THE TRUE LIE
Our parasha discusses the leper, the Metzora. Although our Rabbis teach that the cause of leprosy is speaking לשון הרע ,gossip, this is not mentioned specifically in the two parshiot that discuss the leper and his purity . Our Rabbis teach that this name “metzora” is a shortened version of the words מוציא שם רע , one who slanders and spreads rumors about others. Generally speaking, loshon hara refers to saying negative truths about others. Motzi Shem Ra, in contrast, is spreading negative non-truths about others.
Most of the time when we say something negative about others, we are not fabricating. If so, why is the main title here motzi shem ra – which refers to telling a lie?
The answer lies in a Rashi in Parashat Shlach. When the spies came and spoke negatively about the Landof Canaan, Rashi comments “Any lie not preceded by a small truth will not be believed” . First, the spies mentioned the truth – the power of the Land and its people, the magnificent fruit. Only after having cited praises of the Land, did they lie and say “We cannot capture the Land.” Here, Rashi is quoting the Midrash almost word for word . However, the Midrash says, “Any loshon hara that is not preceded by a small truth will not be believed” . How can we understand Rashi’s change of terminology?
I believe the answer is that ultimately, loshon hora is always false, even though it conveys accurate information. If, for example, you witness someone shoplifting and relate what you have seen to a friend, probably, the friend will perceive this person as a “shoplifter”. But this is often far from the truth! The would-be “shoplifter” might have given in to a sudden impulse that he now bitterly regrets. In other words, the “true” information that was passed on has created a false impression. Rashi may well be hinting at this in his substituting the word lie for lashon hora.
There are many reasons why a negative story, although it may not be fabricated, is still considered a lie or is included under the main title of Motzi shem ra. There are so many things that our Rabbis teach us that have a parallel in different forms of the media. G-d gives us such parables, so to speak, in our daily lives and experience so that we can better understand the messages of the mishnayot. Our rabbis teach us that when someone speaks gossip, an angel comes and records, inscribes every single word! This may be why G-d allowed mankind to invent recording devices.
Though there are not a lot of good things we can learn from lawyers, this one is an exception. If someone would pay you 10,000 dollars to find some way to justify a theft, you might just come up with a valid-sounding argument. It may be that your point is not a hundred percent true, but you would possibly be able to see the “thief” in a new light. This is exactly what the person who speaks negatively does, but in the reverse. He somehow manages to put the person spoken about in a bad light. He makes the one who sinned look like much more than just a person who sinned: now, he is labeled as a sinner, implying that with him, sin is habitual. There is no greater damage that can be done to a person than categorizing him as a habitual wrong-doer because of a negative action that he has done.
THE VOICELESS MAN
Just three years ago, I attended a Saturday night funeral in Jerusalemof an elderly friend I thought I had known. The deceased had had his vocal box removed as a medical precaution twelve years prior to his death. He could barely be understood when he talked, as he tried to whisper blessings loudly to those who knew him. People would sometimes walk away or try to end the conversation with him, not understanding what he was saying as he continued giving his blessings. He had a hole in his throat in the place where the voice box was removed, making it even more difficult to look at him while he tried to whisper his blessings as loud as he could. He asked, before his death, to be buried before midnight. This gave us time for only one quick eulogy. The one story that was told left everyone shocked and tearful for having underestimated the greatness of the deceased.
Two years after the voice box was removed, this man’s family was informed by the doctors that it would be possible for him to regain his voice by undergoing an inexpensive, surgical procedure, necessitating being in the hospital for only one day with no risk involved. The man’s family believed that he would receive the offer happily. Instead, the man rejected it. He explained that now that he was obliged to speak sparingly and with great effort, and even so was understood by no one, he had not spoken loshon hora (gossip) for the last two years. Forced to remain silent while others spoke, he also realized how much people gossip, and he preferred not to be able to speak again, so as not to find himself once again in the test in which so many people fail. He lived another ten years of his life choosing not to speak, just because of his fear of speaking slander and other evil talk. He found contentment in doing the right thing. Ironically, the people at the funeral were left speechless. The few people who were at the funeral felt that if only they had known of his greatness, they would have wanted to get just one more blessing from this great man. It was already too late. Such great people do exist. We just have to open our eyes and recognize who they are and learn from them before they are gone.
