Speak No Evil

The Roots of Destruction

For much of the world, summer is associated with baseball, beaches and BBQs. For us Jews, we think about national crises and existential challenges. Our rabbis say that it all comes down to speech. As the Gemara teaches, the Second Temple was destroyed on account of baseless hatred. The Chafetz Chayim explains that baseless hatred refers not only to feelings but to lashon hara

The rabbis recount the story of Kamtza and Bar Kamtza. Bar Kamtza showed up to a party where he was publicly ridiculed. Subsequently, he slandered the Jewish people to the Roman authority. And then things just totally unraveled. 

It is kind of amazing.  Regardless of whether this episode is metaphor or history, it shows us that the way that we talk impacts great historical events.

A Modern Irony

On Shabbos morning we read the words of King David who says, “Who is the person who desires life, loving days to see good – guard your tongue from speaking evil!”

Speech is literally the key to life itself! How is that?  Do we just sort of keep quiet when we don’t like something or disagree? Is it really possible to speak no evil?

One big challenge is that we tend to associate disagreement with personal attacks. Anyone who listens to the latest debates can hear the politicians share their carefully rehearsed insults aimed at whomever they disagree with.

Each side questions the other side’s motives. If you favor such and such a solution to America’s healthcare problems, you must be heartless or foolish or whatever. We think that in order to win, we have to attack. It’s a necessary part of “debate”.

At the same time, we can be non-confrontational. I find that many times, people are scared of sharing their real views lest they “offend people”. In an environment where disagreement so often becomes personal, is it any wonder that we seek to avoid confrontation?  Then there are our rabbis teaching us that we can be on the side of redemption with our good speech. Discourse and debate are murky waters in our times. I’d like to share with you two rays of light that can help us find our own Shalom. When we cultivate Shalom, who knows what far reaching results it can have!

Slander in Bamidbar

Sefer Bamidbar is overshadowed by lashon hara.  Our rabbis teach us that the spies returned from their mission on the Ninth of Av. At that time that they cast aspersions on the land of Israel, resulting in 40 years of exile. Our rabbis categorize this as lashon hara, needless slander.

Further, the sages connect the spies to the larger context of Bamidbar. Rashi comments that the spies should have learned from Miriam when she spoke against her brother, Moshe. In addition, the spies’ actions were followed by the far worse sin of Korach, who accused Moshe of favoring his own family for positions of power. Mass rebellion followed.

A Counter Point

The Torah presents a counter point to the spies. There were four women – the daughters of Tzelaphchad – who feared their father’s legacy would be lost because he had no sons. They wasted no time and took their gripe to Moshe. When you think about it, this is a confrontation. However, this confrontation did not lead to plague or rebellion. It led to four women inheriting their father’s land.   

Now, in the final verses of Bamidbar, their fellow Menashe tribesmen come and point out a problem. If these women marry into other tribes, our tribal heritage will be diminished. In light of this, the daughters of Tzelaphchad acquiesce to marry men from their own tribe so that the tribal lands do not become diminished. They were willing to compromise to find a win-win solution.

Thus, after so much bitterness, we close the Sefer with people who stand apart. What made them exceptional? In all of the earlier episodes, confrontation began with bitterness and blame, but here the daughters of Tzelaphchad are solution oriented. They engage the problem without villainizing anyone.

So, the first insight is this: We do have to engage in the issues that matter. The Torah is not advocating silence. But consider how often we start with blame when we are upset! How often do we hear attacks on the character and intention of the perceived enemy? The daughters of Tzelapchad teach us that it is possible to engage without bitter spirit. The next time that you have to engage with someone on an important issue where you disagree, remember to see the goodness of the other person. We are all here with good intentions. When we assume the worst and start to blame each other, we are creating the problem.

How Do We Respond to Evil?

Even if we eschew bitterness, others will not necessarily follow suit.  There are bitter voices in our world. What should we do when others cast blame? This is a thorny problem. Often, we don’t want to confront problematic behavior.  

We may not want to confront problematic behavior because we associate any disagreement with insult and attack. “Let’s not go there,” we think.  Just let it die. While there may be times that disengaging is helpful, at other times “letting it die” is really letting it live and grow. We have to be willing to speak up.

Once, when I was in high school, I was walking outside school on an icy day. There was a girl – not the most popular kid – who slipped on the ice. Several students began to laugh at her unfortunate scenario. She was not laughing. I remember watching and thinking, how can we tolerate this? This event became a flashpoint in my mind. Silence can be destructive. Which reminds me of Bar Kamtza…

Bar Kamtza

The Gemara recounts that when Bar Kamtza sought entrance into the party, he was shown the door. He pleaded with the proprietor – Kamtza – let him stay, but to no avail. Finally, he was tossed out. He remarked, “I can see that the rabbis did not protest this indignity. It must be that they were OK with it. Let me see what kind of trouble I can cause…”

While Bar Kamtza’s response was surely misguided, we can surmise from this story that tolerating someone’s insult is problematic. The Gemara goes on to recount the amazing story. Bar Kamtza goes to the Romans and says, “Guess what? The Jews don’t accept your sacrifices, and I will prove it to you!” He places a wound in the Roman’s sacrificial animal and brings it to the Temple. Now that Bar Kamtza has become an enemy, various solutions to deal with him are proposed, such as accepting the sacrifice or doing away with Bar Kamtza altogether.

Tolerance

To each of these suggestions, a man named Rebbi Zacharya Ben Avkulus made a technical argument. True Bar Kamtza is now a dire threat, but what if people think that those who place blemishes in sacrifices should be killed? The Jews followed this advice and allowed Bar Kamtza to live, and sure enough he got Ceaser to attack us.

Rebbi Yochanan commented, “the tolerance of Rebbi Zecharya Ben Avkulus caused our downfall. Here you have something unacceptable going on, and yet you – Rebbi Zecharya – accept it.”

Remember This…

Our words have weight. The next time someone shares a bitter thought with you about someone, ask yourself this. Maybe you are the person that somehow can inject the good words into the conversation? Perhaps you are in this predicament so that you can turn the tide…

And, the next time that you have a difficult conversation you need to engage in, think about the daughters of Tzelaphchad. Remember their wisdom, in achieving a win-win by never resorting to bitterness and blame.

Most of all, remember that our words matter. Our words have power. They can save and uplift lives. And in a world where insult and injury abound make our words a source of life, of healing and of Shalom.

Author: Rabbi Ken Brodkin

I’m the rabbi at Congregation Kesser Israel in Portland, Oregon. Torah concepts have enriched me on every path in my life. I’m excited to share my Torah insights and ideas with the hope of helping you during your journey.

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