact, does take place all the time.

But in order for communication to happen, it helps a lot if our words are the right words at the right time. To go back to my story: If I had pulled a Hermione, I doubt my words would have landed in the way they did, and I expect that email from the president wouldn’t have been waiting for me when I got back to my office. The time, place, tone, not to mention the words themselves — all of these matter when we’re communicating.

A few weeks ago I talked about mindful speech and offered a practice of five questions to ask yourself before speaking. This week, I want to offer a related practice, which uses the acronym WAIT. It’s not complicated. WAIT stands for one question to ask yourself before you speak: “Why am I talking?” I might add, Why am I talking now? 

Before you speak, take a moment to breathe and check in with yourself. What’s motivating me to speak right now? Am I speaking from a place of fear, anxiety, anger, self-righteousness?

If so, do I want to be speaking from such a place? Or are my words grounded in a genuine desire for what’s best for everyone involved? 

Is what I’m going to say going to add value to the conversation? Is the person or group to whom I’m speaking in a position to hear what I’m saying?  Is it likely to be received in the way I intend? 

Don’t use these questions as a dodge. Your words may well be coming from a good and grounded place, and not one of reactivity. They may well be offered with goodwill. The person or group to whom you’re speaking may well be in a good position to hear them. But check in with yourself. 

And then, as my colleague Imani Chapman taught me recently, you might ask yourself another version of WAIT: Why aren’t I talking?

If you’re suppressing yourself and not sharing what you have to say, is that silence coming from a wise and healthy place, or is it motivated by something else? If you feel good about the chances that your words will make a difference, then feel encouraged to speak them. 

Judah’s willingness to speak and his skill in doing so ultimately bring Joseph out of hiding. Joseph reveals himself to his brothers and, after decades, the family is reunited. It’s an incredible moment of redemption.

I really believe all of us have the capacity to be Judahs. (After all, his name is ultimately why we’re called Jews!) All of us can bring about redemption, healing, wholeness, and peace through our words. And we can do it through being a little more mindful when we speak. 

Blessings for the journey. Know that I’m on it with you.

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