The Impact of Our Words

People love to be the bearer of good news. At home, at the office, on Zoom, or wherever we are; when we have good news to share, we like to do so. Most of the time people meet our good news with warm feelings of congratulations and smiles; but sometimes one of the listeners may not appreciate the news as much as everyone else does. Why not? The conversation Moses has with his father-in-law, Yitro, upon his arrival sheds light on this matter.

After the Israelites miraculously cross the Red Sea and achieve victory over the nation of Amalek, Yitro brings his daughter Tzipporah and her two sons, Gershom and Eliezer, to Mt. Sinai to reunite with Moses before receiving the Ten Commandments. Moses shares in great detail the awesome miracles that transpired in Egypt during the year of the Ten Plagues and the downfall of Pharaoh and his kingdom.

In Exodus 18:9 the verse states:
וַיִּ֣חַדְּ יִתְר֔וֹ עַ֚ל כׇּל־הַטּוֹבָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־עָשָׂ֥ה יְהֹוָ֖ה לְיִשְׂרָאֵ֑ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר הִצִּיל֖וֹ מִיַּ֥ד מִצְרָֽיִם׃
And Jethro rejoiced over all the kindness that the LORD had shown Israel when He delivered them from the Egyptians.

The word Vayichad is translated as rejoiced but the Talmud advances that there is another meaning as well. Rashi, the father of all commentators explains:
ויחד יתרו AND JETHRO REJOICED — This is its literal meaning. A Midrashic comment is: his flesh became full of prickles (חדודין — his flesh crept with horror) — he felt grieved at the destruction of Egypt. (Sanhedrin 94a).

This is perplexing. While it is not uncommon for there to be different interpretations of a word in the Torah, rarely are they contradictory. Which is it, was Jethro joyous, or was he distraught?

One answer is that while he was thrilled for Moses and the Israelites, as a Midianite blood related to the Egyptians, he was pained at what happened to the Egyptians.

There is an enduring lesson to be learned from this interaction between Moses and Yitro. What I perceive as wonderful news may cause angst to someone else. For this reason, we must be careful and aware of how our words may impact others. Talking about my grandchildren and their accomplishments continuously to friends who do not have any could be upsetting to them. Sharing the fun details of a visit to your parents when the listener recently lost her parent can cause sadness.

While we cannot possibly know everything about everybody before we speak, we can certainly be sensitive about what we do know and be on the lookout for when our words cause any discomfort.

King Solomon says in Proverbs 18:2, “That life and death can be caused by the tongue.” There are times when saying the right thing to the right person at the right time energizes them and brings joy into their lives. Conversely, saying the wrong thing at the wrong time to the wrong person can hurt them immensely.

May G-d bless us to have the wisdom to enhance and enrich each other’s lives with our words.

Shabbat Shalom
Rabbi Ephraim Epstein
Community Scholar in Residence