Thursday, June 16, 2011

When Saying the True Thing is the Wrong Thing to Do: Parashat Shlach L'cha

I am always especially excited when the JTS Torah commentary for the week is written by one of my most beloved teachers at the Seminary, Rabbi Eliezer Diamond. I would like to share some of his words this week because I think that they are so beautiful and insightful. You can read his remarks in their entirety here.

In this week's portion, we hear about the report of the spies who went down to the Land of Canaan to scout out its advantages and challenges. Contrary to the partial story we usually hear, the scouts do say wonderful things about the land, praising its fecundity. However, they follow the good with the word efes, "but" and describe the daunting power of the Land's current inhabitants with the insinuation that it is not possible to complete the task that God has put before the Israelites.

By today's standards, the spies might be described as "realists" or individuals doing the difficult work of conveying tough truths. However, they are accursed because the laws of lashon hara (harmful speech) prohibit saying negative things about another, even if they are true. Even if we convey facts about another individual that are reputable, they often impugn the character of that person in a multiplicity of ways some of which we can prevent and others of which we cannot imagine.

R. Diamond applies this lesson to the ways in which we discuss Israel. Pointing out factual, painful truths may be justified to a certain extent, but especially in today's extremely negative atmosphere, criticizing Israel publicly on one or two points can have much larger consequences about the greater ways in which people view the Jewish State and its legitimacy. It is something we need to be aware of, and always be very careful in contextualizing our criticism and imagining the intended and unintended effects of sharing our opinions.

We can also learn from this lesson on a personal level. There is little that we love more than speaking about other people. It affirms our sense of power in being able to control, at least in part, how others see the world and assess the character of another. Even when praising someone else, we can do unintentional harm in conveying incidental information that this individual may not want shared. Moreover, in the age of the Internet, nothing is really private anymore.

This week let us be fully aware of how we speak of one another, and especially people we do not know. Sometimes we convince ourselves that "speaking out," even if harming another person or entity, is righteous or worth it. We should ask that person whether or not they agree. I have been thinking quite a bit recently about the pasuk from the Book of Micah 6:8:

ח הִגִּיד לְךָ אָדָם, מַה-טּוֹב; וּמָה-יְהוָה דּוֹרֵשׁ מִמְּךָ, כִּי אִם-עֲשׂוֹת מִשְׁפָּט וְאַהֲבַת חֶסֶד, וְהַצְנֵעַ לֶכֶת, עִם-אֱלֹהֶיךָ.

It has been told to you, O man, what is good, and what the LORD does require of you: only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. {S}

I think of all of these three phrases as connected. Often when doing what we think is right or just we abandon a sense of mercy and become haughty in our quest to achieve social justice. Doing what is right should be done with the humanity of those you are trying to describe or "correct" in mind, and should be done without unnecessary attention drawn to ourselves or other individuals caught in the cross hairs.

Shabbat Shalom.