SEFER CHOFETZ CHAIM
Preface: Positive Commandments
As the saying goes, truth is stranger than fiction. That certainly was true in “The Case of the Disappearing Cookies.”
Some 20 years ago, an eighth-grade yeshivah student returned to class after recess and discovered that a bag of cookies was missing from his desk. Only one boy had remained in the classroom during recess, and he denied any knowledge of what had happened to the cookies. The cookies’ owner found this impossible to believe. “They were in my desk when I left the room at the beginning of recess, and you admit that no one was in the room during recess other than yourself. And yet, you claim that you have no idea where my cookies are. I’ll tell you where they are — you ate them!”
As soon as the rebbi entered the classroom, the student rushed over to him, pointed a finger at the other boy, and shouted, “He stole my cookies!”
The mystery was solved a few minutes later when another rebbi walked into the room and said, “You are not going to believe what I saw. I was walking by this classroom a few minutes ago when I noticed a squirrel scampering along the window ledge. Suddenly, it began to jump from desk to desk until it came to that desk” — and he pointed — “and took out a bag of cookies! I was amazed by the squirrel’s sense of smell; it knew exactly in which desk there was food.
“I watched it disappear out the window as it dragged the bag with its teeth.”
The owner of the cookies meekly apologized to the other boy.
The Torah states, ”Judge your fellow favorably.” From here, we learn the obligation to give others the benefit of the doubt. If we see an average Jew do something that has an even chance of being either good or bad, we must assume that he has not done anything bad. If he is known as a yarei Shamayim (G-d-fearing person), then even if it seems more likely that he has done wrong, we are obligated to give him the benefit of the doubt.
In our story, the owner of the cookies had no proof that the other boy had done anything wrong. By telling the rebbi, “He stole my cookies!” he was guilty of speaking lashon hara and of not giving the boy the benefit of the doubt.
What he could have done was to report to the rebbi that his cookies were missing and that the rebbi might want to speak to the boy who had remained in the room. The boy probably would have told the rebbi that he was absorbed in a book and would not have noticed if anyone had quietly stepped into the room during recess. (He certainly would not have noticed a squirrel scampering along the desks.)
There are more serious situations where lashon hara involves multiple sins:
Mr. and Mrs. Smolner hired Yanky and his crew to rip out the old floor in their dining room and replace it with a new wood floor. The Smolners were not fully pleased with the finished product and they asked for a reduction in price. Yanky insisted that the finished product was fine and demanded the full price that had been agreed upon. Mr. Smolner paid the full price, but at every opportunity, he told others that Yanky did mediocre work. Yanky’s business suffered because of this.
The Torah states, “… You shall hold on to him-a ger and resident-so that he can live with you… and let your brother live with you.” From these verses we learn that we are commanded to help our fellow Jew to earn a livelihood. We should offer him a loan or a gift of money so that his business will be successful; we should offer him work or become partners in a business venture with him. We should do whatever possible to save him from falling into a situation where he cannot support his family and would sink into poverty.
In our example, Mr. Smolner is doing the opposite. He is ruining Yanky’s reputation and causing others to decide not to hire him. If Mr. Smolner truly feels that he was cheated, he can go to beis din and ask them to summon Yanky to a din Torah (court case). Ruining another person’s good name is not the Torah way and is a transgression of the mitzvos mentioned above.
IN A NUTSHELL
Speaking lashon hara can result from not judging others favorably, and can damage another person’s livelihood, a most serious sin.
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