In this portion the Torah says, ‘don’t be a talebearer amongst your nation’. Above and beyond the regular prohibition of speaking badly of others, this is about ‘mixing’. Saying something that rocks the boat between people; that you know will make someone upset at someone else. I’m not sure why we human beings enjoy doing this type of thing, perhaps there’s an element of schadenfreude, but sadly we very much do, and Torah strongly warns us against it.
However, the verse continues, ‘don’t stand on your brother’s blood’. This is a wide-ranging law about assisting someone who is in trouble. In simple terms, if someone is lying bleeding in the street, you mustn’t walk by – even if you are already late for a meeting. But it’s broader than that. The rabbis explain that anywhere where you see another person in trouble, or going to be in trouble, and you have the ability to intervene and assist, you must do your best to help. Trying to talk someone out of taking their own life, for example, would fit into this command.
The reason these two commands are juxtaposed is because they sometimes come into conflict. A person is dating someone and considering marrying them, and I know that the person is cheating on them. I know that someone is stealing money from their employer or planning on doing so. To inform would make me a talebearer. But not to inform would be ‘standing on their blood’. The Torah is clear, and I don’t think anyone will disagree, that the latter takes precedence. Not only are you allowed, you must, ‘mix’ when someone is likely to be hurt if you don’t.
It’s interesting, though, how it works psychologically. Because as soon as we ‘must’, it suddenly becomes much less appealing to us. To share some juicy gossip, knowing that the other person will get annoyed about it somehow attracts us. But when that same information is now a responsibility to share in order to protect someone, it loses its appeal. Proverbs tells us that ‘stolen waters are sweeter’. There is something about the breaking free of rules, the licence to do whatever we wish, unconfined by convention or covenant, that very much attracts us.
To me, this is the essence of freewill. To follow that which attracts us. Or to follow rules, truths – truths that resonate with us, but usually don’t make our lives easy. We come across decisions like this every day. Do we choose the ‘sweetness’ of personal autonomy? Or do we do what we believe to be right, even though its immediate appeal is non-existent?
Parsha in a Nutshell
This week, we begin with a census of the Jewish nation. Each person, rich or poor, had to give a half shekel for upkeep of the Tabernacle. And they counted how much money they had received and multiplied by two.
The portion includes the building of the washstand in the Tabernacle, the making of the incense and anointing oil and the appointment of craftsmen and architects. But all this is only a prelude to the feature presentation: the story of The Golden Calf. The Jewish people, having heard God speak to them at Mt. Sinai only 40 days previously, decide to build an idol!! How this could be possible is a difficult question that I have dealt with in previous years. I’m happy to send you something if you are interested.