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THE GREATEST SIN OF ALL

by Pinchas Landis    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

In this week's Torah portion, Moses witnesses an Egyptian slave driver beating a Jewish slave. Moses decides that he cannot allow this to continue.

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In this week's Torah portion, Moses witnesses an Egyptian slave driver beating a Jewish slave. Moses decides that he cannot allow this to continue. He then looks around to make sure no one is watching, and proceeds to kill the evil slave driver. The next day, Moses encounters two Jews quarreling with one another. He inquires about their argument, and gets the following response from one of the Jews: "Who appointed you as a dignitary, a ruler, and a judge over us? Do you intend to murder me as you murdered the Egyptian?" (Exodus 2:14) The Torah then relates further that "Moses was frightened, and he thought, 'Indeed, the matter is known!'" At first glance, it would seem that Moses was simply afraid that his murder of the Egyptian had become public knowledge.

However Rashi, the fundamental Torah commentator, quotes a Midrash that says Moses was concerned because this incident demonstrated to him that there were those amongst the Jewish people who spoke lashon hara (evil speech or slander), and maybe, because of this, they did not deserve to be redeemed at all. According to this interpretation, the words that Moses spoke, "Indeed, the matter is known!" refer to his newly-acquired understanding of why the Jewish people had to be subjugated to such oppressive work. Moses saw from this incident that the sin of lashon hara had left the Jews deserving of their bitter situation. Our sages teach us, "There are three sins for which a person is punished in this world and which [also] preclude his receiving a portion in the World to Come. They are: worshiping false gods, having incestuous relationships, and murdering. Lashon hara is equivalent to all of them" (Chofetz Chaim, vol. 1,1:4).

This concept is demonstrated so clearly by the events in this week's Torah portion. We have a proof that one of the reasons for the bondage of the Jewish people was the fact that they spoke lashon hara about each other. Because of this evil speech, the Jews were left as slaves in Egypt for 210 years, and their redemption was pushed off. The severity of lashon hara is so clear from here.

Have we not learned our lesson from the past? Unfortunately, lashon hara is still running rampant today. Some would even argue that it has become a societal norm and is not really that bad of a sin. All to often, people talk badly about other people and use the argument, "but it's true!" to justify their slander. Little do they know, the very fact that the information is true is what characterizes it as being only lashon hara. If it were not true, the person would be in violation of an additional sin called motzi shem ra.

We must perceive this sin on the level that it belongs - greater than murder, illicit relations, and idolatry put together! We must look at what has happened to us as a people because of this sin. Next time we have the urge to transmit some information about a person to a third party, let us remember what Moses learned in this week's Torah portion. Remember that you could be damaging the other person. Remember that you are bringing tremendous punishment onto yourself. Most of all, remember that you could be delaying the ultimate redemption of the Jewish people.

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Pinchas Landis, a native Atlantan, is in his first year at the Yeshiva Rabbeinu Yitzchak Elchonon (Yeshiva University) in New York.

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