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Torah Portion: Behaalotcha

Book of Numbers

Chaps. 8:1-12:16

June 24, 2016

What is among the most lethal weapons one person can use against another? It is not always physical. The suffering derived from gossip, rumor, or other infringement on one’s dignity can even prove fatal. How many suicides result from breaking one’s arm, as opposed to breaking one’s spirit?

The classic example of the Hebrew concept “Motzei Shem Rah”/Libel is found in this week’s Torah portion. “When [the Israelites were camped in] Hazeroth, Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married: “He married a Cushite woman!” (Num. 12:1)

Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzhaki (known by the acronym, “Rashi”) suggests that Aaron and Miriam’s criticism of Moses was not aimed at his wife, but at Moses for not spending enough time with her. Miriam is punished because she chose to make this judgment in public rather than confronting Moses directly. The court of public opinion is never fair and seldom understanding.

A good parent teaches his/her child to not stand in judgment of someone based on accusation or innuendo. Seek out the facts and discern the truth. Speak with the aggrieved individual. Share your concern and listen to the response.
Want to effectively ruin one’s reputation? Just make a public accusation. It doesn’t matter whether it is true. In the politically charged climate of today, it doesn’t have to be true it just has to be out there.  What better example than the current presumptive Republican nominee for President of the United States. His entire campaign is based on libelous rhetoric. By referring to his political opponents as “Lying Ted”, “Little Marco”, “Low Energy Jeb”, or “Crooked Hilary” he plants seeds of dishonesty and libel into the minds of the masses in the hope of destroying the credibility of the candidate. He is not concerned about truth. Even if it is a lie, it’s out there. The doubt exists. The damage has been done. One’s character has been irreparably impugned.

How many careers were ended, and suicides committed, because of the false anti-American/pro-Communist accusations of Senator Joe McCarthy in the 1950’s? On a personal level, how many people have we hurt, or been hurt by, through attacks on one’s integrity and dignity. The Torah teaches that the age-old axiom “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me” was coined by gossip spreaders and rumormongers. “Sticks and stones may break my bones,” but with time they heal. “Words,” once released from an irresponsible mouth can never be recaptured, nor can the pain they cause.

A Jewish folktale tells of a man who went through his community slandering the rabbi. One day, feeling suddenly remorseful, he begged the rabbi for forgiveness and said that he was willing to undergo any penance to make amends. The rabbi told him to take a feather pillow from his home, cut it open, and scatter the feathers to the winds. The man did so immediately, and then went back to the rabbi. The rabbi said, “Now go and gather all the feathers.” “But that’s impossible, Rabbi. The wind has already scattered them.” The rabbi answered, “And though you truly wish to correct the evil you have done, it is as impossible to repair the damage done by your words as it is to recover the feathers.”

Rabbi Howard Siegel

© 2017 Beth Tikvah Synagogue, Richmond, BC, Canada
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