In the beginning of last week’s Torah portion, Parshas Shemos, we read the following:
“It happened in those days that Moses grew up and went out to his brethren and observed their burdens; and he saw an Egyptian man striking a Hebrew man, of his brethren... So he struck down the Egyptian and hid him in the sand. He went out the next day, and behold! two Hebrew men were fighting. He said to the wicked one, ‘Why would you strike your fellow?’ He replied, ‘Who appointed you as a dignitary, a ruler, and a judge over us? Do you propose to murder me, as you murdered the Egyptian?’ Moses was frightened, and he said, ‘Indeed, the matter is known!’” (Exodus 2:11-14)
According to the P’shat (the plain, simple meaning of the text), Moses was saying that the matter of his killing the Egyptian had become known, and he now had reason to fear for his life.
However, Rash”i quotes a Midrash that offers quite a different interpretation:
Moses said, “The matter that I was puzzled about has become known to me. I used to ask, ‘In what did Israel sin more than all the seventy nations of the world that they should be tyrannized with crushing labor?’ But now that I see that there are informers and slanderers among them, I see that they are deserving of such punishment”
The Chofetz Chaim (in Shemiras HaLashon 2:4) asks a serious question on this Midrash. The prophet Ezekiel spells out clearly the major sins that the Jews committed during their long stay in Egypt. See, for example, chapter 20 verse 8 where Ezekiel says in the name of G-d, “But they rebelled against Me and did not want to listen to Me; no man of them cast away the detestable idols of their eyes, and they did not forsake the idols of Egypt”.
So how is it that Moses was puzzled as to why the Jews were being punished? Surely he was aware of their idol worship and other severe sins? And why did Moses appreciate the justice of their punishment only after seeing that they also slandered each other?
The powerful answer that the Chofetz Chaim gives is based on a Kabbalistic teaching of the Zohar in Parshas Pekudei that states the following:
Satan (the spiritual force that G-d created whose job it is to entice us to sin, and then to prosecute us for those sins, and ultimately to destroy us – see the Talmud Bava Basra 16a) continuously approaches G-d to allow him to bring prosecution against the Jewish people because they committed many sins and their spiritual record is far from perfect. Despite the blemished record of the Jewish people, G-d does not allow Satan to prosecute. He says to Satan, “I do not want to hear any negative speech about My children.” Thus Satan’s prosecution is silenced. However, when the Jewish people speak negatively about one another, Satan can approach G-d with a claim that he has a right to prosecute them. Satan says, “If Your children are speaking negatively about one another without any constructive purpose, I should be allowed to speak about their record to prosecute them.” G-d allows Satan to begin prosecuting the Jewish people for their many sins, which brings about untold tragedy.
With this – explains the Chofetz Chaim – we can understand Moses’ puzzlement about the Jewish people’s persecution and suffering. Sure he was aware of the idol worship that the Jews had done in Egypt. He just thought that there was no slander and lashon hara among the people, so the Satan had no power to prosecute them for their sins. He was therefore puzzled as to why the Jews were being punished and tyrannized with such crushing labor.
However, now that Moses saw that, in fact, the Jews were speaking lashon hara and bad-mouthing each other, he said that ‘the matter is known’, i.e. the matter of the Jewish people’s idol worship is already known in Heaven through Satan’s prosecution, and the Jewish people who brought this upon themselves are indeed deserving of their punishment.
This knowledge that by speaking lashon hara against others here on earth we are allowing Satan to speak lashon hara against us in Heaven and to prosecute us for all our other sins, should serve as a great deterrent and a warning to all of us to refrain from ever again speaking negatively about one another.
And now you know why ‘lashon hara’ truly is the worst sin ever…