The Oil SpillFeb 19, 2012 at 11:32:42 PM
I never quite understood the rabbinic statement that if you speak negatively about another person (loshon hara), you acquire their transgressions. It always sounded to me like magic. How exactly does that work?
Today I went grocery shopping, and two of my sons helped take the groceries from the car into the house. I told them to be careful because there were a few bottles. One of them wasn't careful enough and a bottle broke, leaving a messy puddle of olive oil smack dab in the middle of the kitchen.
I didn't know who had done it, nor did I feel the need to know. I wasn't planning to punish anyone, but I did feel that the message of acting responsibly was something they could both benefit from hearing, irrespective of "who did it."
So I got the two boys together and said: "I'm disappointed that you weren't careful enough. This was a job that boys of your age can surely handle."
At which point one of them piped up and said, "I didn't do it."
I was shocked! In order to raise his own stature, he cast the blame on the other. I never asked who did it; that wasn’t part of the discussion.
Speech that reflects negatively on others (loshon hara) is no small mistake. The Talmud identifies it as the specific problem that caused the destruction of our Holy Temple, and which remains at the core of our 2,000-year spiritual exile.
At that moment, with the oil spilled on the kitchen floor, I understood. By speaking negatively about another person, you acquire their transgressions.
God works with us "measure-for-measure," meaning that instead of meting out "punishment," He arranges "consequences" that are commensurate with our mistaken action. In this case, one of my sons sought to implicate his brother for breaking the bottle; the reciprocal consequence is that he himself acquires that mistake.
Interestingly, this concept is codified in Jewish law: Under certain circumstances, false witnesses ("Aidim Zomemim") are dealt the very same punishment that they intended to generate with their false testimony. For example, if witnesses conspired to obligate someone to pay $1,000 that he does not owe, they must reimburse their intended victim that sum of $1,000. (Deut. 19:19)
The end of the story? I turned to my son who spoke negatively and asked him to clean up the olive oil. And he totally understood why.