Slander: The Evil & the Harm
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim
This is King David’s critique of those who slander:
May God cut off all flattering lips, every tongue that speaks arrogance. They say, “By our tongues we shall prevail; our lips are with us, who will master over us?” (Psalms 12:4,5)
King David shares the underlying psychological dynamics. Those inspired by God like King David, articulate God’s brilliance with His perfectly selected words. Let us be highly sensitive to his words so we derive the most possible divine wisdom. Here, there are 3 primary critiques.
“May God cut off all flattering lips, every tongue that speaks arrogance”
Speech is a social phenomenon; we don’t talk when alone. One seeks support from others for their emotions, explaining why these verses refer to “our” tongues, “we” shall prevail, “our” lips, and over “us.” These evil people are insecure and require peer support. The Spies too didn’t stand on their own legs, but first mustered support by inciting others to join in their evil claims.
What is the arrogance of these sinners? They destroy others with selfish motives like monetary gain, fame, or power. Another dominant motive is to destroy those whom they envy; others who are truly good and righteous disturb the sinner. Rashi (Lev. 26:15) identifies 7 stages of self-destruction, where sinners must “scorn others who practice the commands”:
Thus you have here seven sins the first of which brings the second in its train and so on to the seventh. And these are: he has not studied and therefore has not practiced the commandments; consequently he scorns others who practice them, he hates the Sages, prevents others from practicing, denies the Divine origin of the commandments, and finally denies the existence of God.
“By our tongues we shall prevail”
How does speech secure success? The answer: “The pen (words) is mightier than the sword (might).” Evil individuals seek personal gain. These deceivers know their game and its traps. Therefore they say, “By our tongues we shall prevail” as they entrap others, misleading them with fantasies. Once a deceiver succeeds in luring his victim, he sits aback and awaits his downfall, as might is not required when victims fool themselves by their ignorance and fantasies. This is how the pen is mightier: sinners manipulate how others perceive reality, as they know that others too have greed, so they lure them towards phantom successes, conning them with Ponzi schemes. Just as written matters convince readers of their truth as books are foolishly trusted, people are equally fooled by spoken claims. “For how can someone make a claim unless there is some reality to it?” they think. Furthermore, people gauge reality based on their senses, not proof or reason. Thus, written and spoken words which are “seen and heard,” are perceived as “real” existence in peoples’ fantasies, conning people to accept them as truths. Slanderers too fabricate a false reputation that can lead to the victim’s irreparable harm.
“Our lips are with us, who will master over us?”
They seek not only success over others, but to gratify unrestrained desires. Their sense of invincibility is born from “our lips are with us.” These sinners feel that their exclusive control over their lips entitles them to say and do all they wish. This is similar to, “For in the freedom of my heart I go” (Deut. 29:18) on which Rashi says, “I will follow what my heart sees good to do.” In other words, one feels fully justified in following his thoughts.
“Who will master over us” is heresy, as Malbim states:
“Our lips are with us”— in things between a man and his friend. We will speak slander and deceit.
“Who will master over us” — They will increase their tongue regarding wondrous matters to deny providence, having no master in heaven.
“Our lips are with us” — To harm their peers with lying lips, and they have no master on Earth.
Why do slander and the promiscuous wife (Sotah) both meet with miraculous punishments, while murder, stealing and other crimes do not?
Slander and adulterous relationships are irreversible like murder. But unlike murder, the harm can be denied; there is no corpse. Yet, the crimes are of equal severity. A slanderer can claim he meant no harm, obscuring his real motives. And the adulteress can keep her secret affair hidden, causing grief to her husband who lives with a haunting suspicion that eats him alive. Torah amazingly depicts his uncertainty and the need for miraculous clarification: “And a fit of jealousy comes over him and he is suspicious about his wife who has defiled herself—Or if a fit of jealousy comes over him and he is suspicious about his wife and she has not defiled herself” (Num. 5:14).
God creates a miraculous punishment in both cases, conveying God’s intolerance, and the very real tragedy of slander and adultery. Deniable sins require undeniable punishment. These sinners inflict irreversible harm on the victims’ equilibrium, relationships, businesses and marriages, but they don’t realize their severity and permanent harm. Ego, viciousness and unbridled desire are to blame.
In parshas Metzora, the slaughtered bird represents the slanderer’s victim, and the blood stained live bird released over a field is now irretrievable, representing the slanderer’s irretrievable evil speech that causes irreparable harm.
One who slanders others is insecure, explaining why he needs others to hear his slander and side with him. The Spies embodied this flaw.
The slanderer feels he can alter reality by using speech to destroy another human being, who may threaten his own ego, as Rashi indicates above. But if a person acts wrongly, and his actions alone incriminate him, why does the slanderer need to speak? The slanderer is not needed! But the slanderer speaks to self-aggrandize himself, as he takes credit for condemning a person on the way down. This is similar to Bilam the wicked. The slanderer places himself at the forefront as a bandleader, garnering applause for condemning someone already under condemnation. Slanderers amplify and echo the mood of the masses, to gain their favor and popularity. A politician seeking office is wise not to make the first blow against an opponent, perhaps it will backfire. He cleverly waits until his opponent suffers public criticism, then he safely joins in with further ridicule redirecting the masses’ hostile energies in support of himself.
Furthermore, the slanderer is an unruly personality, at times hiding behind a disguise of morality or righteous indignation to justify his venom. The Crusades perpetrated much evil as they used religion to justify their violence. When one feels justified—especially in religious matters—he can throw his entire weight behind his slander, with no remorse. Hitler felt he was doing divine work. Extreme viciousness is a clear conviction of his crime. But when one acts properly against true villains, there is no extreme viciousness, as Megilla says, “The Jews disposed of their enemies, killing 75,000 of their foes; but they did not lay hands on the spoil” (Esther 9:16). They merely removed the threat, seeking nothing more, nor their enemies’ wealth.