Rabbi Chizner’s D’var Torah for February 13th, 2015

Jon, Bob and Brian

John Stewart, Bob Simon, Brian Williams

Three reporters, each making headlines in the news this week, each for different reasons.

John Stewart, host of the popular Daily Show.  For the past 17 years, he has given a comedic perspective on real news and news stories. He has stepped down from his position at Comedy Central on his own terms.  It has been said that, regardless of the fact that Stewart clearly gave a comedic and satirical interpretation of the news, more people have gotten their news from John Stewart’s Daily show than from any other source–especially the millennials (the younger generation).

Bob Simon, respected 60 Minutes correspondent and CBS foreign reporter, died tragically in a car crash this week.  Bob, who risked his life in Vietnam to bring that story home, then in 1991 was taken hostage and tortured while reporting in the Persian Gulf, and most recently was preparing a report on Ebola.  He was known for giving the unvarnished story.  He was given many accolades by his colleagues for solid and honest reporting.  May his memory be for a blessing.

Finally, Brian Williams, anchor of NBC’s Nightly News, was suspended for 6 months for embellishing stories.  For example, there was a story concerning a helicopter ride he took in Iraq 12 years ago, claiming that his helicopter was hit, when in fact he was not in that particular helicopter.  And, concerning his reports on Hurricane Katrina, Williams changed his story about a suicide in the superdome. The first account he gave told about his hearing of a suicide. In a later account, he claimed to have witnessed the suicide.

On both occasions, Williams embellished the story, putting himself at the center.  It has been asserted that Williams turned his position of anchor into one of celebrity.

Three reporters, three different issues, all in the news this week.

So, might our Torah portion have something to say about reporters?  After all, our torah portion always seems to have some informative piece of wisdom about  current events.  But reporters?  Why or how could the Torah have anything to say about reporters?

The Soncino Rashi edition translates a verse in Mishpatim as “Thou shalt not utter a false report.”  Report!  This translation, based on Rashi’s brilliant understanding of the etymology of every Hebrew word, chose the word “report.”

In this context, we are all reporters of one sort or another.  We are all in positions to tell about an event, or what we saw, what we heard, what we imagined, or what we speculated about, who we saw, or who we imagined, who we speculated about, etc.  In everyday speech, each of us become reporters of life to one another.  In every conversation, each of us has many opportunities to violate the command ‘to not utter false reports’.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin writes that perhaps the least observed of the Torah’s 613 commandments are the laws that forbid spreading rumors, exaggerating the truth, telling a fantastic representation of actual events, and telling lies.

In Hebrew, such speech is known as lashon hara, evil speech.

Evil in this context is not only referring to nasty or angry speech, it’s also referring to lying, exaggerating or embellishing.

Later on in the Torah, we read another law about lashon hara. It states, “Thou shalt not go about as a talebearer among your people (Leviticus 19:16).

One of the reasons for the prohibition against lashon hara is that rumors spread uncontrollably (salacious stories are like drugs for the ears). Some people are so addicted to rumors they pay scant heed to the hurt and damage caused by them.

It is challenging to get our words right every time.  Most of us probably commit lashon hara at least a few times a day.  Our tradition guides us to work at not speaking truly evil words and paying very careful attention to what we say about others, and to be ready to apologizing when we slip up.

However, when it concerns TV and cable reporters’ words and accounts, their reports carry much more weight than our words to one other individual.  There are so many more people listening to them.  And, so many of those people trust what the reporters are saying.

If it is wrong for one person to tell one other person an exaggerated account or a rumor, then it is multiplied by millions if a TV personality tells lies or rumors.

Still, the destructive power the TV reporters have if they commit lashon hara goes beyond how many people it is spread to.  When TV reporters speak a lie, it devalues the veracity of words for the rest of us.  Because the TV reporter holds a position that is supposed to be impartial, his or her actions can have a devastating effect on the perspective of morality for rest of us.  For example, if a TV newsperson can tell a lie to millions, then when we tell a lie to only one person, it’s not such a big deal.  That, of course, is a very wrong way to think.  The truth is that morality is not relative.   Exaggerating and embellishing to one million or to just one is still wrong.

Friends: We are all reporters, and reporting is a huge responsibility, whether the reporter is speaking on TV or whether it is us speaking to a friend over the phone.

When you feel the urge to embellish or pass on a rumor, remember the advice given over 2000 years ago, in the book Ecclesiasticus, “Have you heard something?  Then let it die with you.  Be of strong courage and don’t share it: it will not cause you to burst.”

Adonai sfatai tiftach oofi yagid t’hilatecha.  “Adonai open up my lips that my mouth may declare only your praises.”

Shabbat Shalom.