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Torah Attitude: Parashas Vayeishev: With the tips of our tongues
Joseph bought evil reports about his siblings to his father Jacob. No nation but the Jewish people was ready to accept the Torah. The Jewish people would have felt that they could not withstand the temptation of gossiping with each other and they would not have accepted the Torah. "Who is the man who wants life? … Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit." Man, the crown of Creation, was blessed with a unique gift, the gift of speech. For every word of gossip one brings upon oneself a punishment that equals the total punishments for all other transgressions. "Death and life depend on the tongue." Gossiping and slandering compare to the three major transgressions of murder, idol worship and adultery. None of the children of Jacob would normally think of committing any of the three major transgressions. Joseph's mistake was that he should have spoken to his brothers directly. Only when the Jewish people were able to withstand the test of gossiping did they merit to be taken out of Egypt. Our exile also was caused by gossiping and slandering. The Second Temple was destroyed because there was baseless hatred amongst the various fractions of the Jewish people. Controlling ourselves from saying something that is on the tip of our tongue is the key that will open and take us out of our long and bitter exile and restore peace to the Jewish people and all of mankind.
In this week's parasha, the Torah gives a detailed account of the various events that led up to the descent of Jacob and his family to Egypt. The very first piece of information the Torah relates is that Joseph was young, and that he brought evil reports about his siblings to their father Jacob. This seems strange. Why is this information so important that the Torah tells us about it before anything else?
No nation accepts the Torah
The Talmud (Avodah Zorah 2b) teaches that before G'd gave the Torah to the Jewish people, He took the Torah and offered it to every nation of the world. No one but the Jewish people was ready to accept it. The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni Vezos Haberachah) elaborates on this and explains that G'd first went to the descendants of Eisav and asked them "are you ready to accept the Torah?" They said to G'd, "what does it say in the Torah?" G'd answered, "It says, 'You may not kill.'" To this they answered, "Our very existence is linked to murder. We are descendants of Eisav, who was a murderer; as hinted in the words (Bereishis 23:22), 'And the hands are the hands of Eisav.' His father blessed him (Bereishis 27:40), 'And you shall live by your sword." After the descendants of Eisav rejected the Torah, G'd went to the children of Ammon and Moab and asked them if they would accept the Torah. They asked "what does it say in the Torah?" G'd answered, "It says, 'You may not commit adultery.'" To this they said "our very being is a product of adultery, as it says, (ibid 19:36) 'And the two daughters of Lot became pregnant by their father.'" G'd then continued to the descendants of Ishmael and asked them if they would accept the Torah. When they also asked "what does it say in the Torah?" G'd told them, "It says, 'You may not steal.'" To this they said, "Our forefather was a robber, as it says (Bereishis 15:12) 'and he will be a wild donkey of a man; his hand will be against everyone and everyone's hand will be against him." The Midrash concludes that there was not a single nation in the world that G'd did not go "and knock on their door" to offer them the Torah, but no one accepted it.
What if no gossiping?
Finally, G'd offered the Torah to the Jewish people and they responded with the famous words (Shemos 24:7), "All that G'd has said we will do and we will listen." My Rebbe, the Rosh Yeshiva of Gateshead Yeshiva, Rabbi Leib Gurwicz once commented "What would have happened if the Jewish people also would have asked 'What does it say in the Torah' before accepting it? What would G'd have told them that it says in the Torah?" Said Rabbi Gurwicz, "Most likely G'd would have said to them, 'It says [Vayikra 19:16]: 'You shall not be a gossip monger among your people.'" This would have put the Jewish people in a similar situation as the rest of the world. The descendants of Ishmael felt that they could not accept the Torah if they could not steal. The descendants of Lot could not accept it if they could not commit adultery. And the descendants of Eisav could not accept it if they were not allowed to kill. So too, the Jewish people would have felt that they could not withstand the temptation of gossiping. And they would not have accepted the Torah.
Who wants life?
