Six weeks ago the following entry was published on the TimesLive news website: PRETORIA GIRL COMMITS SUICIDE ALLEGEDLY AFTER CYBERBULLYING. Here are a few lines from the article: “A 13-year-old girl from Pretoria committed suicide after a photograph was sent around her school via WhatsApp. A Sinoville Crisis Centre (SCC) spokesperson said the teenager committed suicide on Monday after being subjected to cyberbullying … another SCC spokesperson said the girl had been traumatized, and had asked her teachers for help. The girl was afraid to go to school and her mother met with the school principal on Monday morning. Later on Monday morning her mother found her body at home.” Cyberbullying is nowadays a recognized word referring to the sending, posting, or sharing of negative, harmful, false, or mean content about someone else, via social media. It can include sharing personal or private information about someone else causing embarrassment or humiliation.
There is a Hebrew concept that corresponds perfectly with the aspect of cyberbullying, called “lashon hara”, literally meaning: evil speech, or speaking about people in a way that is negative and derogatory. Evil speech or “lashon hara” is specifically addressed in the Torah in Leviticus 19:16 “Do not go slandering among your people. (Some translations: Do not go around saying things that hurt your people) … Do not stand against the blood of your neighbour (Some translations: Do not stand idly by when your neighbour’s life is at stake) … I am Yahweh”. Lashon hara is not about spreading lies or false statements about your neighbour or your brother or sister. It’s about saying things that may be harmful to him or to her – irrespective if it is true or not. In fact, lashon hara may not only be harmful towards the person spoken about. It may also be harmful for others. The Jewish sages have regarded lashon hara in such a serious light that it is written in the Mishna: “Lashon hara kills three [people], the one who speaks it, the one who listens to it, and the one about whom it is spoken. The one who listens to it [suffers] more than the one who speaks it.” The verse above (Lev 19:16) seems to be saying that it is not only forbidden to speak lashon hara, but it is also forbidden to “stand idly by” while someone else is doing so, knowing that it will bring possible harm and pain to someone else.
How is all of this related to the beginning of a new Scriptural year, the upcoming feast of Unleavened Bread and the Torah reading portion of this week, featuring a lengthy discussion of leprosy (Leviticus 13) – a subject that seems very far removed from our own day and age? Let us begin with the last part of the question. Many of the ancient commentators have wondered why an entire chapter of 59 verses (together with certain parts of the next chapter, Leviticus 14) have been dedicated to the subject of leprosy, and they came up with a possible solution: Because in Biblical times leprosy was seen as a punishment for lashon hara or evil speech and because lashon hara was seen in the same serious light as the sins of idol worship, forbidden sexual relations, and murder. When Miryam made slandering remarks about her brother Mosheh, and specifically about the African wife he had taken, Yahweh Himself intervened and caused Miryam to become leprous. In Deuteronomy 24:7-9 we read these words: “You shall purge the evil from your midst … Remember what Yahweh your Elohim did to Miryam on the way when you came out of Mitsrayim” and from this it seems clear that the lashon hara behind Miryam’s leprosy was part of “purging the evil” from the midst of the nation.
There are even commentators who say that Mosheh himself was punished with a mild degree of leprosy for speaking negatively about his fellow countrymen, saying in Exodus 4:1 “They will not believe me.” In the text of Exodus 4 it seems that Yahweh is giving Mosheh three signs, to use when meeting the Egyptians, namely (1) the staff that became a snake (2) the water that became blood, and (3) the hand that became leprous. However, when Mosheh actually appeared before Pharaoh, he only used TWO SIGNS, the staff and the water – NOT the hand that became leprous. At least some commentators have made the point that the hand that became leprous (and was healed again shortly afterwards) was actually not a sign but a personal punishment for the fact that Mosheh committed a form of lashon hara when he said things about others that put them in a negative light. Yosef’s “evil report” to his father about his brothers (Genesis 37:2) was part of the reason why the brothers despised him and eventually plotted to kill him. The “evil report” brought back by the spies about the land of Canaan and its inhabitants (Numbers 13:32) was one of the contributing factors for the delayed entry into the land by almost forty years and the condemnation of a whole generation to die in the wilderness.
