Parshat Behar: The sin of verbal mistreatment

Rabbi Jeremy Markiz
Rabbi Jeremy Markiz (Courtesy of Rabbi Jeremy Markiz, via Pittsburgh Jewish Chronicle)

In Parshat Behar, among the rules of the shmita and jubilee years, we read a seemingly simple injunction: “Do not wrong one another, but fear your God; for I Hashem am your God.” (Leviticus 25:17).

The Talmud, on Bava Metzia 58b, explains that this refers to ona’at devarim, understood as verbal fraud or mistreatment. Just as you can defraud someone with money, you can do so with words.

Someone who has done teshuvah should not be reminded of their past deeds. Someone who comes from converts should not be reminded of their ancestry. Someone who is ill or experiencing something terrible should not be asked that “perhaps it is your fault?” as Job’s friends did.

Each of these actions is about how our words have power. How a mere muttering can cut someone from the inside out. In the Talmud, Rabbi Yochanan says in the name of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, “Verbal mistreatment is a greater sin than monetary fraud.”

All of us have experienced that moment when our insides go cold and our cheeks hot as someone speaks in a harmful away to us. In fact, the rabbis describe this moment: “The tanna taught before Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak, ‘anyone who humiliates another in public, it is as though they are spilling their blood.’” One of the reasons why this is so dire is because, as Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani taught, that monetary fraud retains the ability for restitution while verbal mistreatment does not.

This lesson is key as we think about how we can refrain from harmful speech. Similarly, we must think about when we do choose to use our words.

A few verses later in the portion as God instructs us to let the land lie fallow, the Torah (Leviticus 25:20-21) says, “And if you ask, what will we eat in the seventh year, if we may neither sow nor gather our bounty? And I will command my blessing to you in the sixth year, so that it shall yield a crop for three years.”

In this moment, the Torah expressed the core fear, what if there isn’t enough?

God teaches that there will be moments of abundance, reflected in extra food in the sixth year. This bounty will also extend for three years. An abundance that will reach further than the people ask for.

Seforno, the 15th- and 16th-century Italian commentator, teaches that these verses teach us that the people cannot imagine the food’s quality as being enough, so God gives us quantity.

When we seek to bring justice and kindness into the world, when we choose what words to bring into existence, we can choose to bring greater quality and quantity. A well-chosen word can bring abundance to someone’s life far beyond our expectations.

Rabbi Jeremy Markiz is a teacher of Torah and a consultant with Next Level Rabbinics, based in Silver Spring.

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