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The Oil Spill

by Rabbi Shraga Simmons; Feb 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.

February 19, 2012

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Visitor Comments: 11

(6) Mordechai, February 21, 2012 3:23 PM

or perhaps....

perhaps the Rav was trying to teach his sons the valuable lesson that there are even worse things than being irresponsible with a bottle of oil, such as speaking out negatively about others and throwing your brother under the bus?

(5) Lisa, February 21, 2012 2:25 PM

The Blame Game......

Everyday I have my teenage son read an article of interest....Bingo....this one fits the bill perfectly....especially since he too has brothers. Let's learn not to play The Blame Game!! Thank you!

(4) Anonymous, February 21, 2012 2:01 PM

Disappointment in actions is different than disappointment in the person

Rav Shraga wrote the blog very clearly, I think. His statement of disappointment was only about his son's actions, not the character of his son, which would be truly devastating for a son to hear. Sometimes we need that rebuke about our actions. Not enough parents learn to express their disapproval in a healthy way to their children. Furthermore, about why one acquires another transgression, he explained it is because the son sought to elevate himself above his brother, but, his speaking against his brother brought him to a lower level than he may have been at if he had remained silent or even better, taken the blame for his brother and offered to clean up the mess himself. The one who spoke up may not have spilled the oil and acted irresponsibly, but he spoke against his brother which is also wrong behavior, so he was at the lowered level at that time.

(3) Laurence, February 21, 2012 4:43 AM

Your son is better than I

If I was being charged with murder and I did not do it, should I silently await my execution. I think your parenting skills need some work. You were completely immature and wrong in my opinion based on the information given. You say your son understood right away, if this is true he is much better than I and I am 50, I can only pray G-d is not like you or we are all doomed to be punished just for declaring our innocense. More than likely your son understood but not what you thought, he probably understood the wrath of Khan would come if he didn't shut up and listen. Of course I could be completely wrong and you are so beyond my level of emotional maturity that I simply cannot comprehend this level of spiritual perfection but I will continue my personal growth journey as must be necessary based on my inability to understand your wisdom, thank you for this "teaching" you have enlightened me to a level of insight to how good the world may be when mashiac comes. Shalom (means destroy the authority attached to chaos)

Aliza, February 21, 2012 10:55 AM

not the point

Rav Shraga specifically pointed out that he did *not* accuse either son of breaking the oil bottle; he just knew one of them had done it. This is very different than being silent in the face of a false accusation of murder. I also was surprised that the denying son understood why he was being asked to clean up the spill, unless discussions about lashon hara regularly take place in their household. I also don't really get the connection between the son speaking up and thus taking on the traits of the one who transgressed. It's a great concept, but I think this could have been a much deeper, longer blog!

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