This week’s Torah portion is Mishpatim, which means, ordinances, or laws, or judgments. It immediately follows the Ten Commandments but is very different in content, laying out laws for a just civil society. There are laws about slavery, negligence, the giving of charity, just compensation, and dispensing justice. Over 50 laws are given in this portion. Mishpatim ends with commandments to celebrate the holidays and a transporting vision given to Moses and the elders. Tonight I’d like to focus on the topic of speech. As you might expect, there are a number of commandments here that include prohibitions against saying things that are untrue. The Torah also prohibits agreeing with an untrue statement made by another person. One verse in the Artscroll translation reads, “Do not accept a false report.” The Etyz Chaim translation says, You must not carry false rumors. And continuing in the previous translation, the Torah says, Do not extend your hand with the wicked to be a venal witness. Do not be a follower of the majority for evil. Distance yourself from a false word. We can look at these laws in light of our speech.
Judaism has guidelines for speech that can help us to know what is expected of us. The lowest level required is not to say anything false. Of course there are times when we are permitted to say something we know is not true. We can say something untrue to avoid hurting someone’s feelings, and to avoid gossiping. The next highest level of speech is about Lashon Hara, literally, bad speech. The Talmud says: “What constitutes evil speech? … Whatsoever is said in the presence of the person concerned is not considered evil speech. …… He answered: I hold with R. Jose, for R. Jose said: I have never said a word and looked behind my back (Arachin 15b).” At this level we are asked not to say anything negative about a person even if it is true, to someone who has no need to know. Maimonides said, “Even if the statements are true, they bring about the destruction of the world (Mishneh Torah).” Our Sages said: "There are three sins for which retribution is exacted from a person in this world and, [for which] he is denied a portion in the world to come: idol worship, forbidden sexual relations, and murder. Lashon horah is equivalent to all of them." In addition, they said: "Lashon horah 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.”
There is yet one more level of speech, the highest level. This is harder. We are asked not to say anything positive or negative about anyone to someone who has no need to know. This guideline is meant to circumscribe our conversations. It asks us to think before we speak about another: to say less than we may be used to saying, so that we do not get ourselves into trouble. This level of speech precludes most recreational speech. The Talmud also says, “What shall be one’s remedy so that he may not come to [utter] evil speech? If the person be a scholar, let him engage in the Torah, and if the person be ignorant, let him humble himself, as it is said: ‘But perverseness is a wound to the spirit.’” We are being led here into another commandment found in Mishpatim: “You shall not wrong a stranger and you shall not oppress him, for you were strangers in the Land of Egypt. You shall not persecute an orphan or widow.” These commandments seem to be not only about harming a person with less power in the society, but also about denigrating another. If we take these commandments symbolically, we can say that we are all strangers to each other. We all have a tendency to need to bolster our self esteem, but that we should not do it at the expense of others because in reality, we are part of them and they are part of us. And just because we may think, everyone is doing it, it’s an area in which most of us can find spiritual growth.
In this portion it says, “People of holiness shall you be to me.” And perhaps this is a fourth level of speech: that we use our words to create holiness. We can do so much good with our speech: bringing smiles to others, sharing our love, comforting each other, understanding one another’s needs, helping, and bringing kindness by sharing the gift of ourselves. Rabbi Gelberman wrote: “If we speak inwardly to ourselves of the joy of living of the oneness of people of our individual security and our emotional maturity our words will come forth with wisdom.” Our words reveal so much about the kind of people we are: about the quality of our intentions and our inner dialogue. If we are striving to keep our hearts open, our words will bring healing to the world. May speak truthfully and lovingly to others, speaking a little less perhaps than we have been accustomed to, but speaking with the knowledge that satisfying, rewarding relationships and also the world’s healing depends upon us.