Ladies and Gentlemen, let me share with you some reflections on two Mitzvoth Lo Taase, two negative precepts, each of which has a unique feature not present in any of the other 363 negative precepts. A mini shiur with a message.
All of us are familiar with fence laws. Indeed, the very first Mishna in Pirkei Avot, a tractate which deals with moral and ethical teachings, tells us of the importance of protecting the fabric of an actual prohibition, ensuring that we do not transgress it. We fence it in so to speak, with a precautionary measure which will prevent us from committing an Aveira.
There are many such laws, e.g. Muktza, whereby the Rabbis forbade the handling of certain objects on Shabbat, lest one may forget and come to use them to perform the Issur Melacha Min Hatorah, transgressing a prohibition explicitly mentioned in the written law. All fence law, however are always a Issur Mid-Rabbonim, are always Rabbinic prohibitions.
Except, Ladies and Gentleman, for one law in this week’s Sedra, which I have discussed in a Chumash Shiur in the past, so any guesses?
Chapter 23, Possuk 7, Midebar She eker Tirchok. Distance yourself from a falsehood. The unusual way in which this commandment is worded stands out in contrast to another Posuk, in Vayikra 19.12, which also prohibits falsehood. “Velo sheshakru ish Ba’amiso”, you shall not lie one to another. But the Possuk in our Sidra is a positive injunction and demands more than the one in Vayikra. Keep away implies not only the negative avoidance of actual falsehood, but also demands meticulous care in refraining from anything which might conceivably savour of untruth, even though it is not obviously a lie. A fence law, is it not, in the Torah text itself, which surely indicates that there is no transgression more serious, and possibly more widespread, than telling lies. At the very beginning of history, before Hashem even created what was meant to be the purpose of Bereshit, Naase Odom, let us make man, the Malachim according to the Midrash divided into two opinions. Mercy said “Create him”. Truth said “Do not”, since he is all falsehood.”
The Gemorrah in Shavuot cites five cases illustrating the lengths to which distancing oneself from falsehood must be taken, of which I shall share with you just one, involving a litigation at court. A teacher says to his disciple, you know me, I am a person of absolute impeccable honesty, but I have a problem with someone who owes me a sum of money, and I have only one witness to testify to the loan, but the Halacha insists that one can only prove one’s case with two witnesses. So do me a favour and just tag along, I shall go to the Beth Din with the single witness.
Consider, Ladies and Gentleman, no lie is uttered, since the disciple would not even open his mouth, but merely accompany his teacher so that the debtor will believe that the creditor has two witnesses and admit. No miscarriage of justice would occur, on the contrary, the debtor would be saved from possible perjury and theft, the creditor, the teacher, would recover his rightful money, and no untruth would be uttered. Despite all this, such a course of action is STRICTLY forbidden, since not only actual lies are wrong, but medevar sheker tirchok, keep far away from aiding in a falsehood, even by silence.
A father telling his child to answer the phone or open the door to a Meshulach and say, “My daddy is not home” is guaranteed chinuch to tell lies. Grey and white lies are only coloured over what is in essence falsehood.
Now, Ladies and Gentleman, let me come to the second prohibition with a unique feature. As a preamble, let me explain that in the Torah’s system of reward and punishment, the belief in which is one of the Ani Maamin, the Rambam’s 13 principles of faith, there are no bolts of lightening striking down wrongdoers, nor golden ducats raining down from heaven upon the righteous. If reward and punishment were instantaneous it would defeat the concept of Bechira, of freedom of choice. Now Judaism teaches that when when trouble befalls us, we should undertake a cheshbon hanefesh, search our souls and try to identify which sin or sins we are being punished for. If every sin carried its own unique warning, teshuvah would, more or less, be by coercion, not by choice. There is just one exception to this rule, one sin which has its own specific corrective measure. Any guesses? And it is not in this week’s Sidra, but in Vayikra 19.16 – Loshon Horah, Ladies and Gentleman, derogatory gossip. Loshon Horah is so evil, has so many serious consequences, that in days of old, the gossipmonger was punished by Zoraas, a skin condition wrongly translated as leprosy. Hashem wanted us to know without any doubt which particular skin required urgent Teshuvah.
And Ladies and Gentleman, interestingly enough, whereas earlier I pointed out how one has to distance oneself from lies, Loshon Horah, forbids telling the truth. The Chofetz Chayim in the very first chapter of his guide to proper speech, Shemiras Haloshon, Guarding One’s Tongue, shatters the popular misconception that it is perfectly in order to speak about a person when it is true. That is precisely Loshon Horah and just as it is forbidden to speak Loshon Horah, so it is forbidden to listen to it. Without a willing and interested listener, to whom is the gossipmonger going to peddle his toxic wares.
Remember there are more interesting and healthier topics to chat about when friends get together over a cup of tea or a drink. Let me add that I fid it most significant that the two negative precepts, sheker and Loshon Horah, both concern speech control. I suggest that it is so, because speech is what distinguishes us from animals, speech is the Divine gift which enables us to share wisdom, to bring joy and comfort, to use time with purpose, to learn Torah with our children and each other, to sing the praises of Hashem and yes, Ladies and Gentlemen, to fulfil Rabbi Akiva’s great principle, Veahavta lereacha kamocha, love thy neighbour as thyself. Sheker and Loshon Horah sow the seeds of a strife ridden, corrupt society. Emes and Loshon Tov cause brethren to dwell together in harmony and love. Shabbat Shalom.