There are some events that are so transformative that their effects reverberate even generations later. One of those occurs in Parshas Vayeshev (Genesis 37:1–40:23). After forty years of wandering in the desert, when the Jewish people prepared to enter the Land of Israel, Moshe (Moses) designated three cities of refuge, (where an accidental murderer could flee for safety). The first one he set aside was in Reuven’s (Reuben's) portion of Israel. Jewish tradition asks why Reuven merited to have his city of refuge mentioned first, and the answer is that hundreds of years earlier, Reuven was the first to try and save Yosef (Joseph) from his brothers.
The Torah says, “Reuven heard, and he saved him from their hands”. Reuven attempted to rescue Yosef by suggesting that the brothers should throw him in a pit rather than killing Yosef directly . His secret intent was to return later once everyone had calmed down and bring Yosef safely home to his father. What compelled Reuven to to save Yosef? What influenced Reuven specifically to try to save Yosef’s life?
The Medrash (ancient Jewish wisdom) answers by reminding us about Yosef’s first dream, that eleven stars symbolizing his eleven brothers were bowing to him. Most of the brothers heard the dream and were furious, but Reuven heard it and was relieved. At that point, Reuven was living a tenuous existence. In Parshas Vayishlach (Genesis 32:4-36:43) he had sinned against his father (see Genesis 35:22), and he deeply feared that as a punishment he would be cast aside as one of the tribes of Israel forever. Reuven spent his days anxiously wondering whether he would be included in God’s plan for the twelve tribes or whether he had irrevocably ruptured that plan. When he heard Yosef’s dream that prophesied eleven stars bowing down to him, he realized that he was equally included with the other brothers and was filled with relief. In gratitude to Yosef for relieving his anxiety, he was determined to rescue him, thereby earning the first city of refuge in his national portion.
Rabbi Avraham Pam (20th century American Torah teacher) explains a beautiful insight, relevant to all of us. Two people can hear identical words from the same person and they will each hear something completely different. Nine brothers, (Binyomin (Benjamin) wasn’t present), heard Yosef striving to rule over them and were infuriated, but one brother heard that he was included in the prophecy and felt joy.
The message for mothers is two-fold. Firstly, when we listen to our children we need to learn to listen to the underlying message with a positive perspective. When a child cries, “You never listen to me”, or “You never spend time with me”, we can choose to hear the accusation and get defensive, or we can choose to listen to the love and longing behind those words - a child saying, “I love you and need you and want to be close with you.” Although the words are the same, it’s our choice to choose what we hear. We choose how we hear the words of our loved ones.
The second point for mothers is to be aware that our children each hear us differently and we may need to fine tune the way we speak to each of them individually. Some children are more sensitive than others and they may interpret our unrelated tension as “Mommy’s angry at me”, whereas another child hears our tight voice and thinks, “Mommy’s frustrated that we’re running late. She’ll be fine once we’re in the car.” Different people have very different filters, and it’s wise for us to tune into each of our children to check in and learn what they hear versus what we believe we’ve said.
As we listen and speak, it is wise for us to remember that the words people hear are never simply the words that were spoken.
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This article is dedicated to the memory of Avner and Maya Gordon, two Israelis murdered by Hamas. Maya was a kindergarten teacher setting up her classroom on the morning she was abducted. She was later killed in Gaza and her body is still being held hostage. Avner was murdered in their home on October 7. May God grant comfort to their four beloved children and avenge their blood.