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Shemot, 2:14. And he said, ‘who appointed you as a leader and judge over us. Do you want to kill me as you killed the Egyptian!’ And Moses was afraid, and he said, ‘but the matter is known’.
Rashi, 2:14. Sv. And Moses was scared: “…It’s midrashic meaning; he worried about what he saw amongst Israel that there were gossip mongers; he said from now, maybe they are not worthy of being redeemed.”
Sv. But the matter is known:…“It’s midrashic meaning; now I understand the matter about which I was astounded; how did Israel sin more than the seventy nations to be afflicted with backbreaking work? But now I see that they are deserving of it.”
The Torah Portion describes how Moses killed the Egyptian who was beating a Jewish man. The next day he saw two Jews fighting1 and tried to stop them. One of them threatened to inform Pharaoh of Moses’ action, which he did indeed proceed to do. His despicable conduct helped Moshe answer a question that had astounded him – why did the Jewish nation endure such a severe exile, more than any other nation? The answer was that there were gossip-mongers, people who were willing to spread lashon hara (negative speech) about their fellow Jew. Moreover, Moses feared that since this flaw was found amongst them, they may not be worthy of being redeemed.
The commentaries note a number of problems with this Midrash.2 The Chofetz Chaim focuses on the issue of why it was the sin of lashon hara in particular that brought about such severe suffering on the Jewish people; he points out that the Jewish people were guilty of idol worship and yet that was not the cause.3
He explains that when a person sins by committing a forbidden action, an accusing Angel is created; this is a spiritual force that derives its life force from the sin which created it. It stands as a prosecutor of the sinner in the Heavenly Beit Din (Court), and is the cause of the punishment that one receives for his sin. However, since this Angel was created by an action without speech, it in turn is unable to speak. Without this ability to articulate the person’s sin, the Angel cannot accuse him of his sin and he remains unpunished.
The sin of lashon hara is different because it involves speech. Therefore, the Angel created by it receives the power of speech. This gives it the ability to verbally express the nature of the lashon hara that the person perpetrated; but the Chofetz Chaim goes further and says that this Angel also enumerates all the hitherto unmentioned sins that the person committed. Thus speaking lashon hara opens the floodgates for punishment of numerous other sins.
This explains why the fact that the Jewish people spoke lashon hara resulted in the tremendous suffering they endured in Egypt. Without this flaw they would have been spared punishment for their other sins such as idol worship, but once it became clear to Moshe that they stumbled in this area he understood the severity of this exile.
This powerful lesson of the Chofetz Chaim serves as another reminder of the importance of working on guarding one’s speech. Torah Sages have told us that it is essential to spend some time each day studying both the laws and ideas behind it. Without knowledge of the laws and constant awareness of one’s speech it is impossible to guard oneself from this devastating sin.
1. The two men were Datan and Aviram (Shemot Rabbah, 1:29 quoted by Rashi, 2:12).
2. One question is that the slavery in Egypt was already decreed hundreds of years earlier when God told Avraham that his descendants would serve a foreign nation. See Sifsei Chachamim, Shemos, 2:14, sv.50. A second question is that we only see from this story that one person was guilty of lashon hara – how does that demonstrate that the whole nation was guilty of it? See Ayelet HaShachar, Shemot, 2:14.
3. Quoted in Tallelei Orot, Shemot, 2:14, p.52.