This week we will be reading from parashat Mishpatim. It is the Torah portion immediately after Yitro, which told us the story of Matan Torah, the giving and receiving of the 10 Commandments at Mt. Sinai. Unlike Yitro, which lays out ten fairly straightforward mitzvot, Mishpatim is a hodgepodge of laws. Of the 613 commandments found in the Torah, mishpatim contains fifty-three. Twenty-three are positive commandments (thou-shalts) and 30 are negative mitzvot (thou-shalt nots). There are laws on worship, injuries, property-law, moral behavior, sacrificial laws, the commandment not to boil a kid in its mother’s milk (23:19); the basis for the rabbinic mitzvah of separating milk and meat.
In Exodus 23:1 we find the curious phrase, “you must not carry (tisah) false rumors …” There is a lot of conversation among the rabbis as to what this really means. Rashi states that what this mitzvah is telling us is that we must not accept false rumors, meaning it is a mitzvah not to listen to gossip. Rashbam, Rashi’s grandson goes farther to argue that when you hear a rumor, you are to investigate as to whether it is true or not. Then there is ibn Ezra who takes it one step even further to argue that one must neither invent something false nor repeat something that one is not sure about.
All of these rules fall under the general rabbinic principle against lashon harah (literally evil speech) or gossip. As we learn from Jewish ethics, “The harm done by speech is even worse than the harm done by stealing or by cheating someone financially, because amends can be made for monetary harms, but the harm done by speech can never be repaired. For this reason, some sources indicate that there is no forgiveness for lashon ha-ra (disparaging speech).
A Chasidic tale illustrates this point: A man went about the community telling malicious lies about the rabbi. Later, he realized the wrong he had done, and began to feel remorse. He went to the rabbi and begged his forgiveness, saying he would do anything he could to make amends. The rabbi told the man, “Take a feather pillow, cut it open, and scatter the feathers to the winds.” The man thought this was a strange request, but it was a simple enough task, and he did it gladly. When he returned to tell the rabbi that he had done it, the rabbi said, “Now, go and gather the feathers. Because you can no more make amends for the damage your words have done than you can recollect the feathers.”
Speech has been compared to an arrow: once the words are released, like an arrow, they cannot be recalled, the harm they do cannot be stopped, and the harm they do cannot always be predicted, for words like arrows often go astray.”
On this Shabbat where we offer the following prayer at the end of the Amidah “Elohai Neshamah, My God, guard my speech and my lips from deception …,” may we be reminded by these words and our parasha to always guard our words, whether spoken, written, tweeted, or through text. For what is unsaid can often be even holier than what is said.
Rabbi Benjamin Sharff