One verse, five voices. Edited by Nina Litvak and Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
Distance yourself from a false word; do not execute the innocent or the righteous, for I shall not exonerate the wicked.
– Ex. 23:7
Writer and educator, Maaleh Adumim, Israel
Fake news is one of the biggest problems facing society today. It has become increasingly common for false information to spread like wildfire. Nowadays, misinformation and blatant lies go unchallenged, gain acceptance, and cause a chain of unfortunate events to unfold. Little white lies pave the way to more egregious untruths that quickly decay the foundation on which our society stands. It is for this very reason that immediately following the Torah’s warning to distance oneself from lies, the Torah states do not kill a truly innocent person.
One need only watch “Judgement at Nuremberg” to understand how false words can lead to the death of not just one righteous man but to the genocide of millions of people.
It is frightening to witness the devastating power blatant lies can unleash. The bitter irony that South Africa can accuse Israel of perpetrating a supposed genocide while she is defending her people from an actual documented genocidal regime whose slogan calls for genocide is absurd! A verdict condemning Israel would be the tragic cause of countless more needless deaths.
The future of the world only stands a chance if the conscience of the court will abide by the laws of truth and acquit Israel of these false charges. If not, may God quickly fulfill His promise that “He will not vindicate an evil person.” This statement is an eternal warning from God to the judicial system and all involved that they will indeed be held accountable for their deceitful verdict.
Rabbi Shlomo Seidenfeld
Freelance Rabbi, Scholar In-Residence Aish/JMI
Words are like swords! They can assassinate a person’s character, shatter a child’s confidence or stigmatize an entire nation, race, religion etc. They can embolden feeble minds and they can be weaponized to justify the most egregious behavior. History, especially Jewish history, is replete with virulent rants and nefarious conspiracy theories that fomented the disenchanted masses into armies of hate and violence.
At a time when false narratives and hateful agendas are bubbling to the surface, the destructive power of speech is on full display.
It’s fascinating that the creation of the world happened thru speech. “Let there be light,” etc. The question is, why did G-d, as it were, speak the world into existence? Could he not have simply willed it into existence? What message was G-d imparting to humanity through this creation model?
Perhaps G-d was teaching that speech creates reality. That the spoken word can manipulate peoples’ minds and perpetuate primitive perceptions so that regular people could contemplate “the execution of the innocent or the righteous”! The Holocaust stands as an eternal and compelling monument to this potential reality.
But my friends, if words can animate false narratives and unleash violence they can also be exquisite vehicles for awareness, sensitivity and solidarity. Emphatic, unapologetic speech that is also constructive and respectful may not always change a person’s mind but maybe, just maybe, it can open a person’s mind. The world that our words create is in our hands, or better said, in our mouths. Am Yisroel Chai!
Rabbi Natan Halevy
A beautiful aspect of Torah is how one verse can be interpreted countless ways and has relevance to many different situations. This is especially true regarding our verse. On a simple level, it illustrates how much Judaism values life.
The Talmud states, “There is no truth in this world,” implying that it is hard to always tell the truth in life. We must do our best to distance ourselves from lies. “Distance from a false word” implies distancing oneself from those who speak lies and gossip. This behavior may cause “false rumors,” which can lead to symbolic execution of someone’s reputation. In extreme cases this may lead to death of the “innocent and righteous.”
Our verse warns judges to not create destruction (moral, financial, etc) through incorrect judgments. Such judges cause spiritual destruction, since our realm influences the unseen higher realms. A judge must stay clear of anything which could create the impression that he has dealings with something corrupt. A judge must be careful with their statements so that a liar cannot exploit their words for his own nefarious purposes.
The Torah acknowledges instances where we cannot convict the guilty.
We are assured that if a guilty person escapes human justice, he will not escape divine justice. Hashem will see to it that the wicked will not wind up being considered as “righteous.” Distance from lies is also a warning to be vigilant against heresy, and things that distance us from Hashem.
Rabbi Rebecca Schatz
Associate Rabbi, Temple Beth Am
This verse starts off with a curious subject. Is it “midvar-sheker” meaning the words of a lie (dibur) or, from the object (davar) of the lie, that we should distance ourself? The first supposes that Torah encourages us to distance ourselves from untrue words, as if the words themselves become toxic. The second tells us to avoid untruthful materiality. However, Sforno reads this as our responsibility, not the lie or the liar’s. As the judge needing to be careful with their own words so they would not be twisted or misused in a dishonest way.
We live in a world where misinformation is everywhere: News outlets, social media, voices of power in the government, and entertainment that we hear, watch or read. How can we be sure what is honest and therefore distance ourselves from the rest? Building trust. We must seek out nobler relationships, trustworthy sources, and honest behavior.
To convince another of our perception of truth feels like watching a movie and knowing the plot, but the characters don’t yet know what’s coming. And instead of trying to fix the unknown, we distance ourselves and let their story unravel. We distance ourselves, not for lack of care, but for protection of self and relationship with others and ultimately with truth. One day, through rebuilt trust, maybe we will engage in shared honest narrative and they will distance themselves from the toxicity. But until then, may we all have the courage to distance ourselves from lies and hold truth as a powerful value.
Rabbi Chaim Singer-Frankes
Multifaith Chaplain & Spiritual Care Guide, Kaiser Panorama City
Did you ever wonder why Torah bluntly mandates us to do one thing, where in other places we are cautioned to avoid another? There is one straightforward conclusion; because it is basic human nature to do the opposite of what is right and good. Alas, this is our tendency. And what are the consequences of taking the wrong course? Torah is the needle on our compass, pointing sincerely to the best path.
Our verse conveys a maxim regarding the colossal power of words. A three-letter root comprising the Hebrew letters dalet, vet and reish, denotes seeming opposites. These three letters can be understood to mean “word” or “speech.” They can also spell “thing” “matter” or “occurrence.” Within our verse is the kernel of an immense truth; that words, apparently ephemeral and impermanent, really manifest as substantial entities. Herein, Torah implores us to see that words can be real, hard, and supremely consequential. Is a word uttered and forgotten? We hope so. As a schoolkid tormented by bullies, my mother lovingly toiled to console me, “don’t pay attention, they’re just words.” Just as words can inspire, they also hurt like bricks and a lie has real impact, a matter of power and leverage. We dismiss the consequence and gravity of words at our peril for they both determine the fate of the innocent and reveal the intent of the selfish. In Proverbs 18:21, Ha’Melekh Shlomo goads us with a supreme measure of wisdom, “death and life are in the power of the tongue.”