HUMBLING THE HUMBLE
When I was coaching a boy on improving memory skills, he asked me if I could help him to remember not to get angry in situations which provoked such a reaction. I responded that when he got angry, he did not forget that doing so was against his values. When he got angry, he did remember, either consciously or subconsciously, that he was doing something wrong. Anger is an emotion that comes as a response when one feels that his/her ego has been violated or damaged; it is an overflow of negative expression. This emotion will cause a person to exhibit incontrollable behavior, ignoring his true principles and disapproval of getting angry. Anger, like any other emotion, is triggered by a thought, even a subconscious one. This “automatic” thought, (i.e., not necessarily consciously validated) despite its irrationality, will often surface when the ego is challenged. The surfacing of automatic thoughts is a kind of reflex, generated by some underlying core belief. If we challenge the core belief, these thoughts will be more rational. This is what is meant in the Iggeret Haramban that the strategy for avoiding anger is always to speak calmly to whomever we meet. There is no effective strategy for stopping anger once one has already entered such an emotional state and is, by definition, out of control. The only effective way to deal with anger and correct it is by preventing its onset through altering our core beliefs about our expectations from the world around us. When training ourselves to speak in a low tone of voice, we are stabilizing our ego as well as expressing our recognition that I am not greater than my surroundings. Then, the ego is generally balanced enough that it is not so vulnerable to the stepped-on feeling. When the All-Important-I thoughts are not present, we can stay within our anti-anger boundaries. Memory, however, is neither the issue nor the solution.
This method is valid in dealing with gossip and slander, as well. We all remember that this talk is forbidden. However, in certain situations, where an automatic negative thought arises against another person, we do indulge in this kind of talk. This thought triggers an emotion that overcomes us, and we cannot keep the thought to ourselves. The way that we can control our emotions is by controlling our core beliefs – those which generate the automatic thoughts. We control our core beliefs by recognizing them and questioning them. And, the Torah tells us exactly what core beliefs cause a person to speak gossip or slander.
Our parsha discusses the slanderer, who has become a metzorah, a leper. After his repentance, he had to go through a purification procedure involving a Kohen who took from the leper two kosher birds, a piece of cedar wood, a string of red wool and an ezob ( hyssop) grass. One bird was to be slaughtered over a cup of water, and the other live bird, together with the cedar and wool string, would be dipped into the cup of blood and water and sprinkled on the Metzora.
Our rabbis tell us the meaning behind the components of the ritual. The birds were to remind the slanderer that he had done a birdlike act of nonstop ‘chirping’. The piece of wood was there to remind him that the cedar, being the tallest tree, represents the core belief of arrogance in the person who is speaking gossip or slander. This is a primary cause of all gossip. The reason for involvement of the Ezob, or hyssop, is that it is the lowest of all trees. Rashi writes here that the lesson is to tell the Metzorah that in order for him to be cured of his unacceptable behavior, first he had to come down from his arrogance and self pride, resembling the lowly Ezob and Tolaat (worm).
The Avnei Nezer presents a question: The Metzorah, at this stage of purification, had already repented and was currently looking at himself in a more humble manner. How, then, could the Torah tell him that he had to lower his self image in order to be cured? Wasn’t he already humbled?
The Avnei Nezer answers that the humbling feeling that the Metzorah feels may not be a level of absolute humbleness – it might be only temporary and external. If it results from pain or suffering that befalls him in life, this humility may disappear along with the pain and suffering when they go away. In G-d’s Mercy, this level of humbling is accepted as repentance. However, a lasting humility is not achieved until one arrives at the recognition of the Greatness of G-d and the minuteness ofMan.This humbling feeling is a far greater one, as it is not dependent on circumstance. It will remain even after the pain subsides. This deeper humbleness will help the leper not to speak forbidden talk in the future, even after he passes this degrading stage of impurity and isolation. So says the Avnei Nezer.
The difference between theses two types of humbling is that one is transient, while the other is lasting. Being humbled through pain and suffering is not related to how one looks at his surroundings and at other human beings. In contrast, when one looks at himself as being minute before G-d, he realizes that all human beings are minute before G-d. We are all only human, and humans make mistakes. At his utmost core belief, the slanderer can realize that although he feels flawless in comparison to his fellow, when he compares himself to G-d, he sees that he is filled with flaws, no less than his friend. When one works on this type of humbling, he may find it easier for himself to overcome his “habit” of speaking in a way that he himself disapproves of.