Having a daughter in this Israeli army changes everything about how we as a family commemorate Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial day, observed today. As we mourn the loss of more than twenty thousand brave soldiers who defended the Jewish people against extinction, I am struck by the difference in how we view those soldiers as martyrs and unparalleled heroes versus how the IDF is maligned throughout the world as oppressors. But such is the effectiveness of a concerted campaign of defamation which is why the Jewish faith so strongly warns against the evils of slander.
This week’s Torah portion, Tazria-Metzorah, discussed the laws of the leper. The Rabbinic tradition is that Biblical leprosy – where one’s skin broke out in ugly, painful boils – was a punishment for gossip, slander, and evil speech.
Now, every culture and tradition has a sin for which it uses public ridicule as a deterrent. In America we have The Scarlet Letter, the famous novel by Nathaniel Hawthorne which details how in early, puritan America an adulteress woman would be publicly shamed. In other cultures a sin against, say, a Lord by a vassal would invite the sinner to be tarred and feathered, publicly exposing his disloyalty.
But of all the sins in the Torah, why did God choose to make a public spectacle of this particular sinner? Why does the gossip-monger get leprosy? Why not the man who commits adultery, the woman who steals, the child who dishonors their parents, the man who creates fire on the Sabbath? Why don’t they break out in boils all over their body?
I believe the answer is this: No sin in the Torah more readily unweaves the natural chords that tie a society together than gossip, tale-bearing, and slander.
The most important manifestation of human love is being happy for someone else’s joy. It’s why we attend each other’s weddings, it’s why we send presents for a boy’s Bar Mitzvah. We’re trying to show that rather than feel sad at someone else’s milestone, it makes us happy as well. It makes us dance. We celebrate other’s birthdays to show that we are giddy at their being granted another year of life. Celebrating someone else’s joy shows that we have transcended enmity and jealousy.
But the gossipmonger is the man or woman who believes that God’s pie is not large enough for all of us to have a big piece. That the only way he can succeed is to pull others down. That the Universe is not built on an energy of oneness but instead has put us all in adversarial relationship such that when one goes up the other goes down. The gossip-monger looks at everyone ultimately not as a companion but as a competitor, not as a brother but as a belligerent, with whom he has an inversely proportional relationship. When his colleague is up, he automatically goes down. And so it follows that when his colleague is down he automatically goes up. Rather than take joy in someone else’s happiness, he feels threatened and wants to see them ruined. He feels cheapened by the success of another and believes seeing them in pain will grant him pleasure. So he spends his time not raising himself but in pulling down others with his venomous tongue.
A few years ago a man came to see me. He has lost his job and his house was being foreclosed on. His marriage was in tatters as he sank into a deeper depression, ignoring his wife and his children. Yet, when he saw me all he wanted to talk about was how his brother had ruined his life. His brother was his parents’ favorite. His brother had bullied him. His brother had never helped him even when he was in great need. He spoke of being betrayed by his own flesh and how much money his brother was making even though he was a bad man who cheated his customers.
I said to him, “You can badmouth your brother all you want. But pulling him down won’t get you a paycheck, won’t pay your mortgage, and won’t fix your marriage. The only thing that will do that is stopping the obsession with others and focusing instead on repairing your life.”
Hence, God, knowing that the glue that must keep this world together is undone by the prattler and the rumor-monger, but the tale-bearer and the rumor-monger, singled him out so that we would know to avoid him. God gave him a natural pariah-status so that our society might survive.
But no more.
Gone are the days when the gossip-monger is naturally exposed due to a skin condition. Today, God expects us, through our own innate morality and inner goodness, to do the right thing and distance ourselves from gossip. And how do we know the gossip-monger? It’s the woman who sits next to us in Synagogue and has come not to pray to “the Healer of shattered hearts,” as King David put it, but rather to shatter those hearts in the first place. It’s the man at the water-cooler that has come not to quench his thirst but to inflame enmity and sow discord between people. And it’s the teenager who comes over to do homework but wastes your time nattering about someone else’s home.
In all those instances God expects us to politely say, “Let’s talk about something more pleasant,” and change the subject. And if they insist on still saying something negative about another person, God expects us to politely explain that we have more important things to focus on and take our leave. We lead busy lives, trying to raise ourselves. We have no time to expend pulling others down. Indeed, we should take the lead in trying to restore people’s reputations when the mean-spirited engage in the evils of slander.
On this Yom Hazikaron it is the responsibility of every Jewish man, woman, and child to accept that the standing of twenty thousand fallen Jewish heroes rests squarely on the shoulders of people like us who must make an effort to transform smears against Israel’s heroes into the praise their memory rightly deserves.