Silence is Silver by Josh Lehman


Among the better known Mitzvot in Parashat Kedoshim are those of “Lo Teileich Rachil BeAmecha, Lo Ta’amod Al Dam Rei’echa,” “You shall not move among your people as a gossip, nor shall you stand idly by your fellow’s blood” (VaYikra 19:16). In order to understand the juxtaposition of these two Mitzvot, we must first examine each one’s essence.

“Lo Teileich Rachil BeAmecha” is the negative commandment against being a gossiper. Considering the previous double Parashah of Tazria-Metzora, which mainly focuses on the transgression and punishment of Leshon HaRa, speaking ill of another, it makes sense to mention another violation regarding speech. Both Leshon HaRa and Motzi Sheim Ra, another form of forbidden speech, are closely associated with gossip. In fact, being careful with our speech is an integral part of Judaism as a whole. The destruction of the second Temple was largely due to the misuse of words to hurt others when the Jewish people spoke to each other. Similarly, during this period of the Omer we mourn Rabi Akiva’s 24,000 students who died as a direct result of not speaking to each other with respect. Clearly, speech is tremendously powerful.

We can sum up all of these violations of speech as Rechilut. Rechilut is defined as any communication that generates animosity between people. This is not taken lightly, as there are many incidences in Tanach where this has caused a lot of harm to the Jewish people as a whole. In Sefer Shmuel (Shmuel I 22) we hear of Doeg, who told Sha’ul that Achimelech gave food and weapons to David as he was fleeing from Sha’ul. After hearing this, Sha’ul had the entire city of Nov destroyed and its Kohanim killed. In Mishlei the Pasuk records, “Sheish Heinah Sanei Hashem VeSheva To’avat Nafsho,” “There are six things that Hashem hates, and the seventh is an abomination to His soul” (6:16). The seventh thing, the To’eivah, is the “Meshalei’ach Midanim Bein Achim,” ”He who creates disputes among friends” (Mishlei 6:19). Why single out that final act as an abomination? Why is it distinct from the other six acts which Hashem hates? The Chachamim explain that the act is Rechilut, and therefore the most severe of them all.

Now let us examine the second commandment in the Pasuk, “Lo Ta’amod Al Dam Rei’echa.” Why is this prohibition of standing idly by while blood is shed connected to the violation of damaging someone through speech? We can categorize our actions into three extremes: causing damage, doing nothing, and preventing damage. When we talk gossip about someone else we are causing psychological, emotional, and often physical damage far beyond what we are aware. So is it better to do nothing at all? The Gemara (Sotah 11a) tells us of a situation in which Par’oh was deciding to enslave the Jews and murder their baby boys. There were three individuals involved in that decision: Bil’am, Iyov, and Yitro. Bil’am advised in favor of these evil decrees, ultimately leading to his death. Iyov, who said nothing and acted as the silent bystander, was later punished. But Yitro opposed Par’oh’s decrees and fled, and he was rewarded with his descendants being great Torah scholars.

The moral of the story is that it is insufficient to remain silent, and it is certainly wrong to act badly. Rather, we should oppose actions that we know are wrong, and we must not stand idly by as our brethren are being hurt. The Pasuk starts, “Lo Teileich Rachil BeAmecha,” don’t cause bloodshed among your people though gossip, but it concludes, “Lo Ta’amod Al Dam Rei’echa,” don’t allow your fellow to be hurt. It isn’t enough to refrain from doing the wrong thing; rather, take the initiative to shield others from evil. If the students of Rabi Akiva had considered each other’s interests, we may not be mourning their death. Had Am Yisrael taken initiative against Sin’at Chinam, hatred of one another, the second Beit HaMikdash might have lasted. And when reflecting on the Holocaust as we did on Yom HaShoah, we often learn about the many silent bystanders who did nothing as an entire nation was nearly eliminated. Had they followed the mandate of “Lo Ta’amod Al Dam Rei’echa” many lives could have been saved. We should all strive to not only avoid doing the wrong thing in the future, but also to take action against that which is evil. When that day comes, we will never again have to worry about mourning the preventable.

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