The Torah value of speaking only positively about other includes even members of our own family. In this week's Torah portion we learn that Moses' sister Miriam behaved improperly by saying things about her brother that she shouldn't have.
In our story, a kid faces the choice of how to speak about someone close.
Liz walked into the playroom where her sister Amy stood, paintbrush in hand, working on her latest abstract painting.
"What do you think?"
Liz looked at the big splotches of red, green and blue and curved, squiggly lines and wrinkled her nose. "Are you sure it's not upside-down - or at least maybe sideways?" she sniffed. Liz wasn't the biggest art fan to begin with - especially not the kind her sister, Amy, made that looked to her like … nothing.
"Hey, be nice!" Amy blurted out "I had to study a long time to learn how to make these. By the way, tonight's the school art exhibit and I'm in it. Are you going to come?"
"Well, you know, I'm kinda busy tonight … you know I have a test coming up and…" She looked at her sister's hopeful eyes and caved in. "Yeah, sure, I guess so." Liz said, trying to sound more excited than she was.
That evening at the school exhibit Liz was feeling kind of bored walking through row after row of charcoal, pencil and pen and ink drawings, all types of paintings and sculptures, when she perked up at the sudden sight of Toni, a nice, popular kid that Liz wanted to become friendly with. But it hadn't been easy since Toni was always surrounded by tons of other kids. Now that she was alone, Liz took the opportunity and approached her.
"Hi, Toni." Liz said, brightly.
"Oh, hi Liz. What brings you here tonight?"
"My sister asked me to come. But I have to admit I'm kind of overwhelmed by all the stuff that's here."
"I can understand that," Toni laughed, "Hey, if you want, we can go around and look at the stuff together."
Liz was thrilled at the chance and the two girls walked around, looking at pictures and chatting. Things were going super well until they got to a row of big, colorful abstract paintings that Liz was sure were her sister Amy's.
"And what do you think of these?" Toni giggled, giving Liz the impression that she didn't care for them. Liz was about to put them down and say how much she really didn't like them - after all, it was only talking about her sister - when she stopped herself. Why should she badmouth her sister more than she would anyone else? If anything, she should defend her. It might cause her to lose points with a friend she was trying to make, but she didn't care. There had to be something nice she could say and really mean it.
"Well, I'm not an expert, but obviously they have to be very good to be in the show."
She expected Toni to mockingly roll her eyes - but instead they lit up.
"Really? You think my paintings are good?"
Liz could hardly believe it! They were Toni's paintings, not her sisters!
"I'm so happy to hear that!" Toni exclaimed. "I really love making them, but I'm, you know … a little shy about showing them to people or even telling them they're mine. Hey, you want to come to my house tomorrow and see some more paintings - just for a little while - then we'll do a lot of other fun stuff?"
Liz happily agreed and began a fun and worthwhile friendship - all because she'd refused to speak badly about her sister.
Q. How did Liz feel at first when Toni asked her about the paintings?
A. She felt it was okay to put them down.
Q. How did she feel later on?
A. She felt it was wrong to speak badly about her sister, so she didn't.
Q. What life lesson do you think Liz learned that day?
A. She'd felt that when it came to her sister - or other family members - it was okay to speak badly about them. But she realized it was wrong just in time to do the right thing - and save herself from a major mess-up.
Q. How do you think Toni would have reacted if Liz had spoken badly about the paintings?
A. She would have been hurt and certainly never invited Liz over her house - and they probably never would have become friends.
Ages 10 and Up
Q. Why do you think people consider it somehow permissible to say and do negative things to their family members that they wouldn't do to others?
A. They rightly understand that their family is closer to them and more forgiving than others and feel this justifies taking the liberties of unkind behavior. In fact the opposite is true - we should use this closeness to motivate us to treat our family extra kindly.
Q. If Liz really didn't like the paintings - what would be wrong with saying so? After all, she was only speaking the truth.
A. The fact that something is true, does not justify negative or cruel speech. The Torah way is to always search for something positive to say.