While Moshe killed the wicked Egyptian taskmaster in secret, loose tongues spread word of his deed far and wide. Rashi writes that Moshe considered this dangerous tendency to gossip a sufficient explanation for the terrible afflictions Israel suffered. (Shemot 2:14.)
Later on, we learn that Moshe himself received instruction in careful speech. When HaShem told him to tell the Jews of their imminent redemption, Moshe worried aloud “They won’t believe me, and they won’t listen to me.” (Shemot 4:1.) Rashi explains that the next few statements of HaShem are meant to teach Moshe that someonewho expresses unsubstantiated suspicions is continuing the work of the primeval serpent, and is worthy of punishment. (Rashi on Shemot 4:2, 3 and 6.)
According to the Midrash (Shir HaShirim Rabba 1), similar admonishments were given to Yishayahu who included himself among a “people of defiled lips” (Yishayahu 6:5), and to Eliahu who complained to God that the Jews “have abandoned Your covenant” (Melakhim I 19:10. Zohar Lekh lekha, I:93a, teaches that because of thisstatement Eliahu was chosen to testify that the Jews do keep the covenant – by being present at each and every brit mila.)
These statements of our great Neviim would normally be considered permitted speech. They were intended as accurate statements with a constructive purpose, uttered before One Who would certainly not misinterpret them. Yet the Midrash speaks of their admonishment because a different standard is demanded when we stand beforeGod. Every Jew stands before HaShem as a representative or advocate for the entire Jewish people and indeed all mankind. And the heavenly Judge, like an earthly one, pays attention to the claims brought in His court.
In terms of earthly judgment, we sometimes need to make harsh statements and even harsh judgments in order to maintain order. This reality underlies certain leniencies in the laws of lashon hara. (See SA CM 8:5, 11:1. The book Chafetz Chaim explains all the leniencies and their many limitations.)
But when it comes to heavenly judgment, HaShem wants each of us to view ourselves as senegor – defense attorney – for our fellow man. Think of the great efforts a skilled attorney makes to defend his client. He presents the facts and the law alike to show his client’s innocence; should his client nonetheless be convicted,he cites mitigating circumstances and presses for a lenient sentence.
This is how HaShem wants us to present our fellow Jews in His court. We should consider how the facts and the law could redound to the credit of wrongdoers, and suggest mitigating circumstances which may justify a milder punishment. (See Tanchuma Vayera.) An added benefit is that once we get in the habit of favorable judgmentwe will find it easy to stay clear of improper speech (lashon hara).
The Mesilat Yesharim teaches us to be jealous of God’s honor and not let any transgression go unrequited (chapter 19). However, in the very same chapter we learn that a chasid must “pray on behalf of his generation, atone for one who needs atonement, turn others to repentance, and plead the defense (lamed senegoria) forthe entire generation.”
The Torah shows that Moshe grasped the subtle admonishment of HaShem. Without compromising his zeal to uproot wrongdoing, Moshe was a tenacious pleader on behalf of the Jewish people. His unique level in senegoria was comparable to his unique level in prophecy. HaShem calls us to follow Moshe’s example.