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The Torah Deals with Gossip #631

06/12/2020 06:06:00 PM


Rabbi Irwin Huberman

The Torah Deals with Gossip


In 1967, the Brothers Gibb (Bee Gees) recorded what would become their fourth most popular song of all time. The chorus begins with the refrain, “It’s only words, and words are all I have…”

The sentiment conveys that no matter what exists in our hearts — good or bad — the way we express ourselves affects our relationships with the rest of the world. Our words are the engines that drive the quality of our interactions.

A congregant challenged me many years ago, “How can this be so? Often, I have thoughts that I am not comfortable with but I don't express them in words or action. Does that clear me in the eyes of God?”

A rabbi I once studied with responded in part by saying that within the course of a day, millions of thoughts and snippets pass through our minds — some noble, others not — but the way we act upon — or refrain from acting upon them — determines the course of our lives.

These days, we live with an overabundance of words. Sometimes words mean little. But the Talmud teaches, “Words are like arrows.” You never truly know where each will land. The more loose arrows, the more potential for injury.

Judaism takes the misuse of words extremely seriously. And in this week’s Torah portion, we witness perhaps the most blatant, and most quoted, example of biblical gossip.

From earlier pages of the Torah, it becomes clear that the marriage between Moses and Tziporah is not going well. They are seldom in the same place at the same time. 

In the Book of Exodus, Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law, expresses concern over Moses’ long hours and reluctance to delegate his responsibilities. I can imagine Jethro telling his son-in-law, “Go home to your family.”

In the Book of Genesis, biblical couples routinely interact. Not so with Moses and Tziporah. So, perhaps it is no surprise that as Chapter 12 of the Book of Numbers opens, the Torah tells us the news that Moses has married a woman from the Kingdom of Cush in northern Africa.

Moses’ siblings, Miriam and Aaron, are not pleased. Let’s examine the actual Biblical words, as we gauge their reaction.

“Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married. He married a Cushite woman!!” (Exodus 12:1)

How do you read these words? Read them out loud the way you think Miriam and Aaron did.

Rashi, our great commentator, quotes the Talmudic sage, Rabbi Nathan, indicating that the reason for Miriam’s shock is that Miriam and Tziporah were close. Our tradition recounts an incident where Tziporah suggests to Miriam that she and Moses are separated.

Perhaps, Miriam and Aaron were generally observing, “He married a Cushite woman.”

However, God not only hears the content our words, but also listens to our hearts — often punctuated by tone.

Perhaps Miriam and Aaron were expressing their initial shock over the fact she was different. She likely did not dress the same or speak the same, or perhaps even worship the same. And coming from northern African, most likely, she did not look the same.

And God takes note of this. Immediately, Miriam, is afflicted with a skin disease and is quarantined from the camp for seven days. Aaron is punished in other ways.

For in all likelihood, it was not “only words,” which outraged God, but rather their tone.

Now, try saying the words, “He married a Cushite woman!!” including, as many bibles do, two exclamation marks!!

And perhaps now we get God’s point.

Our tradition tells us that lashon hara — loosely translated as “gossip” — is one of worst sins a person can commit. Often rabbis are asked, “But isn’t it okay if the item is true?”

Our tradition says, “No.”

How often have we observed the media, or those in our immediate circle, stumbling over each other to be first to communicate a juicy piece of truth to others? Information is power.

The Talmud reminds us that when we gossip, three persons are gravely injured: the victim, the speaker and the person who hears it.

All the more reason to be careful these days — not only about the words exiting our mouths, but also during this era of texts and tweets, those words projected by our thumbs. 

And what is the antidote to lashon hara?

Our Sages tell us that lashon hatov — good language — can overpower negative inclinations. Measure for measure, good negates bad.

Many of us have been paying extra attention these days to words. Is it just me, or have you also noticed that it takes a lot more breath and propulsion to gossip about someone, than it does to gently compliment them?

During the pandemic, when we wear masks, we are — to some extent — insulating ourselves from others. But more importantly, we are also protecting others from us — in particular, the microscopic droplets we propel into the world.

Let us also be mindful of what else comes out of our mouths, as we consider the content of our words. For they reflect what is truly in our spirit. It’s the same for lashon hara

Miriam and Aaron used speech to hurt, and it literally lodged itself under their skin.

As we begin to reboot and re-engage with our friends, families, colleagues at work and in our community, let us be inspired by the case of Miriam and Aaron — and be more watchful of what exits our mouths. Are we using words to build or to destroy?

Miriam and Aaron experienced pain and regret this week for their words, but like all of us, they learned from their mistakes.

Luckily, we have them to inspire us. Indeed, during these times of re-emergence, can we rededicate ourselves — just a little bit more — to choose lashon hatov over lashon hara?

The Torah reminds us this week about the potential for good or bad within our words.

Indeed, let them always be kind.

Shabbat Shalom, v’kol tuv,

Rabbi Irwin Huberman 


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