Tag Archives: gossip

Chukat: Walking Into Darkness


“I don’t get no respect.”

-Rodney Dangerfield

“Rebbe!” the man cried. “Nobody gives me respect! Everybody steps all over me and my opinions!”

—“And who told you to fill the entire space with yourself, so that wherever anyone steps, they step on you?”

-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson

The Torah states:

“And Moshe and Aharon gathered the Assembly (the whole of the Jewish people) before the rock and he (Moshe) said to them, ‘Hear now, you rebels.’ ” (Numbers 20:10).

Was Moshe correct to call them rebels?

Dvar Torah for Chukat
based on Love Your Neighbor by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin
quoted by Rabbi Kalman Packouz

I don’t think most of us could blame Moses for losing his temper every once in a while. After all, for almost forty years, he’s had to put up with millions of grumpy, ungrateful, temperamental, and complaining people. He’s worried about getting them to where God wants them to go. He’s worried that they’ll complain again resulting in a plague that will kill tens of thousands of them. He’s worried that some upstart will challenge his and Aaron’s authority. And as we see in this week’s Torah portion, he’s got to watch his brother and sister die.

It’s not easy being Moses. No wonder he also gets grumpy from time to time. No wonder he called the Israelites “rebels,” whether they deserved it on that occasion or not. He’s not getting a lot of respect, given that he’s the greatest prophet ever to arise out of Israel.

And we know that based on the incident recorded in Numbers 20, he loses the right to enter the Land alongside Israel, his brothers, his children. But what did he do that was so wrong?

The Dvar Torah quoted by Rabbi Packouz continues:

The Midrash tells us that whoever serves as a leader of the Jewish people must be very careful how he addresses them. According to one opinion — because Moshe said, “Hear now, you rebels,” he was told, “Therefore, you shall not bring the assembly into the Land which I have given them” (Bamidbar 20:12).

The prophet Yeshayahu (Isaiah) said to the Almighty, “I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5). For this statement he was severely punished.

The prophet Eliyahu (Elijah) said to the Almighty, “I have been very zealous for the Lord God of hosts; for the Children of Israel have forsaken Your covenant” (1 Kings 18:10). He was severely punished for his statement.

Rabbi Avuhu and Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish were traveling to a certain town. Rabbi Avuhu asked Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish, “Why should we go to a place of blasphemers?” Upon hearing this, Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish strongly reprimanded Rabbi Avuhu and told him, “God does not want us to speak evil about the Jewish people.” (Yalkut Shimoni 764)

Moses-Mount-NeboIf you are a Christian, you may be asking yourself what makes the Jewish people so special that they shouldn’t be criticized? After all, God criticized the Israelites on more than one occasion up to and including circumstances that led to the death of thousands. Is this midrash even valid? Why should we pay attention?

Let’s expand the viewpoint a bit. God entrusted Moses with a great responsibility: to lead the Children of Israel to the Promised Land and, failing that, to lead them in the desert for four decades, teaching them God’s commandments and ordinances and preparing the next generation to enter into and conquer the Land.

You can’t do that without respect but more importantly, you can’t do that unless you love and respect those you are leading. This lesson is easily applied to anyone in leadership. It can be applied to a Pastor, a Priest, a boss, a parent, a teacher, a writer, anyone who has an audience that depends on the “leader” for guidance in some fashion. That usually means all of us at one point or another in our lives.

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers and sisters, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For all of us make many mistakes. Anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect, able to keep the whole body in check with a bridle.

James 3:1-2 (NRSV)

I don’t know anyone who is perfect in speech, least of all me.

One of the reasons I stopped teaching at my former congregation and subsequently resigned from leadership was because of this verse. I felt that I was not aptly qualified for the position (though no one seemed to complain). I am not formally trained in theology and my conclusions can certainly be wrong. As a blogger exploring my own personal and spiritual “space,” I’m not actually a teacher and all I’m doing really is just chronicling my daily exploration into my relationship with God.

But it’s not as simple as that. If anyone reads what I write and accepts what I write, I have a responsibility to that person. If they can find fault in what I am presenting, I need to look at that comment, take it seriously, and if I see that they are correct, make a correction within me, and then reflect it back out on my blog.

