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Mishlei: Seductive Conversations

“My child, if sinners seduce you, do not be enticed. If they say, ‘Come with us; let us wait in ambush for bloodshed; let us lurk for an innocent one, without cause. Like the grave, let us swallow them alive – whole, like those descending to the pit.’” (Proverbs 1:10-12)

I don’t know about you, but no one has ever invited me to join an ambush for bloodshed. I suspect that even if someone did, I would not need to review King Solomon’s Proverbs to know that it would be a bad idea to accept such an invitation.

I also have difficulty understanding why Shlomo chooses such a bizarre example of seduction rather than the Yetzer Harah’s usual ‘seductions” to sin.

The Meisis – one who attempts to seduce others into idol worship – most dangerous seducer described in the Torah. We are commanded to, “not love a Meisis,” to “not cease hating a Meisis,” to “not save a Meisis,” to “not say anything in his defense,” and to “not refrain from incriminating him.” (Deuteronomy 13:9)

We benefit from free speech, but there are actually times when it is dangerous, and the Torah prohibits such speech.

One of my congregants in St. Louis brought a friend to me to discuss why I was so incensed by the United States Supreme Court ruling that allowed Nazis to march in a Skokie neighborhood, dominated by Holocaust survivors. “Don’t you understand that there is either free speech or censorship? If you want the government to stop Nazis from speaking, they will soon stop Jews from speaking as well!” It’s either all or nothing. Either absolutely everyone has the right of free speech, or eventually no one will.

I didn’t see it that way then and I do not now. I explained that if we do not even fight against hateful speech, we would lose our moral bearings. We must do all we can to battle destructive words. I also insisted that a society that cannot differentiate between types of speech would forfeit its ability to make moral decisions.

Torah approaches humanity and life through the prism of freedom, including free speech. God does not deny the gift of speech to those who use their mouths to speak against Him. However, the Torah, through the laws of the Meisis, teaches us that there are some words that cannot ever be spoken. The Torah denies many of the usual rights of a condemned man to a person convicted as a Meisis. There are boundaries at which even freedoms must be curtailed.

I believe that Shlomo Hamelech is discussing just such seductions and conversations. When we begin to just allow certain forms of speech, we also begin to listen. If the words merit the right to be spoken, they must merit basic attention. And so, the seduction begins.

There are times when I will fall into the trap of arguing with someone who is advocating something ridiculous. I want to explain why his or her argument is vacuous, and, by engaging the arguments, grant them more respect than they deserve.

I should never have even entered an argument on why smoking pot is wrong. Before I knew it, the conversation was focused on alcohol and cigarettes and we never returned to the issue of pot.  A conversation about drinking in college became an argument about independence and learning about life.

I have even had conversations about why it is wrong to speak negatively about others that quickly became a discussion about terrible things other people say.

All of those are seductive conversations. We want to appear to be reasonable and open minded, so we engage even the most foolish arguments. “I try not to speak Lishon Harah,” I said. “Why is this considered Lishon Harah?” Do I answer and explain? It’s a brilliant seduction.

When someone informs me of new rumors about me, they are, intentionally or not, seducing me into a dangerous conversation. I will probably never speak to those who are spreading the rumors, but as long as I think about what they are saying or writing, I am engaged in a destructive conversation.

Shlomo Hamelech is teaching us that one of the most practical applications of wisdom is to immediately recognize which conversations are actually seductions just as blatant as an invitation to join an ambush.

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