The Sin of “Reply to All” – Kedoshim 5771

I want to share with you the most dangerous word in the world today.  A word that can bring down governments.  A word that can destroy reputations.  A word that can kill.  The word is―
You know what I am talking about.  An email conversation with sensitive information gets forwarded on to someone new, with the entire history of previous conversations included at the bottom.  Perhaps you have received one of those emails.
Maybe you have even forwarded along a conversation, accidentally I am sure, that spread embarrassing or harmful details about another person.
I have, and the feeling is terrible.  Because once we hit send, there is no taking it back.  Forever.  It is in the cloud, possibly to resurface at any time.
The ability to share information is a double edged sword.  As we speak, it is being used to enable people to rise up to demand freedom from authoritarian rulers.  The release of the Wikileaks documents are another example.  Both made possible by “Forward.”
But the sharing of information has an impact on a personal level as well.  Sometimes with deadly results.
We saw this recently with the tragic death of Rutgers freshman student Tyler Clementi, who took his life after being the victim of cyberbullying.
While the technology that enabled all of these events is cutting edge, the danger that the digital cloud poses is ancient.
It is a danger that is the most neglected mitzvah in all of Judaism.  We read about it in this morning’s parshah.
לֹא־תֵלֵךְ רָכִיל בְּעַמֶּיךָ
Do not deal basely with your countrymen…  (Lev. 19:16)
Although this is a difficult verse to understand, our tradition has interpreted “do not deal basely with your countrymen” to be a reference to gossip.  Although I can’t give you statistics to back this up, I would argue that the prohibition against lashon hara, literally “an evil tongue,” is the most frequently broken commandment in all of Judaism, even before the days of the internet.
While the Torah’s reference to gossip is somewhat unclear, our tradition has filled in the gaps extensively.
One ancient teaching states that a gossiper can stand in Rome and cause a death in Syria.*1*  The tragedy of Tyler Clementi is a case in point.
Gossip is also compared to an arrow.  In fact, I’d like to share several arrow metaphors.
Why is gossip like an arrow, as opposed to other weapons?  Because other weapons can only slay those who are near them, whereas an arrow can kill from a distance.*2*
Another arrow metaphor:  If a man takes a sword in hand to slay his fellow, who then pleads with him and begs for mercy, the would-be slayer can change his mind and return the sword to its sheath.  But once the would-be slayer has shot an arrow, it cannot be brought back even if he wants to.*3*
Metaphor number three.  The thirteenth century Rabbi Jonah Gerondi said:  “One who draws the bow often sends his arrow into a person without the latter’s knowing who hit him.”*4*
These three metaphors reveal three problems with gossip.
1.  It can harm from great distances.
2.  It cannot be retracted.
3.  It is often anonymous, making it impossible for the victim to confront its source.
So much has been written about gossip over the millenia, I cannot begin to cover the subject this morning.  I would like to discuss a new aspect of lashon hara that the Sages of our tradition could never have imagined.  A development that has taken this occasionally deadly scourge and exponentially multiplied its frequency and its potential to harm.
I am talking about lashon hara in the digital age.
The metaphor that the Torah uses for gossip, לֹא־תֵלֵךְ רָכִיל בְּעַמֶּיךָ, literally means, “do not act as a merchant for your own kinsmen.”  It imagines that the marketplace is where gossip is passed along, the merchant being the one who is most privy to secret dealings and gossip.  And so, the traditional understanding of where gossip happens places it in the center of town, or in people’s kitchens, or perhaps even in shul, at the kiddush lunch after services, God forbid.
When the Talmud warns that gossip uttered in Rome can kill in Syria, it imagines transmission by caravan, over a period of months or years.
Now, the transmission of gossip can be measured in fractions of seconds.
Our lives are increasingly played out not in one another’s physical presence, but digitally.  First email, now Facebook and Twitter.  For many, social interaction takes place somewhere in the cloud.
The three arrow metaphors about gossip that I mentioned earlier are so true of the internet as well.
We are connected over great distances.  Once an email is sent, or a tweet posted, or a status updated, it cannot be taken back.  And finally, the internet makes it so easy to spread information anonymously.
But there is another aspect of the digital lashon hara that makes it even harder for us to resist.  When we are having a face to face conversation with a real person, we hear voice inflections and see facial and body expressions that make it a full communication.  The presence of the other person forces us to watch what we say, at least a little bit.  We serve as checks on one another’s behavior.  How is what I say or do going to be received by the person right in front of me?
But when we are sitting in front of a screen, or texting below the table in class or at a meeting – not that anyone here does that – our physical interaction is with a two dimensional piece of glass.  The human connection is gone.
That is why people will write things in emails that they would never say in person.  One can be much less inhibited online.  There are, of course, positive aspects to this.  The internet opens up possibilities of expression for people who might not otherwise have a voice.  But basic rules of decent behavior are so much easier to ignore when there is no physical person in front of us.  Nevertheless, we must not ignore them.
We are currently in the period of the omer.  The seven weeks of counting that begins on the second day of Passover and lasts until the day before Shavuot.  Today is the eleventh day.  I have taken it upon myself this year to try to reduce the amout of lashon hara that I engage in.  I have not managed to eradicate all gossip from my life.  Cold turkey is always tough.  But I think I have been controlling my tongue a bit better.  I am at least more aware of the numerous moments of gossip that I encounter every day, both as speaker, listener, and reader.
May I suggest that we all spend the remaining thirty eight days of the Omer focusing on just this one aspect of digital lashon hara.
Here is a way that I think may help.  One of the Sages of the Talmud, Rabbi Yossi taught:  “I never made a statement for which I would have to turn around and check whether the person about whom I was speaking was present.”*5*
Let’s bring Rabbi Yossi into the age of Facebook and Twitter.  Before sending an email, Tweet, or status update that mentions someone who is not among the recipients, ask the following question:  How would I feel if that person read this message in my presence?  Forget about wondering how the other person would feel.  How would I feel?
If you think you might feel at all uncomfortable if the other person read it, that is a pretty good indication that the message is within the realm of lashon hara.
By the way, this is also a good rule to follow if the person about whom you are writing is among the recipients.  If you would not want the other person to read the message with you in the same room, it might be better to keep it to yourself, or pick up the phone instead.
At the end of the Amidah, a prayer which is traditionally recited at least three times a day, there is a meditation that originates in the Talmud.  It begins
אֱלֹהַי, נְצוֹר לְשׁוֹנִי מֵרָע. וּשְׂפָתַי מִדַּבֵּר מִרְמָה.
“My Lord, prevent my tongue from evil.  And my lips from speaking deceit.”
It is a prayer that acknowledges that we all struggle with gossip, and that we need God’s help to stop it.
I think it may be time to modify the prayer.  “Prevent my tongue from evil” doesn’t quite capture what is needed in the era of digital lashon hara.  Perhaps we ought to say the following instead:
אֱלֹהַי, נְצוֹר אֶצְבְּעוֹתַי מֵרָע, וְאַגוֹדְלַי מְהַקְלִיד מִרְמָה.
“My Lord, prevent my fingers from evil, and my thumbs from typing deceit.”
*1*PT Peah 1:1
*3*Midrash Tehillim 120:4
*4*Gates of Repentance, part 3, paragraph 207
*5*BT Arachin 15b

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