Talk About It: The Ethics of Speech

Posted on June 8, 2017

This week our portion, Beha’alotecha from the Book of Numbers, is filled with a series of incidents and events from the Wilderness Days, as well as a couple of important commandments.  It’s in this week’s portion that instructions are given to create the first menorah, the seven-branched candelabrum that has become the most enduring symbol of Judaism.  It’s also here that we get the first rumblings of rebellion that will explode into full-fledged revolt against Moses and Aaron in just a few more weeks, the disastrous story of Korach.  But most significant in this week’s sedrah is a peculiar little story about gossip.

Moses has married a new wife, and his brother and sister, Aaron and Miriam, don’t think much of her.  So they begin to talk about her, and about Moses, behind his back, circulating rumors and gossip.  She isn’t of the right ethnicity, they don’t like her influence on Moses, she probably laughs inappropriately or wears her hair too long.

The response, by God, is swift and decisive.  Miriam—although oddly not Aaron—comes down with a dread ailment, Moses’ siblings realize the error of their gossiping ways, and they repent and are healed.  But the point is made: gossip and slander are among the most destructive influences in society. If we don’t avoid them, we will indeed have tzoris, trouble and heartache.  If we can avoid them, we have every chance to build a society of holiness and good. 

It’s a great message today.  As the Talmud teaches, gossip injures three people: the speaker, the listener, and the subject.  It hurts the person who gossips, the one who listens to gossip, and the person who is gossiped about.  All are morally damaged by the experience.  No one benefits.

Circulating rumors, sharing personal information about others—accurate or not—is not the way to create genuine community or intimacy.  Lashon HaRa, unethical use of speech, is attractive to many of us.  But it is wrong, and destructive.  There are many other things to speak about, all of them more valuable.

A famous dictum says that great minds speak about ideas; smaller minds speak about events; and the smallest minds speak about others. 

May we learn from our portion that the best way to use speech is to build, and heal, and learn, and not to engage in gossip.

Please join us for our first Chardonnay Shabbat of the summer this Friday night, June 9th at 5 PM for wine, cheese, and fruit pre-Oneg and 5:45 PM for our cool Chardonnay Shabbat services—this is Volunteer Recognition Shabbat! 


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