Parshat Ki Tavo describes the covenant ceremony that was to take place when the Israelites first entered the Promised Land. The 12 tribes were to be divided into two groups; one would stand on Mount Ebal, the other on Mount Gerizim. The Levites would stand between them and proclaim a series of curses (and corresponding blessings) to which the people would respond, “Amen.”
The Levites were to proclaim, “Cursed be the one who: makes and sets up an idol in secret; insults his father and mother; moves his neighbor’s landmark; misdirects a blind person on his way; subverts the rights of the stranger, orphan, or widow; lies with his father’s wife, sister, mother-in-law, or an animal,” and so on.
The commentators point out that what these sins have in common is that they are typically not done in public and so may escape detection and punishment. Nonetheless, the Torah teaches, those who commit them will be cursed because nothing we do escapes God’s notice.
Another sin on this list is, “Cursed be the one who strikes down his fellow countryman in secret.” Rashi, following Targum Yonatan, tells us this doesn’t refer to a physical assault, but to speaking lashon hara, negative information, about another person — even if it’s true. Some think gossip is no big deal, but if you assault someone, cuts and bruises heal; when you speak lashon hara, you can never take it back.
The rabbis actually liken lashon hara to murder, saying that it destroys three people — the one who speaks it, the one about whom it is spoken, and the one who hears it. And if lashon hara was seen as vicious and evil 2,000 years ago, it’s many times worse today, because now we can spread lashon hara in cyberspace.
Hardly a week goes by in which I don’t receive at least one e-mail excoriating a corporation or public personality for words or actions deemed anti-Semitic or anti-Israel and urging me to sign a petition or boycott a business and, of course, forward the message to everyone in my address book. The problem with these e-mails is that most of them are not true. Sometimes words are taken out of context or actions have logical explanations having nothing to do with Jews or Israel; sometimes they are complete fabrications. Perhaps they are the work of competitors or people who just want to start trouble — but once they hit the Internet, they never die.
So when you read a shocking, troubling, or salacious story, before you hit “Forward,” check the facts. Go to Snopes.com or another reputable website. And if it’s not true, delete the e-mail and let the person who sent it to you know where to find the real story. And even if it is true, is this information that others really need? After all, gossip need not be false to be wrong.
Don’t spread lashon hara — choose the blessing and not the curse.