Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah – Vayeishev

The legal definition of slander is different that the spiritual one. At law, slander is telling a lie about someone else. The court assesses liability and damages commensurate with the loss that the victim experienced. Truth is an absolute defense to the charge. In the faith world, “evil speech” (lashon ha-rah) refers to sharing information, true or not, that causes pain. In our tradition, one cannot hurt another arguing that what he said was true. Not everything needs to be shared, and often times, even if true, tale bearing is only destructive, and destroys another’s dignity. Our sages teach that taking someone’s dignity is worse than taking their physical life. If one kills another, the victim is honored in death. If one shames another, the victim has to live through the humiliation. We call this trauma a fate worse than death.

Whether one is the speaker or the listener, participating in lashon ha-rah brings about the destruction of society. Reading this week’s torah portion, one has no doubt that Joseph’s brothers hold no love for him. He lords himself over them time and time again. They work the fields while he stays home with his father, for he is Jacob’s favorite son. When he does go out to spy on his brothers, he brings home negative reports on how they behave or how they work. As the storyline goes, Jacob was quite wealthy. His sons, in charge of the whole “empire,” must have been doing a decent job in order to maintain their family wealth. None the less, Joseph’s reports were always negative (Genesis 37:2)

The sages take seriously, the impact of negative speech. They teach that three people die every time lashon ha-rah happens. The victim’s spirit dies, as it is laid naked to the public. The speaker’s dignity dies, as people look badly on tale bearers and lose trust in such people. The listener’s spirit also fails, as he lets someone demean another and does nothing to defend honor and morality. In this week’s portion, we read that Joseph suffers 12 years of imprisonment. Jacob’s soul remains imprisoned for 22 years after hearing that Joseph died. The brothers remain cursed for their deception. In Pirkei d’Rabbeinu HaKadosh (a 15th century Midrashic commentary) the sages attribute this imprisonment to the evil speech in which they participated. Spreading gossip is a horrible thing to do. Worse still, though, is listening to it and not stopping it; it gets double the punishment.

We have an obligation to change the way in which people speak. We need to ensure that not only do we speak honestly (making sure of our facts first) but that we speak only about the things we need to share. The fact that something may be true does not mean it is free to share. Most often, a lot of what we think is true is not – society has become reckless in the way in which it feels comfortable in disparaging each other. Over the last few years, with Dr. Ali Chaudry’s leadership, many of us work hard to spread the awareness of how much damage speech can do. We created and proliferated a pledge that reminds us to protect society from this evil. Please take the “Pledge To Stand Up For The Other” and when faced with hurtful speech, keep it from spreading: “While interacting with members of my own faith, or ethnic, or gender community, or with others, if I hear hateful comments from anyone about members of any other community, I pledge to stand up for the other and speak up to challenge bigotry in any form.”

In affirming this pledge, we protect each other, honor each other, and I pray learn to respect each other. Shabbat Shalom.