Constructive Lashon HaRa

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Parsha Halacha – Parshat VaYeshev

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In the Torah portion of VaYeshev, we read that Yosef “brought evil tales about his brothers to their father.”[1] This, together with the favoritism his father showed him, led to enmity between him and his brothers and eventually to his being kidnapped and sold into slavery.
What were these evil tales, and why did Yosef see fit to inform his father about them?
Here are some of the explanations of the commentaries:
  • Three Sins
Rashi (based on Bereishit Rabbah 84:7) says that “any evil he saw in his brothers, the sons of Leah, he would tell his father.” Specifically, “that they ate limbs from living animals, that they demeaned the sons of the handmaids (Bilhah and Zilpah) by calling them slaves, and that they were suspected of illicit sexual relationships.”
The Kli Yakar explains that these sins are alluded to in the verse which says that “Yosef was roeh/shepherding the sheep together with his brothers.” The word “ro’eh,” which usually means “shepherding sheep,” is also used in Tanach in other contexts: In Proverbs (29:3) it is used in the context of sexual sins (“ro’eh zonot – one who keeps company with harlots”). In Psalms (80:2) it is used in the context of leadership (ro’eh yisrael – Shepherd of Israel), alluding to the sin of lording it over the sons of the Bilhah and Zilpah. And in Yechezkel (34:2) it is used in the context of the shepherds eating from the sheep, as the verse (34:2) says, “Do not the shepherds shepherd the flocks?” This alludes to the tribes eating from the sheep in an improper manner (before the animals were completely dead).[2]
  • Bad Shepherds
The Seforno says that Yosef would tell his father about the improper shepherding practices of his older brothers. This is alluded to in the verse “Yosef would shepherd, together with his brothers… and he would bring the evil tales,” i.e., the evil tales were about the shepherding. Since Ya’akov’s wealth was mainly from his sheep, Yosef considered their (perceived) negligence very gravely.
  • Tales about the Sons of Bilhah and Zilpah
The Ramban says that Ya’akov had instructed the sons of his (former) maidservants to look after Yosef since they were closer to him in age. Thus, he would spend a lot of time with them, and he would tell his father about their shortcomings. Therefore, they hated him. (This is the opposite of Rashi’s interpertation, as quoted above.) The older brothers, on the other hand, hated him because Ya’akov showed him favoritism (by giving him the special coat).
For the Sake of Heaven
The commentaries explain[3] that Yosef had good intentions. Before he told his father about his brothers’ behavior, he attempted to rebuke them directly. He did this while they were shepherding the sheep in the field so their father would not hear the discussion. But the older tribes disregarded his words as they considered him to be young and foolish. He therefore told his father so that Ya’akov would be able to rebuke them effectively and correct their ways.
A Bad Eye
Despite his good intentions, Yosef is faulted as he should have judged his brothers more favorably. Although the behavior of the brothers seemed improper, it was not, in fact, sinful. In terms of the three specific sins mentioned above, the commentaries[4] explain as follows:
  • Eating the Limb of a Living Animal
The brothers were eating from an animal which they had slaughtered. Thus, although it was still flailing and appeared to be alive, it was halachically considered dead. (Although Yosef knew this, he was of the opinion that, since they had the status of Noahides at that time, slaughtering an animal should not render it halachically dead.) Some suggest that the brothers had created an animal using Divine names and thus the animal did not need to be slaughtered since it was not a natural animal.[5]
  • Demeaning the Sons of the Handmaids
Although the sons of Leah would refer to Dan, Naftali, Gad and Asher as the sons of the handmaids, they didn’t mean that their mothers had the actual status of handmaids which would render their brothers as slaves. Certainly Ya’akov would not have married Bilhah and Zilpah had they not been freed first. Rather, they meant that their mothers had originally been handmaids.[6]
  • Suspicion of Sexual Wrongdoing
The brothers never committed any sin of a sexual nature. What Yosef saw is that they would do business with the local women, selling them milk, cheese and wool. Yosef felt that this interaction was sinful as it could lead to improper thoughts, but, in fact, the brothers had no such intentions or thoughts.[7]
Arrows and Dogs
Later in the Torah portion, before the brothers captured and sold Yosef, the verse says, “Before he approached them, they plotted to kill him.”[8] This means that they planned to kill him from afar by shooting arrows at him. In their minds, this was an appropriate punishment since he had disparaged them by evil speech which is compared to arrows as it, too, harms from a distance.
