I had a chilling experience this past Shabbos. We were walking home from a Bar Mitzvah and were stopped at a light behind a group of people having a loud conversation (I emphasize the decibel level of the discussion to explain my unintentional but unavoidable eavesdropping!).

“I used to run a yogurt shop,” declared one young man. “I wanted to make it kosher so I called Rabbi Blank.” I know Rabbi Blank so my ears perked up. “However, one of the toppings I wanted to sell wasn’t kosher. Rabbi Blank refused to give me certification. I begged and I begged. Finally Rabbi Blank came back to me with an ‘offer I couldn’t refuse.’ Pay me $1000 and I’ll certify everything in the store.”

I had a hard time keeping my shocked gasp inaudible. Like I said, I know Rabbi Blank. I don’t know him well but I’ve always found him to be friendly and pleasant and serious about his business. I’ve trusted his certification and eaten the products and in the places under his supervision. I didn’t know what to do but I couldn’t wait to get home and share the news with my family. Now I knew we would definitely have a stimulating conversation over our Shabbos lunch!

But wait – the light stayed red and the conversation continued. Gratified by the surprised looks and comments of his listeners, the narrator said “Fooled all of you! Rabbi Blank is a pure as can be; he would NEVER take a bribe!”

Wow. I was really shaken by that story. What if the light had changed earlier and I hadn’t heard the end of the story? I would have believed slander about an innocent man and possibly even gone so far as to disseminate it myself. It made me think about so many situations that could so easily been misinterpreted or taken out of context or only been part of the picture.

But the deeper and more frightening issue for me was how quickly I accepted the negative information. Why didn’t I immediately disbelieve it? What wasn’t my initial instinct to defend Rabbi Blank? I felt sick to my stomach.

My only comfort is that, while I have always found Rabbi Blank to be very pleasant, I actually don’t know him very well. I like to think that if it were someone I knew well, I would have leaped to their defense – certainly in my mind and hopefully aloud as well.

Yet the comfort is slight because I am appalled by my rapid jump to a negative impression and concerned that it reflects a basic human instinct. Would my intimate friends defend me if I were falsely accused? What about my less close friends? My acquaintances? Members of my community who I don’t know at all? Or would they react as I did – shocked but believing.

There are many prohibitions connected to the mistake of speaking lashon hara, malicious gossip. One is that you’re not allowed to listen to it and another is you’re not allowed to believe it. On that street corner last Shabbos, it would have been very hard not to listen (did I mention it was loud?!). We were all waiting together and I didn’t know what was coming so I couldn’t really strategize. But I should never have believed it. My instinct should have been to assert Rabbi Blank’s innocence not to condemn him without any information.

As Jews, we are big believers in behavior modification. We can change our basic instinctual response. We can train ourselves to react differently, more slowly, more thoughtfully. We can learn to be careful in judgment and think long and hard before responding to situations. These are not new ideas but they must be internalized. I didn’t realize just how much work I still have to do.