Rabbi Pliskin, as quoted by Rabbi Packouz, shows us several examples of why midrash believes the crime of Moses against the Children of Israel was speaking evil against the Jewish people. He failed to show love and respect to those who God loves and respects. Moses had been called the most humble man in the world (Numbers 12:3) and I believe that is a qualification that great leaders should possess.

It’s kind of hard to find humility on the Internet and particularly in the blogosphere. It’s difficult to always suppress “ego” on the web.

I suppose I could go into specifics about who said what about whom, but what would be the point? Every time I allow myself to enter into one of those conversations, the only one who gets “beaten up” is me, and I did it to myself. No, that’s not quite true. Anyone who is associated with me, even by the thinnest of threads, is also hurt by my behavior. Although it’s not my intent, those who are considered my “friends” or “allies” are dragged down into the mud hole that I created simply because I didn’t ignore temptation. In that way, I continue to provide a disservice to the Messiah and continue to create distance between me and those I care about. My words and opinions are my own. I’m not anyone’s puppet. But I’ll never convince some people of that, so the damage is done anyway.

Winston_Churchill_1941But who cares about all the mud slinging on the Internet? What does it matter if one person has an opinion and I have another? Sadly, a good many people. Winston Churchill once said, “A lie gets halfway around the world before the truth has a chance to get its pants on.” Churchill also said “The British nation is unique in this respect: they are the only people who like to be told how bad things are, who like to be told the worst.”

While criticism doesn’t have to be a lie, for some reason lies, criticisms, and gossip seem to travel farther and faster than truths and complements. I disagree with Churchill that only the British people like to hear bad news, I think most people like to hear bad news, at least if it’s about someone else. Just hop on the Internet and go to several of the major news sites. What sort of news dominates the headlines? Bad news. Why not good news? Good news doesn’t sell, but a good scandal, disaster, or crime story will attract readers in droves.

How many people comment on a good, wholesome, inspirational blog post vs. one that is filled with criticism, controversy, and hostility? A “mean-spirited” blog post is like a big car crash. It’s horrible to look at but it draws people in herds.

Is that what I’m supposed to be “selling” on my blog as a disciple of the Jewish Messiah…bad news? Am I supposed to contribute gossip and “tell tales out of school,” even tangentially when I comment on another’s blog?

The words of a talebearer are as wounds, and they go down into the innermost parts of the belly.

Proverbs 26:22 (KJV)

For every species of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by the human species, but no one can tame the tongue—a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

James 3:7-8 (NRSV)

If you can’t say something nice… don’t say nothing at all.

-Thumper, quoting his father
Bambi (1942)

As believers, we have to be particularly mindful of what we’re saying and why. This is especially true of me since I am acutely aware of my own failures because of participating in areas on the web that have done harm to others. By my participation, I’m part of creating that harm. Why am I doing this? Am I seeking my own gratification at the expense of another human being? That’s not my intent and in fact, that’s exactly what I am trying to speak against.

Among Rabbi Pliskin’s numerous and highly useful quotes, there is this:

If your mind is focused on an insignificant incident, it can destroy your happiness if you allow it to. To feel happy, your mind has to be free of pains and misfortunes.

Learn to differentiate between productive thinking about problems as a means of solving them, and counterproductive dwelling on misfortunes which gains nothing positive and destroys your quality of life.

praying-aloneVery often people who appear very angry, or self-righteous, or abusive are actually very hurt. The problem is, it is very difficult to get past “angry” in order to help “hurt.” The first best way we can help someone like that is to find a way to reach the “hurt” part of them and help them learn to heal. I’d like to do that but my efforts almost always backfire so I guess I should stop.

As writers, we have a teaching function, whether we want it or not. Therefore, if the role is upon us, we should carefully choose our topics and our words so that we can be as encouraging and as uplifting as possible while still getting our point across. We should also question the motivation for making our points and verify that we are not deliberately trying to hurt someone else because we believe they hurt us (whether they actually did or not).