The Midrash (Bereishit Rabbah 84:13) says that they planned to sic a dog on him. They felt that this was appropriate since the Talmud (Pesachim 118a) says that one who speaks lashon hara (gossip) is fit to be thrown to the dogs. Just as a dog barks at innocent passersby so, too, one who speaks gossip does wanton damage to innocent people.[9]
The rest of this article will focus on the halachot of when it is permissible, and even proper, to publicize the wrongdoings of others. This is found in the Chafetz Chaim, Hilchot Lashon HaRa, Klal 10 and Hilchot Rechilut, Klal 9.
One who Witnesses a Wrongdoing
If one sees someone hurting someone else, either financially by stealing or damaging him or emotionally by embarrassing him, and he knows that the perpetrator did not seek forgiveness from his victim, one may tell others what he saw in order to help the victim and demean such wicked actions in people’s eyes.
Seven Conditions
This is only permissible if the following seven conditions are fulfilled:
1)      One must have seen it himself rather than heard it from others, unless he subsequently found out that it is true.
2)      That he doesn’t decide the matter hastily but considers it carefully to make sure that the perpetrator committed a wrongdoing.
3)      That he first rebukes the perpetrator with soft words to try and convince him to change his ways. If he believes that the perpetrator will not heed his rebuke, it may be permissible to recount the event in any case. (See Hilchot Lashon HaRa, Klal 10, Halachot 7 – 9.)
4)      He may not exaggerate the sin more than what actually occurred. If there is any mitigating factor that minimizes the sin in any way, this too must be recounted.
In order to ensure that this condition is kept, one must make sure to not speak out of anger. One who is angry is likely to get carried away and exaggerate the story.
5)      That his intention is to bring some benefit. For example, if it will enable the victim to recover his losses or receive an apology.[10] (See below regarding one who is recounting an event in order to protect others from harm.) One may not recount it out of hatred or to get pleasure out of recounting the matter.
6)      If this same benefit can be accomplished without recounting the wrongdoing, one may not recount it.[11] Even if recounting the incident is actually necessary, if the benefit can be achieved without revealing all of the details, one may not do so. Rather, one should only recount whatever is absolutely necessary in order to accomplish the particular benefit.
7)      That this recounting not bring any detriment to the perpetrator that would be more than the punishment that would be carried out by the Bait Din (Jewish court) in ancient times.
Not Personal
The above is only true if one witnessed someone damage someone else. But if one was personally hurt by someone, one may not recount the event with the intention of demeaning such behavior. The reason for this is that the victim will probably also intend to embarrass his tormentor. The fifth condition above will thus not be fulfilled. It is permissible, however, to recount the event so that people will help him get redress.
To Protect Others from Harm
If one sees someone getting into a partnership with an untrustworthy person, it is a mitzvah to tell him about the past behavior of their potential partner. This is included in the mitzvah of not standing idly by when your neighbor’s life is in danger.[12]  The same applies in other cases where one wishes to recount someone else’s wrongdoing in order to protect others from harm.
It is permissible (and in fact a mitzvah) to recount the person’s wrongdoings if the following five conditions are met. (Many of these are the same as the seven conditions listed above.)
1)      That he thinks the matter through carefully and knows that the perpetrator was definitely in the wrong.
2)      That he not exaggerate the issue at all.
