Words can be misleading, their meanings distorted. Most everyone has been bothered by the assumed intent of another’s words. “What did he really mean by that comment?” Lacking clarity, we often misinterpret the simplest communication. We may ponder what message was conveyed by someone’s tone of voice or facial expression. “Was that a sincere ‘hello’ or did you detect a hint of sarcasm?”

Very often, what we perceive in another’s words is really a reflection of our own mood or perspective. In Parshat Vayeshev we come to understand the evolving characters of Jacob and his sons. We learn how important it is to be deliberate in what we choose to say. As we are selective in the choice of foods that enter our mouths, so must we be ever mindful of the words that come out.

Jealousy: The Timeless Toxin

Joseph’s brothers disliked him so intensely that they could not speak to him leshalom. The Hebrew word for peace, shalom, is also a greeting meaning “hello” or “goodbye.” Its Hebrew root—the letters shin, lamed and mem—also means “completeness” or “being whole.” The hatred of Yosef’s brothers was an obstruction that prevented them from even greeting their brother. Alas, even the first step towards attaining peace—acknowledging another’s existence—could not be taken.

Shalom does not mean the absence of conflict in a relationship. It signifies attaining peace. It allows for the acceptance of the other as (s)he is now, focusing on their positive attributes.

As we say, Oseh shalom bimromav Hu ya’aseh shalom aleinu v’al kol Yisrael v’imru amen, “He who makes peace in the heavens shall make peace among us and all Israel, and we say ‘amen.’ ” Fire and water co-exist in the heavens, yet they are complete opposite entities. So, too, we pray to G‑d to help us reconcile the differences that divide us for the sake of a peaceful coexistence. True peace is not the lack of discord but is achieved by not allowing it to exceed its boundaries. Keeping the differences in check while directing and utilizing them to achieve a comprehensive, greater good.

Joseph certainly was not blameless in contributing to his brothers’ malice. As a youth, well aware of his favored status, Joseph appeared to be a “tattletale.” Nevertheless, his brothers’ response was to the extreme.

Pirkei Avot, “Ethics of the Fathers” (1:6), teaches: “Judge the entire person favorably.” The focus of this line is on the words “the entire person.” The entire person implies a comprehensive view—not just the negative behaviors that one can see but the redeeming attributes that may not be so apparent.

Joseph’s brothers viewed him with only negativity. In all of his actions, they perceived only evil. It’s interesting to note that the letter “vav” is missing from the work leshalom (Genesis 37:4). Without it, the numerical value of each of the letters totals 400, corresponding to the numerical value of the words ayin ra (a “bad eye”). This is exactly how the brothers saw Yosef. Their eyes could not see past his external behavior. They could not find any redeeming qualities in him; they saw only what they chose to see.1 Thus, an ayin ra (“bad eye:) blinds one from seeing the total picture of another. Total focus is solely fixated upon what is seen as bad, eclipsing any positive traits or virtues.2

The blinding effects of hatred are toxic. Jealousy prevents one from seeing clearly. All communication is obstructed and marred by it. The animosity of Joseph’s brothers was so intense that they no longer could even refer to him by his name. Their rancor is illustrated in the narrative, “Is this your son’s tunic? Please identify it” (Genesis 37:32), referring to the coat of many colors that Joseph had given to his beloved Joseph.

The impersonalization of individuals begins when we refuse to identify them by name. “He” or “she” is impersonal. Calling someone by name reflects familiarity. At the very least, it infers a proximity necessary to achieve a closer relationship.

In contrast, the word shalom (Genesis 37:13-14) is written in its complete form—with the vav—when Jacob asks Joseph to seek out his brothers. Joseph was ready to follow through with his father’s request.

We can learn a powerful lesson from this. Appearances and behaviors are often misleading. They are fragments of what, in truth, is a greater, comprehensive, whole. Our sages teach us to strive for greater clarity—to take into view the entire person. Consider his background, personal experiences, physical and mental capacities, etc. Since this is impossible to ascertain, we are prohibited from passing judgment on any individual. For it is, indeed, impossible to see more than a small section of an expansive scenario. The way we choose to see others can reflect our own character. One sees what he chooses to see.

Our sages enjoin us to choose to see the good. View others with a “good eye” rather than with a “bad eye.” It’s a matter of choice of altering one’s perspective to focus on the positive.

Making It Relevant

1. The next time you find yourself feeling hurt by someone’s words or actions, consider the entire person and his/her background, etc.

2. Take into account that when people are hurting, they tend to hurt others.

3. Consider that it could be about him/her and not you.

4. Realize that you could be misunderstanding the true intent.