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Purim's Words and Swords

03/10/2022 03:15:59 PM


The Purim story that we will read next week is a swirling tale of palace intrigue and plotting, and God working in mysterious ways.  A recurring theme is conversations shared and not shared, and the harm that comes from hurtful speech. In the Megillah, Haman almost murders the entire Jewish people with gossip and derogatory speech.  His appeal to the king begins “There is a people scattered among your kingdom, and their laws are not like yours.” A few drinks later our destruction is sealed.   Indeed, the Talmud (Tractate Arakhin, 15b) says that gossip is deadly, it kills three people- not just the one it is about, but also the person who spreads it, and even the person who listens to it.  It is worth noting that in Jewish ethics, and in life, speech can be considered to be lashon hara, irrespective of whether it is a complete fabrication, or has a seed of truth, watered with ill intent.  Therefore, as we approach the levity and silliness of Purim, there is a deadly serious message we must contemplate.

In the Megillah, the salvation of the Jewish people comes from an unlikely origin.  While of course God is working behind the scenes, it is Mordechai sharing information responsibly that allows the hidden miracle to take place.  Mordechai overhears two of the king’s officers, Bigtan and Teresh, plotting against the king.  He shares that information with Esther.  What makes Mordechai different from Haman is that his goal is to stop the behind-the-scenes plotting, and he is willing to have his name associated with what he shares.

As the story comes to its climax, the king reviews his annals and recalls Mordechai’s role in stopping the plot.  That recall ultimately prevents the destruction of the Jewish people.  Indeed, in the Talmud (tractate Megillah 15a) Rabbi Eleazer quotes Rabbi Hanina, commenting on this incident, that one who says something with proper attribution brings redemption to the world. Mordechai hears the whisper of gossip and ensures that it withers by speaking with integrity.

These types of stories of whispered slander and intrigue would seem to have a place only in the Megillah or on the “Real Housewives.”  We would expect that people who consider themselves religious Jews or good people would not engage in this type of behavior. Unfortunately, all of us face the temptation to gossip.

As I review the annals of my own time at B’nai Torah, I reflect on more than one time in our community where one person was involved in spreading hurtful gossip about another, and how their role in spreading it came to light, as it often does.  In some cases, the person was extremely upset that someone alerted the victims or furious that someone “tattled on them to the rabbi.”  They were not ashamed to assassinate another person’s reputation, only that they were caught doing so and had to face the consequences of their misbehavior.  Unfortunately, because gossip harms the victim and the listener as well, sometimes one word can wound an entire community.

Perhaps we can all learn from this whole Megillah. If we are talking about someone in whispers, and we would not want our name mentioned in association with what we have shared, or would not want the person we are speaking about to know that we said it, we must reconsider the worthiness of our words.  Every word that we speak, whether private or public, true or false, intended to heal or harm, is recorded in the annals of the King above.

Purim happens but once a year but trying to be a good person is a serious daily obligation, and each day we have the opportunity to try again.  Each time we open our mouths, send a text or email, we have a choice.  Will we be like Haman, Bigtan and Teresh, trying to kill someone else with evil speech, and perhaps being hung on very the gallows we built?  Or, will we be Mordechai and put a stop to harmful rumors and bring about redemption for the community?

Fri, June 14 2024 8 Sivan 5784