The audience or consumers of blogs should also be mindful of the function of writers and teachers as well as our limitations and faults and keep in mind that just because we put something on the Internet doesn’t mean it’s right. It may not be right in terms of being factual and it may not being right in terms of moral correctness (even if it is factual).

Moses may well have been factual when he called the Children of Israel “rebels,” but at least according to midrash, he was absolutely wrong morally in doing so.

Blowing out someone else’s candle won’t make yours shine any brighter.


In fact, if you have to blow out someone else’s candle for the sake of your own, chances are you are walking in darkness anyway. The sun is setting and it’s getting harder to see. It would be comforting to see the lights of the Shabbos candles as I walk into darkness, but as a writer, disciple, and just one lone human being, I have miles to go before I have any hope of illumination.

Good Shabbos.

103 days…or 32 days. Still making up my mind.

Tazria-Metzora: Time Out

whispererTzara’at, the skin discoloration mistranslated for millennia as “leprosy,” is a curious disease. It is not contagious—it was only acquired by virtue of speaking badly of other people. It was a physical skin discoloration caused by a spiritual defect. The “metzora,” the sufferer with tzara’at, had to stay outside the city and inform all that he or she was spiritually impure.

-Rabbi Shlomo Yaffe
“Healing Hubris”

Judaism does not believe in free speech.

Talking ill of your neighbor, even if it is the truth, is unequivocally banned. In fact, the Talmud (Erchin 15b.) equates gossip-mongering with idolatry, licentiousness and murder—the three cardinal sins—combined!

Moreover, the Jerusalem Talmud tells us that “King David’s soldiers would fall at war, for although they were completely righteous, tale-bearing was widespread among their ranks… Ahab’s militia, however, although they were notorious idol-worshippers, were victorious on the battlefield because of their exceptional camaraderie . . .” (Pe’ah 1:1.)

Apparently, G‑d takes greater offense at the badmouthing of His children than at the badmouthing of Himself!

In some ways, then, the gossiper is the worst sinner of all. As such, his “punishment” teaches us much about the nature of all the punishments prescribed by the Torah.

-Rabbi Mendel Kalmenson
“Spiritual Rehab”

Commenting on this week’s Torah Portion TazriaMetzora is a difficult task, at least if I don’t want to seem repetitive. After all, I’ve been “bashing” lashon hara or “evil speech” for a few days now as a problem I have with religious people and in how such speech destroys God’s reputation and all our lives.

It is thought in some circles of Judaism, that the cause of tzara’at in ancient times was evil or ill speech. The consequence was that, after the condition was confirmed by a Priest (with the cry of “Unclean!”), the metzora was set outside the camp. There was a period of waiting and then re-examination. If the metzora was declared clean, then he or she undertook a certain set of rituals and then could re-enter the camp. If not, then they had to wait some more and the process would repeat itself. Presumably, anyone who was a metzora would eventually be declared clean and then re-enter the camp of God.

But what if someone was never declared clean? What if the disease wouldn’t go away? I guess that would mean not only the symptoms would remain, the skin disease, but the underlying cause would keep hanging around: talking ill of your neighbor (and your neighbor ultimately could be anyone).

“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector.

Matthew 18:15-17

I suppose that’s the closest New Testament equivalent to the condition of the metzora who sinned against his or her neighbor by gossiping against them. Well, it’s not as if the metzora didn’t exist in the days when Jesus walked in Israel:

When he came down from the mountain, great crowds followed him. And behold, a leper came to him and knelt before him, saying, “Lord, if you will, you can make me clean.” And Jesus stretched out his hand and touched him, saying, “I will; be clean.” And immediately his leprosy was cleansed. And Jesus said to him, “See that you say nothing to anyone, but go, show yourself to the priest and offer the gift that Moses commanded, for a proof to them.”

Matthew 8:1-4

The word rendered as “leper” in verse two is probably a rather poor translation or there was no Greek word that captured the Hebrew “metzora.” It seems that, in one fell swoop, Jesus forgave the metzora of his sin and cured his physical and spiritual ailments.

the_leperIn some sense, it’s a shame we don’t suffer from tzara’at today. If our sins were as plain as the noses on our faces, perhaps we would be much more diligent in avoiding sin. Then again, to the degree that there was such a law that required the metzora be examined and isolated from the camp, I guess people under such a law weren’t able to avoid such a sin, even knowing the consequences.

