Rabbi Weinreb’s Parsha Column, Ki Tetzei

“Character Assassination”

We have been hearing a lot lately about the dangers of the Internet. Not long ago, thousands of Orthodox Jews gathered in a large sports stadium to publicize the negative consequences that exposure to the Internet has in store for adults and children alike.

Most of the speakers were concerned with the pornographic content which pervades even seemingly innocuous websites. Even content which our secular society does not deem pornographic, is, to say the least, inconsistent with Orthodox Jewish standards. That the Internet poses a major threat to the moral sensitivities of the traditional Jew cannot be gainsaid.

My own reaction to the world of the Internet, and indeed to electronic communication in general, is based on a different concern. The image that I have of typical Internet content is the image of a battlefield strewn with bloodied corpses. Modern electronic communication is a murderous weapon, in which all of us can perpetrate vicious crimes with impunity.

I refer, of course, to the character assassinations which are part and parcel of the daily fare of so many websites, and which occur in thousands of e-mail communications every moment of the day. There seems to be no compunction against speaking maliciously, and usually falsely, against other individuals. Worse, there is no defense against this onslaught.

We are all familiar with famous people whose careers have been ruined by malicious gossip. Most of us know friends or acquaintances whose marriages have been destroyed by the disclosure of indiscretions in their remote past, indiscretions which are sincerely regretted and for which they have long repented.

The modern world puts all of our religious principles to severe tests on a daily basis. But it is especially within the realm of Jewish ethical principles that modernity presents the greatest challenge.

One of those ethical principles involves the sin of malicious gossip, of lashon hara, the evil tongue.

This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Ki Tetze (Deuteronomy 21:10-25:19), has much to say about evil and the need to vigilantly combat it. It contains two commandments, two mitzvot, which urge us to remember evil and to be on guard against it.

One of these commandments comes at the very end of the parsha in the form of a passage which is familiar to every observant Jew. “Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey… You shall blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven. Do not forget!” (Deuteronomy 25:17-19)

This commandment is easily understood. Amalek attacked us when we were weak and vulnerable. He has become the prototype of the persecutors of our people throughout the ages, down to this very day. He personifies the evil that over the centuries was expressed in the pillage of pogroms and in the tortures of concentration camps. It is easy to understand why we must remember and not forget that sort of evil.

But this week’s Torah portion also enjoins us in remarkably similar language to remember an entirely different sort of evil, personified not by one of Jewish history’s fiends but by one of its most saintly heroines. “Remember what the Lord your God did to Miriam on the journey…” (Deuteronomy 24:9) The identical command: “Remember!” The same reference to an event which marred the “journey.”

Rashi, basing his comment upon earlier Sages, understands this to be a command to remember the consequences of malicious gossip. We are asked to recall the narrative which we read in the synagogue some months ago, in the Torah portion of Beha’alotcha (Numbers 12:1-16). There we read of how Miriam had spoken against her brother, Moses. She did not telegraph her critique to the entire nation. She did not e-mail her negative remarks to hundreds of anonymous others. Nor did she post what she had to say about Moses on her blog. She uttered her remarks in the utmost privacy, in the confines of her relationship with her other brother, Aaron. And she never intended any malice. Nevertheless, the Almighty’s reaction was harsh and swift. It was the reaction, quite literally, of “a father who spits in his daughter’s face.”

Commentators throughout the ages have struggled with the odd juxtaposition of Amalek’s genocidal plot and Miriam’s well-intentioned criticism of her dear brother. One way of understanding this oddity is that it is meant to put all of us on guard against the natural tendency to belittle the severity of the sin of speaking negatively against another. It is impossible for us to identify with Amalek, it is easy for us to identify with Miriam. If even the courageous and noble Miriam could utter words of lashon hara, then so might we all. The fact that the Almighty held her accountable for her misspeaking is a lesson which we must all remember.

In our contemporary “journey” through the desert of modernity, when the power of the words we speak or write are infinitely greater than the power of Miriam’s words along our ancient “journey” through the desert of Sinai, it is worthwhile to “remember Miriam.” How pertinent are the words of the unknown medieval author of the ethical masterpiece, Orchot Tzaddikim (Section 25):

“Scrupulously avoid speaking malicious gossip, because one who does so degrades himself, and one who denigrates others is himself denigrated… One who speaks lashon hara searches for people’s flaws, and is compared to a fly who will always land on the dirtiest of places…So too with one who speaks lashon hara – he disregards the good in people and instead focuses upon the bad.”

It is hardly likely that any of us will ever be guilty of Amalek’s sins. But Miriam is a legitimate model for us all so that we must be cautious not to be guilty even of her only recorded misdemeanor.