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Will Smith

For more than a week, we have been hearing tales about Mr. Will Smith striking Mr. Chris Rock at the Oscars. What is the worst part of this tale, that it happened or that we have talked so much about it?

The name of our parshah is metzorah—one who contracts the biblical skin disease known as tzaraas. This disease was a divine response to human shortcomings. Our sages listed seven sins for which one might contract tzaraas, primary among them is malicious speech.

Why makes gossip so pernicious? Rabbi Jonathan Sacks of blessed memory explained it like this:

Speech is what holds society together. Anthropologists have argued that language evolved among humans precisely in order to strengthen the bonds between them so that they could co-operate in larger groupings than any other animal. What sustains co-operation is trust. This allows and encourages me to make sacrifices for the group, knowing that others can be relied on to do likewise. This is precisely why lashon hara is so destructive. It undermines trust. It makes people suspicious about one another. It weakens the bonds that hold the group together. If unchecked, lashon hara will destroy any group it attacks: a family, a team, a community, even a nation. Hence its uniquely malicious character: It uses the power of language to weaken the very thing language was brought into being to create, namely, the trust that sustains the social bond.

Rabbi Sacks framed the toxicity of malicious speech in terms of its impact on society. I would like to speak of the horrible impact of malicious speech on the individual of whom it is spoken. Malicious speech highlights the negative in another. For every negative tale that a gossip monger can tell you about someone, there are two if not more good tales that can be told about that person. Most of us are an amalgam between good and bad. Sometimes the bad in us prevails, but most often we are governed by the good. Yet rather than highlighting the positive, gossipmongers frame us in a negative light.

Will Smith
Just last week, we saw the terrible spectacle of Will Smith, a respected Hollywood performer, striking Chris Rock, another respected performer, in public. This was, without question, a reprehensible thing to do and Will Smith deserves to be disciplined for it. I am sure that the authorities responsible for this will handle it appropriately and I make no excuses for Will Smith.

However, I have a problem with shows all over the world boosting their ratings by talking about this incessantly. One could hardly turn on the TV or access social media without hearing pundits berating Will Smith. Will Smith clearly did something objectionable, but that is not the only aspect of his personality. I am sure that he is a generally good person who cares deeply about many causes. Yet you would never know that from listening to many of the pundits.

So let us examine the net effect on Will Smith. If every time he turns on the TV, he learns that he is a terrible person with a temper problem and an irregular marriage, he will come to view himself that way. He will begin to question all his positive traits and achievements, and focus only on his failing. Inadvertently, these pundits will nudge him further in that direction and help him assume that identity.

He has apologized in public and taken ownership of his sin, shouldn’t we—the gossipmongers, not the authorities in charge of disciplinarian procedures—let it go? What would happen if instead of focusing on his attack, we would build him up rather than tear him down? Chances are that he would endeavor to deal with the issues that led to his loss of control, and we would have contributed to his rehabilitation.

This is the worst part of gossipmongering and talebearing. Rather than build people up, we tear them down. Rather than highlight their strong suits, we highlight and define them by their weaknesses. We contribute to their deterioration as our gossip becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Our sages creatively deduced that the word metzora can be broken into two words, motzie ra—exposer of evil. The gossipmonger who contracted tzaraas was himself given the label, metzora. His tzaraas announced to the world, I am suffering for my tendency to define people by their lowest traits. I am a motzi-ra. I expose and highlight evil, rather than good, in others.

Respond With Love
The question becomes why. Why should pundits care enough about Will Smith to extend him a helping hand? Why shouldn’t they use the opportunity to appear righteous in their criticism?

The only way to answer this question is to ask them whether they would respond differently if the culprit was their child? When we love someone, we are pained to speak ill of them. We know our children’s faults, yet we prefer to lift them up rather than tear them down. We believe with all our hearts that if we reinforce their positive traits, they will be empowered to overcome their negative traits.

The Torah tells us to love and respect all of G-d’s creatures, especially the human— the crown of creation. If we loved Will Smith the way we love our children, we would treat him as we treat them. We would expect him to make amends, we would expect him to accept responsibility and the consequences for his behavior, but we would then judge him by his good traits. We would empower and uplift him to help him make those amends.

I hasten to add that it is easy to pounce on the gossipmongers and call them evil, but they too deserve our love. They are not defined by the gossip that they speak. They are all-around-good people who have a weakness for gossip. If we would define them this way, we would see them in a better light, and help them see themselves in a better light.

Empathy
One way to develop this love is by practicing empathy as some pundits have done. Don’t judge another before you have placed yourself in his or her place. Sit down and visualize someone poking fun at your wife’s medical condition. Visualize your wife’s courage as she deals with the changes in her appearance and her bravery as she fights to preserve her self-image and overcome her fears. Visualize your respect for her as you watch her step out in public every day exposing her vulnerabilities rather than trying to cover them up.

Then visualize yourself sitting with her in a crowd, feeling proud and protective of your amazing partner, and someone pokes fun at her condition in front of an international audience. Try to feel the rage build up in you, try to experience what Will Smith experienced. Then try to overcome that rage and put it away. Find the herculean strength that it would have taken for Will Smith to overcome it.

After this exercise, ask yourself if all you feel for Will Smith is ridicule. Chances are that you would have a more nuanced view of the matter. This is how we come to treat others as we would treat our children.

The Trial
It goes without saying that despite the rage, Will Smith, like everyone else, is expected to overcome it. Not only that, Judaism teaches that whatever trial G-d gives us, He also gives us the ability to overcome it. The fact that Will Smith was subjected to this trial tells us precisely how much inner strength he has. Otherwise, G-d would not have subjected him to it.

Thus, rather than speak of his failures, let’s acknowledge his trial and let’s marvel over the strength that it would take to overcome it—the strength that Judaism teaches us Will Smith has. Speaking of him this way, highlights his strengths and defines him by them. It empowers him to activate these strengths and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Rather than motzie-ra—exponents of evil, we can become motzie-tov, exponents of good. Not only about this situation, but about every situation. And that, my dear friends, is the true lesson of this entire parshah.

About the Author
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, a renowned lecturer, serves as Rabbi to Congregation Beth Tefilah in London Ontario. He is a member of the curriculum development team at Rohr Jewish Learning Institute and is the author of two books and nearly a thousand online essays. You can find his work at www.innerstream.org
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