Still, it seems cruel. Why isolate someone from the community if they’ve sinned? We see examples in both the Tanakh and in the Apostolic Scriptures. The metzora endured temporary (hopefully) exile, while the passage from Matthew 15 teaches that a person gets “three strikes” before they are “out.” Do they ever get back in? How did the metzora get back into the camp?

Rather than talk to others, he needed to talk to himself.

This wasn’t about revenge; it was about reflection.

He wasn’t being hurt because he’d hurt others in the past. He wasn’t even being isolated so that he wouldn’t come to socially isolate others in the future. He was simply being given the opportunity to get to know his present self.

People who hurt and isolate others are lonely and in pain themselves. Those who try to destroy other people’s security and happiness are themselves often sad and insecure.

The Torah—which is concerned with kindness, not power—sees the sinner as a victim, not an enemy, and therefore recognizes his need to be strengthened rather than weakened. This, the Torah perceives, cannot be done in the presence of others, but has to be done alone.

In the presence of others, he would see that which he lacked. Alone with himself, he was able to see that which he possessed.

-Rabbi Kalmenson

This isn’t hard to understand. Any parent who has put their child in “time out” understands what is happening. This is what parenting experts and educators call “logical consequences.” If you can’t get along with your community (your brother, mother, playmate), you don’t get to be with them for a certain period of time. If you sin against your brother (in Christ), and you don’t repent, you don’t get to be with your brother or any of your brothers, presumably until you are able to repent.

Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.

Matthew 18:21-22

Oh, yes. When they do repent, you take them back. That’s what happened to the recovered metzora and what was supposed to happen to the brother who sinned against you. When they repent, you take them back. Even if they sin against you later and then repent, and then sin against you later, and then repent, and then…

Gee, really? Is this like a sin and repent and forgive revolving door? I suppose there must be limits.

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.

1 Corinthians 6:9-10

That sounds pretty harsh, but then again, if someone is willfully and habitually sinning, are they really saved at all? Are they really members of Messiah’s “sheep pen?” Can we flaunt the will of God to His Face and still expect that He will write our names in His book of life?

Why are we sometimes exiled from the community of brothers?

And so, ultimately, this was a therapeutic time for the metzora, focused not on hurting him but on curing him. Rather than confine him, this procedure aimed to free him.

Could this be the reason that the Torah portion which describes the metzora’s impurity, likened in Jewish literature to spiritual death, (Talmud, Nedarim 64b.) is called Tazria, which means “conception,” or the beginning of new life? (see Likkutei Sichot, vol. 22, pp. 70ff.)

-Rabbi Kalmenson

isolationI suppose there’s a certain merit in the idea of isolating yourself when you realize that you are living a double-minded life. Why wait to be publicly humiliated when you can stop it now, take a “time out,” and turn to God to get yourself straight. How that’s implemented depends on your sins. Are you a gossip? Are you a drunk? Are you into “inappropriate adult material?”

For some of that, you might not be able to deal with it alone and in fact, being alone might make it worse. Sometimes you have to withdraw from your usual social avenues and connect with a group or individual who is there specifically to help you out with your specific problem.

The closest ancient analogy is the Priest, who was responsible for the initial and subsequent examinations of the metzora. The metzora’s counselor during isolation was God. In modern times, we continue to need God, but sometimes he sends us additional, human help.

And there’s hope for life after “tzara’at.”

Life isn’t out to get you.

It’s out to be gotten by you.

And if and when in life you are forced to punish, do it like a pro.

Imitate G‑d.

Don’t hurt out of weakness; repair out of strength.

-Rabbi Kalmenson

A life under repair might not look pretty, at least in the beginning, but if the life is truly being repaired, that means productive work is being done. Give it time. Give God time to work with you (and me). Jesus told Peter to forgive repeatedly, over and over again, so that none should perish but everyone come to repentance.

Good Shabbos.