Parshat Kedoshim (Leviticus 19:1-20:27)
Parshat Kedoshim covers a very wide spectrum of subject matter whose subjects don’t seem interrelated at all, with more than fifty positive and negative commandments mentioned throughout the portion. Some, including the commandment to respect one’s parents and elders, or the prohibition on cursing the deaf, or laying obstacles in the path of the blind, concern the relationship between people, while others, including the commandment to observe Shabbat and refrain from idol worship, concern the relationship between people and God.
We struggle to understand the connection between the commandment to respect our parents and the requirement to leave a corner of our fields for the poor. Likewise, we wonder what the prohibition to withhold the wages of an employee has in common with the prohibition on turning to idol worship.
Over the generations, many have tried to find the common thread between the various laws. I would like to examine two social commandments that we encounter quite frequently in today’s world. The two commandments are mentioned back-to-back, even though the link between them is weak at best. The verse states:
“You shall not go around as a gossipmonger amidst your people. You shall not stand by [the shedding of] your fellow’s blood. I am the Lord.” (Vayikra / Leviticus 19:16)
The first part of the verse commands us to refrain from gossiping. What is gossiping, then? The truth is that we all know exactly what gossiping means. What, however, is the halachic definition of “gossip”? One such definition concerns a person revealing secrets about something he or she knows about someone else. By divulging these secrets, they may cause harm to that other person (leaks from government meetings or relevant committee meetings are included in this prohibition). This halacha includes the prohibition of saying things that Person A said about Person B, though Person A had no intention of Person B ever hearing what was said.
In the second part of the verse, we are commanded not to stand by “the blood of our fellow man”, or, in other words, not to stand by idly when someone else is in danger. This commandment applies to both physical dangers that threatens our fellow man – like when a friend is drowning or bleeding on the ground after being hit by a car – and to impending economic disasters, when, for example, a friend might lose property because of a bad deal with a crook, or with a company that is about to go bankrupt.
These two Halachot are very clear to us, when taken separately, but what is the connection between the two parts of the verse? After all, these are two very different commandments. Furthermore, why did the Torah append the words “I am the Lord”?
One of the most important principles in a society is the need to strike a balance between its core values, which are all proper when taken separately, but may, at times, contradict each other. When we say that we are “ethical” people, we are primarily saying that we understand the need to strike a balance between these values, when they clash.
If, for instance, I know that my friend is about to create a business with someone who is a crook, should I tell my friend? If my friend is driving a car, and his vision is impaired, should I report him to the vehicle licensing authorities? On the one hand, I need to respect the commandment to refrain from gossip – a very important commandment, indeed. I wouldn’t want to speak out against a friend. On the other hand, if I am to consider the public good, or the interests of a friend that may get hurt, I must warn those involved of the dangers.
Every society will have those who will try to evade any kind of involvement, hiding behind the sanctimonious and apologetic excuse that they don’t want to gossip. Therefore, the Torah warns us that whoever does so, and thus causes harm to another, risks transgressing a prohibition that is no less severe than standing idly by when a friend’s life is in danger. Making a judgment call when facing such dilemmas is no easy task, and many people are tormented by the question of when to divulge, and when to stay silent.
The Torah ends with the words “I am the Lord” as if to say that only the One Who examines your inner workings can judge whether your decision to remain silent, or to divulge information, is rooted in a pure desire to make things right.
One of the central challenges facing us on an ongoing basis is the challenge of creating a society that is, on the one hand, caring and involved, cognizant of what is occurring within it, and goes the extra mile for the good of its members, while, on the other hand, not being intrusive or gossipy. This type of society is caring and sensitive, while also inclusive and enabling.
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