For the week of February 22, 2020 / 27 Shevat 5780
Torah: Shemot/Exodus 21:1 – 24:18; 30:11-16
Haftarah: 2 Melachim/ 2 Kings 12:1-17 (English 1:21 – 2:16)
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You shall not spread a false report. (Shemot/Exodus 23:1)
Two years ago I commented on this same passage on what is still a relevant topic of “fake news” (https://torahbytes.org/78-18/). This week, I want to get personal. I don’t mean personal with you necessarily, but to look at how this directive affects people personally.
This week’s parsha (Torah reading portion) contains a substantial section that includes a great assortment of rules, covering various issues, including kidnapping, liability, loaning to the poor, and treatment of resident aliens and much more. There’s even a passage that speaks to abortion.
The short prohibition we are looking at is part of a passage that expands on one of the ten commandments, “You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor” (Shemot/Exodus 20:16). This is often wrongly thought of as “Do not lie to anyone,” when actually it is directed towards more official legal-type situations as is this passage, which I now fully quote:
You shall not spread a false report. You shall not join hands with a wicked man to be a malicious witness. You shall not fall in with the many to do evil, nor shall you bear witness in a lawsuit, siding with the many, so as to pervert justice, nor shall you be partial to a poor man in his lawsuit (Shemot/Exodus 23:1-3).
I trust that the seriousness of this is obvious. God directs his people to not misrepresent the truth against someone in legal matters. Note that includes showing partiality to the poor. While we should extend mercy to the oppressed of society, in matters of justice, there is to be no favoritism shown toward anyone including the underdog. While specific to a legal setting, “You shall not spread a false report,” it likely extends beyond the courtroom, since what is essential in the legal environment certainly reflects a general principle of life.
It’s not as obvious in English as it is in Hebrew that the wording of “You shall not spread a false report” is similar to another of the ten commandments, “You shall not take the name of the LORD your God in vain, for the LORD will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain” (Shemot/Exodus 20:7). This is not just about forbidding the use of God’s name as a curse word; it applies to the invoking of God’s name inappropriately. This would include taking a vow in God’s name that you don’t intend to keep or claiming to deliver a message from God when you know you are making it up. Taking his name in vain, therefore, is the lessening of who God is by misrepresenting him. This is what spreading false reports does to other people. Misrepresentation of others lessons who they really are.
Truth matters to God. In order for us and others to live effective godly lives it is necessary to relate to the world in which we live as it is. Skewed versions of reality cause us and others to unnecessarily hurt one another and undermine the plans and purposes of God. We need therefore to take great care in how we caricature other people.
Caricatures in the popular sense are humorous, most often light-hearted, drawings of people, purposely exaggerating physical or personality traits to create a particular impression about them. But when we caricature them out of frustration, disappointment, or outright malice, we skew who they really are in the eyes of others. People are far more complicated than the caricatures we paint of them. To present them, their actions, and opinions inaccurately is to undermine reality and therefore to misrepresent God.
Gossip is not an innocent pastime. It is a highly destructive activity that God deplores and should be avoided at all costs. Instead, let us endeavor to paint realistic portraits of others.
Scriptures taken from the English Standard Version