Parashat Yitro

How We Hear

Jewish tradition places great emphasis on the way in which we hear and how we interpret the messages we receive.

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Understanding Cain

Another example of this theme is in the way the sages understand Cain’s motivation for murdering his brother Abel. The terse biblical text of Genesis 4:8 leaves much to the imagination. It simply states that Cain spoke to his brother and then killed him. But what exactly did he say that led to such a fateful outcome?

Ever on the lookout for opportunities to offer the reader positive rebuke, the sages suggest an all-too-human reading of this Genesis narrative. Cain is completely consumed by anger when his brother’s sacrifice is accepted by God and his own is rejected. Enraged, Cain finds himself unable to accept God’s reproof (Gen. 4:6-8) that was intended for him and him alone. Wracked with jealousy, Cain assumes that God told him this message in order that he could give over punishment to his unwitting and undeserving brother.

Thus, in an ironic twist, God’s intended rebuke of Cain actually stokes the fire of Cain’s hatred and contributes to an exchange that further enflames Cain’s animosity. Like most people, Cain held himself so guiltless that he was only able to hear the reproof as if it had been directed to everyone other than himself.

One more example comes to mind for how our sages unceasingly adjured us to speak and listen with greater measures of responsibility. According to a passage in the Talmud (Tractate Ketubot 5b), God designed our earlobes to be soft and flexible so that if one is around others who are speaking lashon hara (gossip and improper speech), one can bend the earlobe as an earplug to avoid listening to prohibited speech. The problem with this passage is that it conflicts with another Talmudic passage that uses the same rationale for explaining why our fingers are long and tapered. For that matter, the sages ask, why not just use your legs to walk away when you see others engaged in lashon hara?

The sages assumed that God wouldn’t have given us duplicate ways of accomplishing the very same task, and therefore they suggest a very clever solution to this apparent problem. They explain that there are three different types of lashon hara, and each one requires a different response.

There are those who speak lashon hara constantly, the professional gossips. One should have nothing to do with these people, and walking in the other direction when one sees them coming is the preferred response. The second type of lashon hara is that spoken by a basically good person, who from time to time slips into the trap of gossiping. The sages said this person needn’t be avoided entirely, and hence the preferred response is to simply distance yourself from the lashon hara by placing your fingers in you ears.

Yet there is a third type of lashon hara. If someone is asked for information concerning the honesty of a certain individual, and the question is asked by someone who is contemplating entering into a business relationship with the person in question, Jewish law is clear that the individual being questioned must respond and relate exactly what he knows.

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David Frankel is the Associate International Director at NCSY. He was previously the director of the Young Leadership Division of UJA-Federation of New York.