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Flattery will get you

Dissembling in the face of evil because we don't want to air our dirty laundry is indefensible and self-defeating. We can and must do better (Tisha B'Av)

Flattery will get you some bad places, the Talmud states, listing no fewer than seven calamities to befall an individual or community that engages in flattery/ hypocrisy/ cover-ups.

R. Eleazar said: Anyone in whom is flattery brings anger upon the world: as it is said: “But they that are flatterers at heart lay up anger.” Not only that, but their prayer remains unheard; as it continues, “They cannot cry for help when He chastens them.”

R. Eleazar also said: Anyone in whom is flattery, even the embryos in their mothers’ wombs curse him…

R. Eleazar also said: Anyone in whom is flattery will fall into Gehenna, as it said “Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil etc.”  What is written after that? “Therefore as the tongue of fire devours the stubble, and as the dry grass sinks down in the flame”…

R. Eleazar also said: Any community in which is flattery will finally go into exile. It is written here, “For the community of flatterers is solitary,” and elsewhere it is written: “Then you will say in your heart: ‘Who has gotten me these, seeing I have been bereaved of my children, and am solitary, an exile wandering to and fro,'” etc. (BT Sota 41b-42a)

You get the point. Some of the medieval mitzvah-counters even list “Do not flatter” among the 613 biblical commandments, based on a verse we read this past Shabbat, although the context there is not flattering a human being, but the very ground we live on.

Do not flatter the land”– this is the source for the prohibition against flattery. (Sifrei, Numbers 35:33)

This should not be that shocking, as the severity of the parallel prohibition to speak falsely in order to smear the innocent is also derived from the Land of Israel, as described in this week’s Torah portion (Deut. 1):

It was taught: R. Eleazar b. Perata said, Come and see how great the power of an evil tongue is! Whence do we know [its power]? From the spies: for if it happens thus to those who bring up an evil report against wood and stones, how much more will it happen to him who brings up an evil report against his neighbor! (BT Arakhin 15a)

The curious thing is that I have no doubt that many, many sermons will be given this week about the danger of slandering the Land of Israel. It is the original sin of the Fast of Tisha B’Av, which falls out this Saturday, but is pushed off until the conclusion of Shabbat.

But no less serious a sin than flattering the land: denying corruption, crime and complicity which contaminates our society. Dissembling in the face of evil because we don’t want to air our dirty laundry — because “It’s inappropriate,” or because “What will the goyim think?” is indefensible and self-defeating. We can and must do better.

“An evil tongue” kept us out of the land for a generation, but a lying tongue has the power to exile us for millennia. We did not return home to repeat those fatal errors.

About the Author
Yoseif Bloch is a rabbi who has taught at Yeshivat HaKotel, Yeshivat Har Etzion and Yeshivat Shvilei Hatorah and served as a congregational rabbi in Canada. He currently works as an editor, translator and publisher. As a blogger and podcaster, he is known as Rabbi Joe in Jerusalem.
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