Have you ever heard something about someone and believed it – only later to realize that what you were led to believe was totally wrong? Certainly all of us have been in this situation. This is why Judaism vehemently prohibits all forms of gossip and what we call l’shon hara (evil speech). “Gossiping” in Judaism includes sharing any information about someone else even if it is complimentary, even if it is true, even if the person being talked about would volunteer the information on her own and even if the intention of the “gossiper” is good. Sharing information that appears to be harmless is equivalent to what the Torah calls “talebearing”, something forbidden in Judaism.
Most of us are guilty of “talebearing” on a regular basis. And really, what is wrong with sharing non-secretive, complimentary facts about someone else? This week’s Torah portion explains….
Jacob and his brother Esau have been estranged ever since Jacob tricked his brother out of the birthright – basically stealing what was rightfully Esau’s. This week, Jacob decides it is time to make things good with Esau. Jacob sends messengers to Esau instructing them to tell his brother that he hopes to reconcile with him. The messengers return, saying: “we came to your brother Esau; he himself is coming to meet you and there are four hundred men with him.” Jacob assumes that this means that Esau is coming to wage war against him. The Torah tells us that Jacob is “greatly frightened”. He prepares for the worst. However, when Esau and his four hundred men arrive to meet Jacob, the Torah tells us that “Esau ran to greet Jacob. Esau embraced him and, falling on his neck, he kissed him and the two of them wept.” Jacob quickly realizes that the messengers had led him to believe something that was not true: his brother was not out to harm him. On the contrary, Esau was also seeking reconciliation.
This story teaches us the dangers of “talebearing”. When we share information about someone else that appears to be harmless, we can mislead people into believing something false about the individual being discussed. Esau was coming to Jacob. He was accompanied by four hundred men. But, he was not coming to attack his brother. “Talebearing” is wrong because, as we learn from the story above, even “facts” can be misinterpreted.
We must work hard not be “talebearers”. It is not easy. On top of this, today we must pay close attention to the dangers that e-mail and texting present us with – mainly the fact that our quick one-liners that are electronically transmitted from our smart phones or computers are easily misunderstood and can send messages about ourselves that we don’t intend to send. How many times have you gotten a text or e-mail and incorrectly assumed from the message that the sender was upset with you? While not “talebearing”, the perils of e-mail and texting remind us how powerful our words, both spoken and written, can be and how carefully we must use them. If used well, our words can be holy. When used without thought, our words can be weapons.
Unfortunately, our culture encourages us to use our words as weapons. “Talebearing,” gossiping, making assumptions about others – these are part and parcel of our society. But this does not mean we can’t rise above this negativity. We can watch our words. We can think before we speak/type. We can refuse to listen to gossip. We can get to know people instead of making assumptions about them. And we can learn that there are times when it is just not necessary to speak. “A knowledgeable person is sparing with her words.” (Proverbs 17:27)