Friday, December 30, 2016

The Power of Language to divide...and to unite - article in The Jewish Voice, newspaper of the Jewish Federation of Greater EL Paso, for January 2017

“I am Joseph!  Is my father still alive?” 

With that declaration, from the standpoint of Joseph’s brothers, a stranger became family.  

   We know the story:  a colored coat, dreams of seeming grandeur, a concerned father, jealous brothers, the dreamer sold into slavery, the slave framed and sent to prison, the dreamer/slave/prisoner becoming an accomplished interpreter of dreams, and that special talent taking the young man before Pharaoh for a crucial dreamer interpretation session, the dreamer/slaver/prisoner/interpreter being made Pharaoh’s “second-in-command” to manage the storage in preparation for the famine, and the newly-appointed Egyptian official seeing his brothers come into his presence.   Once he saw his brothers fight for the freedom of his full brother Benjamin, Joseph was unable to control himself.”  That was when he revealed who he was, telling his brothers that God had sent him to Egypt to save their lives. 

  In that case, the Torah told how one simple sentence made a world of difference for Jacob’s family   Words compassionately spoken in the context of a personal encounter reunited Jacob’s sons and led to the future that had been laid out for their people.  

  I was intrigued by the importance of language in two recent movies. In the film “Arrival,” actress Amy Adams portrayed linguistics professor Louise Banks, who led a team of investigators trying to determine why 12 gigantic spaceships had touched down in random locations around the world. “The language you speak determines the way you think,” said Professor Banks, as she tried to devise a way to communicate with the extraterrestrials to determine if their intentions were peaceful.  Learning the language of the visitors is crucial to the outcome of the film.  Misunderstanding was a constant possibility which had to be overcome to bring the situation to resolution.  That would only happen if both sides learned and fathomed the meaning and intentions of the thoughts being expressed.   That is difficult even when we speak the same language. Professor Banks’ hope was that their conversation would, ultimately, turn these strangers into friends. 

   The film “Denial” portrayed Professor Deborah Lipstadt’s success in contesting the libel charge brought against her by Holocaust denier David Irving. In her 1993 book, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and MemoryLipstadt called Irving a “liar” and “falsifier of history.” She accused him of “taking accurate information and shaping it to confirm his conclusions.”  Language was key in the case and how words can express the truth or be twisted to create disinformation.  Professor Lipstadt and her legal representatives proved that Irving intentionally falsified documents and that much of his material, referenced in footnotes in his books, came from other deniers.   In one scene, a poem Irving had written for his daughter that had definite racist overtones (which I will not share here) was read into the court proceedings.   Irving himself was unable to see anything wrong with his negative and insulting references to people of other backgrounds. “Denial” reminds us that words can be deftly used to divide people in ways that can be harmful to all of humanity.   

   The reconciliation “scene” in the story of Joseph is still one of my favorite tales in the Tanakh.   Perhaps we all know stories about people, who have been at odds for a long while, who have found a way to get back together and have continued  into the future with a renewed sense of commitment and purpose. 

   To do so requires faith, hope, and a commitment to focus on what unites us as human beings.    

    Judaism teaches that the entire human family shares a common ancestry.  Is that enough to enable us to see one another as brothers and sisters?   

     The answer to that question is in our hands and our hearts.  







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