This is what the Torah teaches us in this week's parasha. Right from the beginning of our development into a nation, this has been our greatest challenge. Most evils that have befallen us ever since have been a consequence, one way or another, of gossiping and slandering. It seems difficult for us to follow the advice of King David (Tehillim 34:13-14) "Who is the man who wants life? … Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit." Everyone wants a life of harmony and to be at peace with one's neighbours and relatives, so why do we not conduct ourselves accordingly? It all starts with guarding our tongues. Once we do that we will be able to continue as King David says (ibid 15) "Turn away from evil and do good. Seek peace and pursue it."
Unique gift of speech
In order to answer this we must go right back to the sixth day of Creation, where it says (Bereishis 2:7) "And HASHEM G'd formed man … and man became a living being." The Targum Onkelus translates "a living being" as "a speaking soul". Man, the crown of Creation, was blessed with a unique gift, the gift of speech. This gift can be utilized to do the will of G'd, to study the Torah and pray to G'd. It can further be used to express care and concern for other people, comfort them in their times of mourning, wish them well when they celebrate, and bless them with whatever they need. However, man has the ability to use this precious gift to go against the will of G'd, to curse fellow human beings, to slander and offend them, and to shame them in public. One can say words of truth, or disseminate lies and hatred.
Study of Torah equals all commandments
Every morning, as we start a new day, we recite the blessings on the Torah. We immediately quote from both the written and the oral law. We quote from the Talmud (Shabbos 127a) that states how the study of Torah equals all other commandments. The Vilna Gaon explains that this means that the reward for every word of Torah one utters equals the total reward a person gets for all other commandments in the Torah. The Jerusalem Talmud (Peah 1:1) teaches that in the same way gossip mongering equals all other transgressions in the Torah. Following the Vilna Gaon's explanation, this means that for every word of gossip one brings upon oneself a punishment that equals the total punishments for all other transgressions.
Biggest challenge of the evil inclination
We have been blessed with the Divine gift of speech. The question is, how do we utilize it? The choice is ours, but we must be aware of the consequences. As it says (Mishlei 18:21) "Death and life depend on the tongue." The very first transgression committed in the world was when the evil inclination approached Eve in the form of a snake and enticed her to eat from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. The snake slandered G'd Himself and said, (Bereishis 3:4-5) "You will for sure not die [if you eat from the tree], but G'd knows that on the day that you eat from it your eyes will open up and you will be like G'd knowing good and evil." Rashi quotes from the Midrash Rabbah (Bereishis 19:4) that the snake said: "Every craftsman hates his competitors. G'd ate from the tree and created the world." The snake indicated that the reason that G'd did not want them to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was because He did not want them to become like G'd. This was pure slandering and it caused death to Adam and Eve and to all their descendants. This is the very nature of the evil inclination and the biggest challenge that man has been given to overcome.
Comparable to murder
The Talmud (Erechin 15b) teaches that gossiping and slandering compare to the three major transgressions of murder, idol worship and adultery. It did not take long for the world to sink into these three transgressions. Already Adam and Eve's eldest son Cain killed his younger brother Hevel (see Bereishis 4:8). Soon after that, in the days of the grandchild of Adam and Eve, Enosh, the world became idol worshippers, as hinted in the Torah (Bereishis 4:26, see also Rambam, The Laws of Idol Worship 1:1). When it came to the time of the Flood, the Torah relates that the world had become corrupt (see Bereishis 6:12). Rashi quotes from the Talmud (Sanhedrin 57a) that this corruption manifested itself in adultery and idol worship. These generations were not challenged with gossiping and slandering. Rather, they had degenerated into such depravity, resulting in their removal from the way of life that G'd had envisioned for mankind.