Psalm 12 is a psalm that also tackles the problem of lashon hara. It actually mentions three ways in which words may be harmful: Ps 12:2 “They speak falsehood with each other; They speak with flattering lips, (they speak with) a double heart.” These people have an attitude of: “With our tongue we do mightily; Our lips are our own; Who is master over us?” (verse 4). What they should not forget, however, is that Yahweh will “cut off” all flattering lips, and also the tongue that speaks swelling words (verse 3). Why is Yahweh so fiercely opposed to the speaking of evil and harmful words? Because the Words of Yahweh are clean words, silver tried in a furnace of earth, and refined seven times! (verse 6). That is why, in Leviticus 19:16 which we spoke about earlier, after the two no-no’s (Do not go slandering among your people, and Do not stand idly by against the blood of your neighbour), we have the almost invisible last part of the verse: “I am Yahweh”. He is Yahweh, the One whose words are absolutely clean, tried and refined seven times! Speaking unthoughtfully with unclean and uncircumcised and unrefined lips is an abomination in his eyes. He is Yahweh and if we desire to live close to Him, we need to watch what we say and completely refrain from lashon hara.
Most people are talkers by nature. Social media has given us even more ways to talk, with the added “benefit” of not having to face the person you are talking about, or even the person you are talking to. Social media is also a means of promoting yourself and your own ideas, and also a means of defending your own cause. Now the problem is that some people are using social media to build themselves up by breaking other people down. Today there is a dozen of digital ways in which you can defend your own cause and the danger is very real that you can do so by attacking someone else’s cause and even his character and the things that are precious to him. Not all people have thick skins and the funny thing is that often those who APPEAR to have thick skins, do not take kindly to criticism, at all. Which is a clear confirmation that we should not target ANY SINGLE PERSON with our lashon hara. Ps 34:12-13 What man is there that desires life, and loves days, that he may see good? Let him keep his tongue from evil and his lips from speaking deviousness. Pro 10:19 In the multitude of words, sin is not lacking; but he who holds back his lips is wise. Pro 21:23 Whoever keeps his mouth and his tongue keeps his soul from troubles. James 1:19 Therefore, my beloved brothers, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath.
In the 12th century there was a well-known rabbi who lived in Spain, Morocco and Egypt during various stages of his life. Among other things, he was the court physician to Sultan Saladin of Egypt. He was known by the name Maimonides. With reference to the temptation of lashon hara, he said the following: “If a person is scrupulous in his conduct, gentle in his conversation, pleasant toward his fellow creatures, affable in manner when receiving them, not responding even when affronted, but showing courtesy to all, even to those who treat him with disdain . . . such a person has sanctified the Almighty, and about him Scripture says, ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be exalted – Isaiah 49:3’”.
In the Greek mythology there is the story of Gyges’ ring that had the magical property of making whoever wore it invisible, so that he or she could get away with anything. The root word for leprosy is “tsara” which may not only refer to leprosy (a visible change of the skin) but also a discoloration of garments (a visible change seen on clothing) or the mold on the walls of a house (a visible change on walls). People engage in lashon hara because, like wearers of Gyges’ ring, they think they can remain invisible. “It wasn’t me. I never said it. I didn’t mean it. I was misunderstood.” The Torah is telling us that malicious speech uttered in private is to be made visible and brought to the public, and those who engage in it are to come clean or else be openly disgraced. Isn’t that too harsh, some people may ask. No, says Torah. Freedom of expression and freedom of speech is not the freedom to say anything you like, against anyone you dislike. No, it is speech that respects the freedom and dignity of others. If this is forgotten and neglected free speech becomes extremely expensive and destructive. Yahweh will not put his stamp of agreement on behaviour that is destructive and damaging to his people – even if that behaviour consisted only of a few words spoken in one moment of thoughtlessness. Let us remember that He is Yahweh and that His words are refined seven times and that we were all made in his image! Let us walk into this new month and new year, fully aware of the huge impact of our words and the responsibility that comes along with this knowledge. Let us prepare for Unleavened Bread with a mindset of breaking the pattern of speaking too much and too quickly and removing all traces of the yeast of evil speech from our lives!