He had faced all sorts of battles in his life, but never one such as this: Some people spread terrible lies about him, seriously damaging his reputation and carreer. Many friends and supporters came to assure him that they refused to believe the false stories and “obvious lies,” but he felt as if they did not look at him as they had in the past. This was not the most difficult battle.
A few months later, just before Yom Kippur, three of the people who had spread the lies came separately to ask for forgiveness. “For what?” he asked.
“Just in case I did anything to hurt you over the past year,” was the response of two.
“Did you do anything to hurt me?” our friend asked.
“Not that I can think of. Do you forgive me or not?”
“I am willing to forgive anything but Motzi Shem Ra (Libel).”
“Well, I have nothing to worry about.” This was not his most difficult battle.
The third person approached him in front of a crowd of people and said, “I should not have waited until Yom Kippur, but I ask your forgiveness for spreading lies about you, hurting you and damaging your reputation. I cannot undo all the damage but I will speak to everyone I know and tell them that I lied about you.”
“I forgive you,” he answered, and felt as if the third person had given a gift to him.
Almost twenty years later, he applied for a fabulous job. Everything was set, except the contract signing, when the head of HR called to say that the company had withdrawn the job offer: He had mentioned to a friend of his that he was hiring our friend, and the person recalled what he had heard from the third man who had asked for forgiveness many years earlier, and urged the HR person not to risk that the stories were true. Our friend pleaded with the HR head to call the original source of the story, but he refused; “I can’t afford the risk.”
He considers this the most challenging battle of his life: Twenty years later he still carried the wounds. He could not escape the lies. He couldn’t find a job. “I find myself wishing that I had not forgiven him! I think that the only way for him to earn forgiveness would be for him to tag along with me for the rest of my life and witness the devastation he caused.”
“If a man marries a wife, and comes to her and hates her, and he makes a wanton accusation against her, spreading a bad name against her, and he said, ‘I married this woman, and I came near to her and I did not find signs of virginity on her.’ Then the father of the girl and her mother should take proofs of the girl’s virginity to the elders of the city, to the gate. The father of the girl should say to the elders, ‘I gave my daughter to this man as a wife, and he hated her. Now, behold! He made a wanton accusation against her, saying, ‘I did not find signs of virginity on your daughter’ – but these are the signs of virginity of my daughter!’ And they should spread out the sheet before the elders of the city. The elders of the city shall take that man and punish him. And they shall fine him one hundred silver shekels and give them to the father of the girl, for he had issued a slander against a virgin of Israel, and she shall remain with him as a wife; he cannot divorce her all his days.” (Deuteronomy 22:13-19 – Mitzvah 540 & 572) The slanderer must remain married to his wife. (Concept #134) He may never divorce her. (Concept #135) -Rambam, Hilchot Na’arah Betulah – The Laws of Young Maidens
These are quite complex laws, however, the two actual Mitzvot address our friend’s battle and comments: The only way to realize the extent of the damage we cause to another’s reputation is to forever remain with that person, just as the husband must forever live with his wife! He may never divorce her. He must face his libel everyday for the rest of his life. He must remain married to her to prove to the world that he lied. Imagine the punishment of being married to a woman you have slandered and never be allowed to divorce her.
The Torah wants us to understand that there is no other way to fully appreciate the pain and damage we cause to another when we slander or libel them.
As we examine the past year through the lens of Elul Teshuva, we must carefully reflect on anything and everything we have said about others: Was it true? Did it hurt them? How much damage did I cause? How can I repair the damage?
This is why Motzi Shem Ra is the only sin we are not expected to forgive! May God protect us!
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