Judah and Tamar
This continued till Abraham was born. When he came to the realization that there must be a Master of the universe Who is in charge of every detail of Creation, only then did the world start to return to its original purpose. It took Abraham and his family three generations to purify themselves and develop into a righteous family. Jacob's twelve children became the basis for the twelve tribes that eventually turned into the Jewish nation. This was a nation that G'd was ready to give the challenge of avoiding gossip and slander. None of the children of Jacob would normally think of committing any of the three major transgressions. Their planned murder of Joseph was not a simple matter. The commentaries explain that the brothers only decided to kill him after they had had serious deliberations in a court setting. They were erroneously under the impression that he was after their lives and therefore judged him with capital punishment. In another instance, Judah was tested with the challenge of adultery in a strange series of events as related in this week's parasha. However, Rashi quotes the Talmud and Midrash (Sotah 10b, Bereishis Rabbah 85:11) who explain that at the time when Judah admitted that he was the father of Tamar's twins a Heavenly voice announced, "I, G'd, brought this about." Judah had not been given a choice. It was a Heavenly decree that Tamar should give birth to Judah's twins and be the matriarch of the royal dynasty of King David and Mashiach.
Joseph's evil reports
As mentioned above, the Torah relates how Joseph would bring evil reports about his siblings to his father Jacob. The Chofetz Chaim explains that Joseph's intent was that Jacob should chastise the brothers for their wrongdoing. He did not go around gossiping to strangers. He only had his brothers' good in mind. Joseph's mistake was that he should have spoken to his brothers directly, even though he felt inadequate as he was still young (see Bereishis 27:2). This mistake came to cost him dearly. The Midrash Rabbah (Shemos 7:1) explains that the ten years he had to spend in prison by Potiphar in Egypt was a Divine punishment for slandering his ten brothers, one year for each brother. He ended up staying in prison for an additional two years, says the Midrash, for a different flaw in his character.
Refrain from gossiping
At the beginning of this week's parasha, Rashi explains why the Torah had to go into such great detail telling us what happened with the children of Jacob. This is to teach us how it came about that Jacob and his family went into exile in Egypt. It all began with one individual who failed to judge his brothers favourably and slandered them to their father. And as long as there were gossipers and slanderers in the Jewish people, they were not yet ready to leave their exile. This became evident after Moses killed the Egyptian. When Moses found out that Dathan and Aviram had slandered him to Pharaoh he said (Shemos 2:14) "Indeed, it has become known." The Midrash Rabbah (Shemos 1:30) comments on this: "It has become known to me why the Jewish people are still suffering in slavery." Only when the Jewish people were able to withstand the test of gossiping did they merit to be taken out of Egypt. As the Midrash Rabbah (Vayikra 32:5) states that one of the merits in which they were redeemed was because that they controlled themselves from gossiping.
Exile caused by gossiping
In his introduction to his famous work, Chofetz Chaim, the Chofetz Chaim elaborates on this. He shows that our exile also was caused through gossiping and slandering. When the spies returned to the wilderness from their mission to spy out the land of Israel, they slandered G'd and spoke evil about the Holy Land. This is described in Tehillim (106:24-27) when King David says, "And they despised the desirable land. They did not trust His word … And He raised His hand in an oath to throw them down in the wilderness and to throw down their descendants among the nations and scatter them in the lands." This, says the Chofetz Chaim, teaches us that the spies' slandering was the first seed that brought about the exile that we still suffer from.
The Talmud (Yuma 9b) states that much later the Second Temple was destroyed because there was baseless hatred amongst the various fractions of the Jewish people. The Jerusalem Talmud (Yuma 1:1) goes into further detail and shows that they were basically Torah-observant, righteous people. But they were still falling into the trap of baseless hatred amongst each other. The Chofetz Chaim comments that although the Talmud speaks about baseless hatred, in reality it manifested itself as gossiping and slandering.
Control the tips of our tongues
The Chofetz Chaim concludes that if slandering and gossiping were the cause of our exile, it is self-evident that, in order to get out of our exile, it is incumbent upon each of us to overcome this challenge. We must learn to be tolerant of each other and see the good in everyone. In this way, we can control our evil inclination that constantly challenges and entices us to gossip and slander. Whenever we control ourselves from saying something that is on the tip of our tongue, says the Vilna Gaon, the reward for this self-control is greater than any being in the world can fathom, including the angels. This is the key to a good and pleasant life in this world and to eternal blessings in the World to Come. And it is the key that will open and take us out of our long and bitter exile and restore peace to the Jewish people and all of mankind.
These words were based on notes of Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
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