Not all news is fit to print and not everything we hear bears repeating - especially when doing so could cause bad feelings between people. In this week's Torah portion, God is careful not to repeat to Abraham that Sarah referred to him as old when He recounts their conversation since it might hurt his feelings. From this we learn to be sensitive to what we repeat - and what we don't.
In our story, a kid makes a slip of the tongue and tries to stop it from slipping further.
"BLACK AND WHITE AND READ ALL OVER"
Wendy Kaplan dialed the phone frantically. Another busy signal!! It was so late - they must have taken the phone off the hook. Exhausted, she plopped down on the couch and accepted the bitter fact that by tomorrow the whole school would know the terrible thing she said, and her good friend would probably turn into her worst enemy.
It all happened so fast. It had turned out that she and her good friend, Valerie, both popular kids, had been the finalists in the school presidential elections. Even though they were opponents, both of them had tried their best to run a nice election campaign.
That is, until The Bugle, the school newspaper had sent one of its reporters to interview Wendy the day before the big election.
"I'll tell you something about Val," she had told the reporter. "She's a great kid, but deep down she really couldn't care less about the kids in this school. She thinks most of them are a bunch of nerds and she only wants to be school president for her resume. She even told me so herself."
When Wendy first said those comments, she thought it was okay. After all, don't all candidates put each other down in interviews? And she just wanted to win so much.
By the evening she realized it had been a HUGE mistake and she was trying all night to reach the Bugle office to tell the editor to take out that quote before it was too late and it was already printed. But either the phone had been busy or no one answered. It was just impossible to get through.
Yes she really regretted it, but now it was too late. By tomorrow hundreds of copies of The Bugle would be all over the school and Wendy's nasty comment would become public knowledge. It would ruin Valerie's reputation and probably destroy their friendship forever.
She had considered staying home from school the next day. But how could she stay home on the day of the elections? No, she'd have to go in and take her medicine - even though it was really going to hurt.
Wendy walked into the foyer where they put out the newspapers for all the students. Maybe there would be a miracle and the paper wouldn't come out this week. But no such luck. There they were as usual, and she noticed half the kids walking down the hall already had copies in their hands.
"SPECIAL CANDIDATE INTERVIEWS" ran the headline. Wendy cringed. She had really put her foot in her mouth, and there was no way to get it out now.
Just then, things went from bad to worse. From the corner of her eye she saw Valerie quickly walking her way, and in her hand she had a copy of The Bugle!
"I'm so sorry for what I said about you!" Wendy blurted out as Valerie drew near.
She had expected her friend to be furious, or crying with tears of hurt. The last thing she expected was the happy but confused look she now saw on Valerie's face.
"What are you talking about?" she asked.
"Didn't you see my interview?"
"I sure did. Don't you think it was the first thing I looked at - after mine, of course. I was just coming over to thank you for saying such nice things. It made me almost wish that you win the election today - almost, that is. If you said anything bad, I sure didn't see it. Well, anyway, we'll talk about it later. I have to run to the class now - candidates still have to study."
She gave Wendy a quick hug, and flew off as quickly as she had come. Wendy was now more confused than ever. Could Valerie have really missed that terrible, nasty quote?
She quickly grabbed a newspaper and opened it up to her interview and read: "I'll tell you something about Val, she's a great kid." Period. That was it. They had printed the quote, but left out the nasty part!
Wendy couldn't believe it. She was silently thanking God when Jan, The Bugle's editor, walked by. "Jan, you saved my life!" she yelled, running up to her.
"What do you mean?"
"You know, for taking the nasty thing I said about Valerie out of the interview."
Jan looked at her sternly. "Oh, that? There was no way I could print something so hurtful like that in the paper. It's really unethical to even repeat things people say that could hurt people or start fights between them - never mind publicize them. And besides, I figured you wouldn't want me to either, once you came to your senses. Good luck!" she said as she walked off.
Wendy stood there still in total shock from everything that had happened. She had gotten her miracle after all, no thanks to herself. Win or lose, she came out a winner by realizing how wrong it was to put people down, and how right the editor had been by not repeating put-downs when you hear them.
Q. How did Wendy feel when she thought the nasty things she said were going to get printed in the newspaper?
A. She felt bad that she said them and was afraid that her friend was going to be angry and hurt.
Q. How did she feel in the end?
A. She was so glad that the editor didn't print the bad things and saw how important it is not to repeat unkind things that people say.
Q. What do you think Wendy learned from the whole incident?
A. People sometimes make mistakes and say or do nasty things to others. But when that happens, the ethical thing to do is not to spread the 'fire' of negativity further by repeating or reporting what we saw or heard, especially to someone who will feel angry or hurt at the news. Wendy learned that lesson firsthand in a powerful way.
Q. Let's imagine if Wendy had not regretted what she said, and had wanted it printed. In that case would it be okay for the editor to have printed it?
A. One might think so, but actually it makes absolutely no difference. God wants us to do what we can to maintain a peaceful world and since repeating negative comments creates bad feelings and strife - we shouldn't do it.
Ages 10 and Up
Q. Do you think the media, in the name of free speech, has the right to report everything that is said or happens? Why or why not?
A. A free press, when used properly, is a very positive thing. However, the media is not absolved from acting responsibly and taking into account the consequences of the information that it chooses to spread. In fact, since it has the potential to influence so many people, it must act even more responsibly. The spreading of negative, damaging, or inflammatory information without a genuine valid reason is ethically wrong in a higher spiritual sense which supersedes any legal right of free speech.
Q. Is there ever a time when one may repeat negative comments?
A. There are exceptional circumstances, such as when not doing so would place someone in danger. Generally, however, it is wrong to do so. There are a number of interesting books written by contemporary Torah sages that explore in detail exactly when it is and isn't right to repeat.