The Plague of Rumors
This week's portion describes the plague of tzora'at that people would get in Biblical times. This plague would come upon someone if he slandered, or told things he shouldn't. It is appropriate that a plague would be a result of spreading rumors, because rumors themselves spread like - and should be avoided like - the plague. The Torah teaches us that the best thing we can do for ourselves and for others is to keep people's secrets secret, and not say anything bad or embarrassing about anyone, even when it's true.
In our story, a girl learns about the plague of spreading rumors.
Today in Biology class, we were studying about germs and how easily they can spread from one person to another if we're not careful. It was all pretty scary stuff. But to tell you the truth, the other day, I learned the hard way about something else that spreads as easily as germs, and is just as dangerous.
It started when my friend, Hilary, came over to me as we were about to go home from school. It had been a hard day; in fact, almost every day had been hard lately since Mrs. Astor, the new principal, had come onto the scene. She was so strict, not like Mrs. Green, our old principal, who knew how to get you to do what she wanted, but in a nice way.
Anyway, Hilary came over to me and in a soft voice, almost a whisper, said, "Hannah, I'll tell you a secret, but you have to promise not to tell anyone." From the look in her eye I could see it was probably going to be a good one, so I readily agreed. She bent over to my ear, and said, "I'm embarrassed to admit it, but Mrs. Astor and I are related. She's my dad's second cousin." I could understand why she would want to keep that a secret. The way we felt about the new principal, it was kind of like admitting that she was cousins with Attila the Hun.
Well, I tucked that interesting tidbit under my hat, and it probably never would have gone further than that ... except when a little later on I got a call from Jackie. We schmoozed about this and that, and soon enough the conversation moved on to what had been the hot topic lately - principal bashing. I don't know what made me say it, and deep down I knew it was wrong to even talk negatively about our new principal, but I just figured telling one person was no big deal, so in the middle of the conversation, I sighed, and let slip, "I don't know how someone so nasty could be cousins with a kid as nice as Hilary." I realized right away that I had let the cat out of the bag, so I quickly added on, "But that's a secret, so don't tell anybody, okay?"
"Of course, Hannah," Jackie assured me, promising that she wouldn't breathe a word. But I guess she had some trouble holding her breath, because on the school bus the next morning, I heard from Jessie, who had heard from Sue, the latest big rumor that she just had to share with me - although of course she added on, it was a secret. She went on to tell me 'my' secret, with a few added 'details' for good measure. I knew then that the 'germ' had spread out of control, but I had no idea what to do about it.
When I got off the bus, I cringed when I saw Hilary practically hiding in the corner of the schoolyard as a big group of kids were pointing at her, and saying that they just couldn't believe Hilary was related to the new principal. She was beet-red, and I felt like two cents. I tried to quickly walk past the humiliating scene, and hoped that Hilary wouldn't notice the cause of all her troubles walking by.
No such luck. She came running over to me in front of everyone. "Hannah, how dare you! How could you? I thought you were my friend, and now you've made me the laughingstock of the whole school!" I tried to mutter a reply, but before I could get two words out she stomped away, and now it was me everyone was pointing at!
Boy had I blown it. I realized that my mouth - and everybody else's - had gotten way out of control. First, it was totally wrong of us to talk badly about the principal, and then, it was a big mistake to kick someone's secret around like it was a soccer ball. You could bet I would hold my tongue from now on. I hope I can patch things up with Hilary, but I have the feeling that it will be a long time, if ever, before we will be close friends again.
I wish our Biology teacher, from now on when she teaches us to be careful about germs, would also mention to everyone how telling secrets and spreading rumors can create a plague at least as harmful as germs can - if not more.
Q. How did Hannah feel at first about telling someone the secret her friend had told her?
A. She didn't feel that it was so bad, and that no one else would find out.
Q. How did she feel in the end?
A. She felt awful when she saw how far the rumor had spread, and how it hurt her friend. She learned that someone should never reveal other people's secrets.
Q. If someone tells us something without mentioning it is a secret, yet we have reason to believe he might not want it spread around, may we tell others?
A. No, in that case we have to assume that he doesn't want us to pass it on, until we get his permission to do so.
Q. Is it ever right to reveal people's secrets?
A. If the secret is one that can cause harm to the person himself or to others, then it may be appropriate to discreetly tell someone who might be able to help, such as a parent or teacher, but to simply reveal secrets because they are interesting is never right.
Ages 10 and Up
Q. The story compares harmful words to germs. Is this a valid comparison? I.e. germs can literally kill people - are harmful words really as dangerous as this?
A. It is nearly impossible to overemphasize the damage that can be done with words. A physical illness or injury has its limits, but the feeling of pain and humiliation caused by words can haunt a person his entire life, and even for generations to come. Human beings are unique in that we communicate through the spoken (and written) word. It is our most powerful tool and must be used with only the greatest of care.
Q. Does this mean a person would be better off playing it safe, and never speaking at all?
A. We are supposed to speak, and can use our ability of speech to do the greatest good. However, like any other complex and potentially dangerous tool, we should learn how to use it properly. The Torah provides very clear guidelines on what we should and shouldn't say. These are known as the guidelines of 'Lashon Hara' (improper speech). They are compiled and available in a number of popular works, and are well worth reading and knowing.