3)      That his intention is to benefit the other people so that they can protect themselves from this person. One who feels hatred towards the individual should overcome that hatred and manage to focus only on the benefit of the others in order that he be allowed to reveal the information and protect other potential victims. If one fears that those people may inform the perpetrator about his revealing the information, one may not tell them about it as one is thereby causing them to sin. (For the listeners to tell the perpetrator about what he said is forbidden under the laws of rechilut, tale-bearing.)
4)      If the same goal can be accomplished without recounting the bad actions of the person, one may not recount them.
5)      It is only permissible if recounting the person’s wrongdoing will not bring that person negative consequences (other than that the partnership or the like will not materialize).
In regards to all of the above cases, there is no difference if the victim asked one to publicize what was done to him or not. If all of the conditions are met, one may publicize it even if the victim didn’t ask him to do so. And, if the conditions are not met, one may not reveal the wrongdoing even if the victim asked him to do so. This is true even if the victim is one’s relative. There is no special heter (permission) granted to speak lashon hara (gossip) even if one’s relative was the one harmed by the perpetrator.
May Hashem help that we only have good things to say about each other!

[1] Gen. 37:2
[2] The Mizrachi says that the sins are alluded to in the verse which says that Yosef “brought evil tales (dibatam ra’a).” The word ra’a (evil) is used in the context of these three sins. The verse below (37:33) says that Yaakov said, “an evil animal (chaya ra’a) ate him.” Wild animals usually start to eat their prey while they are still alive. Later in the Torah portion (39:9) Yosef says, in reference to adultery, “How can I do this great evil (hara’a hagedola)?” And in Exodus (21:8) it says, concerning a maidservant, “If she will be bad (ra’a) in the eyes of her master.”
[3] Binah Le’itim by Rabbi Azariah Figo, Derush 65 D.H Veyireh, cited in Pardes Yosef
[4] Mizrachi
[5] Shela, cited in Pardes Yosef
Parenthetically, the Pardes Yosef says that such an animal is fit to be sacrificed to G-d since we find that the ram which Abraham sacrificed instead of Isaac was created by G-d in the twilight of the first Shabbat (Pirkei Avot, 5:6) and was not born in a natural way.
[6] The Pardes Yosef says that the sons of Leah, who had the Kabbalistic knowledge to be able to create animals and humanoids (see above and below) did not share this knowledge with the sons of Bilhah and Ziplah as they felt that this knowledge should only be shared with people of pure lineage. Yosef believed that the older brothers were effectively considering sons of Bilhah and Ziplah as slaves, although this was not actually the intention of the brothers.
[7] See Pardes Yosef (based on the Shela) who suggests that the brothers, using Divine names, had created a female for companionship. Since she was not a regular human being this companionship was not considered sinful.
[8] Gen. 37:18
[9] Kli Yakar
[10] The Chafetz Chaim says that even the benefit of getting one’s worry off of one’s chest is considered a benefit. See Yoma 75a. This may be relevant for one who discusses his issues with a therapist. As far as discussions with one’s spouse, see Pirush Rabbi Ovadiah of Bartenura on Pirkei Avot, 1:5.
[11] This law can be derived from the Talmud’s (Sanhedrin, 11a) account of G-d’s conversation with Yehoshua about Achan. As told in the book of Yehoshua (chapter 7), Achan had stolen from the consecrated property of Jericho. In addition, he had relations with a betrothed maiden, desecrated the Shabbat and transgressed the Five Books of Moshe. This caused the Jewish people to lose the battle of Ai in which 36 men were killed. When Yehoshua asked G-d to identify the sinner so he could punish him, G-d said to Yehoshua “Do you think I’m a talebearer?” So, instead, they drew lots to identify him. Certainly, there was a great benefit from identifying the sinner as after he was killed, G-d forgave the Jewish people and they won the ensuing battles. Nevertheless, since this benefit could be accomplished by drawing lots, G-d refused to identify Achan directly.
[12] Levit. 19:16
Wishing you a Shabbat Shalom
Aryeh Citron

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