You must not carry false rumors; you shall not join hands with the guilty to act as a malicious witness. (Exodus 23:1)
There's a very similar instruction in the book of Vayikra (Leviticus 19:16, "don't be a talebearer.") Speaking ill of someone has a name in Jewish tradition: lashon ha-ra, evil speech.
Jewish tradition holds that lashon ha-ra is equivalent to murder. Talmud (Arachin 15b) teaches that "Lashon ha-ra kills three: the one who speaks it, the one spoken of, and the one who hears it."
Maybe you know the parable of the man who gossiped and then went to a rabbi seeking forgiveness. The rabbi took a feather pillow, cut it open, and let the wind blow the feathers away. And then he said, "lashon ha-ra spreads even more thoroughly than these feathers." Because speech, once heard, can't be un-heard.
The worst form of lashon ha-ra, our tradition teaches, is motzi shem ra, telling lies about someone. That's false tale-bearing -- the thing explicitly forbidden in this week's parsha, Mishpatim. That word means rules, or laws, or justice-commandments. This week's parsha is packed with justice-commandments.
Torah is made up of both narrative, and legal material (commandments, ethical instructions). And I know that for many of us the stories can be more compelling than the legal sections. The stories are interesting, or thought-provoking, or occasionally distressing. The lists of laws can leave us yawning, especially when those laws seem out of date for today's realities.
Like "If an ox gores someone" (Ex. 21:28) -- I mean, who among us has an ox, these days? Though of course that verse is really about responsibility for someone else's harmful behavior, and tradition teaches that ultimately we are all responsible for each other. Still, I've noticed over the years that in our Torah discussions, people often engage more with story than with law.
That's why often, when we reach this portion in the Torah each year, I focus on the beautiful tale of Moshe and the elders ascending to God and their vision of the floor that was like bricks of sapphire. It's poetry: there's so much meaning to be found and made there! I love that story. I love singing Nava Tehila's setting of one of those verses, as we've done here today.
But I think Torah is wise in juxtaposing our poetic stories with our prosaic laws. Poetry doesn't mean anything -- beautiful visions of God's presence don't mean anything -- if not grounded in ethical behavior. Without the emotional and spiritual safety that come from right conduct and right speech, pretty visions of holiness are hollow at best and spiritual bypassing at worst.
One of my favorite teachings about the tchelet, the thread of blue that winds through our tzitzit, is that it reminds us of the Sea of Reeds -- our place of liberation. And it reminds us of the sapphire pavement upon which God is described in this week's parsha. And sea and sky can be mnemonics, reminding us of tzitzit, which remind us of mitzvot, including right action and right speech.
May every glimpse of sea and sky and tzitzit remind us that the path to the sapphire heavens and the Holy One of Blessing must be paved with ethical choices. Otherwise our holiness is false and even dangerous. We may yearn for celestial brickwork of sapphire, but what really matters is building a community of holiness, right speech, and ethical choices here on the ground.
This is the d'varling I offered at my shul on Shabbat morning. (Cross-posted to my From the Rabbi blog.)