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Parsha Mishpatim

February 7, 2016

The Twitter Culture: What have we become?

This week police caught a man who broke into an apartment building in Thomas Circle and who police say has been responsible for multiple burglaries in the last month in the DC area. This time he was finally caught because in the middle of his break-in he stopped at the concierge’s desk to use the computer and actually signed into his Twitter account. This allowed the police to trace his steps and catch him and connect him to the other robberies as well (Washington Post, February 3, Suspected burglar helps police by signing on to his own Twitter account during break-in).

What was so urgent that he had to log onto his Twitter page in the middle of a robbery?

Some recent articles suggest that the valuation of Twitter as a company is in danger. Twitter was just forced to restructure its front office and hired a new executive team (http://www.reuters.com/article/us-twitter-managementchanges-research-idUSKCN0V31SV). The reason why Twitter is in trouble is not because it hasn’t been successful, but because it has been too successful! It’s not that people are not interested in the way it delivers information but rather that there are more and more platforms that basically offer the same product as Twitter: the ability to communicate with many people in a very abbreviated form.

I have no idea whether or not we should all buy stock in Twitter. But as someone who is in general a fan of social media I do have concerns about the fact that we have become a culture of Twitter. Parts of this are very attractive and fun and parts of it are extremely concerning.

Here is what I find most concerning about our Twitter culture. Twitter is itself a symbol to me of a disturbing and growing trend in our society to reward and encourage snarkiness and insults.

On Twitter the snarkier you are the better your tweets. The one line twitter zinger is the goal of so many Twitter commentators. It used to be that such behavior was relegated to radio personalities or comedians, but now everyone has a twitter handle and with it comes the platform of insults and clever snarkiness. The more we insult other people in our society with our clever tweets the more popular we become.

Over the past six months we have experienced in our country the latest manifestation of the Twitter culture -- a phenomenon that I do not ever remember experiencing in my adult life: politicians becoming increasingly popular by consistently using one line zingers in an intentionally hurtful and harmful manner in order to demonize and vilify others. And most often the “others” who are attacked are the most vulnerable members of our society.

We are in the middle of an election cycle for President of the United States of America and when I turn on the news I am horrified at the way some people running for President of the United States express themselves.

This is not about one candidate only—it applies to multiple candidates—but obviously some are much worse than others.

In this election cycle alone we have seen entire classes of people called “criminals,” “rapists,” and “killers.” We have seen an entire religion defamed. Growing up I don’t remember any serious candidate running for office ever speaking like that.

But the scariest thing for me is that the more I hear these hate-filled words the more I see a growing minority of our public attracted to it.

The Twitter culture that we have become rewards these hurtful words.

On the other hand, our Torah in this week’s portion commands us to be the opposite.

“Ve-ger lo toneh ve-lo tilchatzenu ki geirim heyitem ba-eret mitzrayim.
You shall not mistreat and oppress a stranger for you were strangers Egypt” (22:20).

That is more or less how the verse is often translated. But let’s break it down even more.

Rashi tells us, “kol lashon ger adam she-lo nolad be-otah medina, ger refers to anyone who is a foreigner.”

Of course, it doesn’t really mean only foreigners or immigrants. The prohibition is really about the most vulnerable members of our society. This verse is commanding us not to do something to them.

What are we not allowed to do to this ger? We cannot do ona’ah.

Rashi tells us that one of the prohibitions in the verse is that we cannot oppress the immigrant with words and the other prohibition (lo tilchatzenu) in the verse refers to oppression with money.

What is ona’ah with words?

The Mishnah (Bava Metziah 58b) tells us that just like there is oppression with money, so too there is ona’ah with words.

The Mishnah lists three examples of what qualifies as oppression with words:

1) A person may not ask how much an object costs if she/he has no intent to purchase it. Raavad explains that the reason is because the seller is in distress because he thinks he is a poor salesman and that it is his own incompetence that has cost him a sale. He had his hopes up and now they are diminished. Thus, the person has engaged in hurtful behavior.
2) If a person is a “baal teshuvah” one cannot remind him of his earlier sins.
3) If a person is a descendant of converts one cannot remind him of the fact that his ancestors committed misdeeds.

In other words, we are prohibited from reminding someone either that they don’t fit in now and/or that they didn’t always fit in. Additionally, we are not permitted to remind people that they share some similarities with others who have done bad things.

Today we talk about “bullying.” The Talmud doesn’t use this exact word. But it is a similar concept. It is using words in a hurtful manner to make another person feel uncomfortable.

Here are further examples found in the Talmud.

If a person is sick or has suffered a calamity do not tell him that it is because of his own misdeeds. (This is true even though it may very well be because of his own reckless behavior. It is not your place to remind him of that in his moment of distress.) Thus, says the Talmud do not be like the friends of Iyov who said to him, “Mi hu naki, avad, has there ever been anyone innocent who has perished” (Job 4:7). Thereby, they blamed Iyov for his own afflictions.

Another example in the Talmud is that of the case of donkey drivers. If they should come up to you and ask to purchase wheat you are not allowed to intentionally send them astray. If you know that Mister X actually does not have any wheat to sell, you cannot say to them, “Go to Mister X, for he has wheat to sell you.”

The Kesef Mishnah (Mekhirah 14:14) sees the problem with this in that you are embarrassing the donkey drivers themselves. They are going to knock on the door of the supposed wheat seller and ask to purchase wheat. He is going to respond incredulously and may taunt them for asking him such a silly question.

On the other hand, Rashi (to Bava Metzia 58b) explains that the problem with this is that you are embarrassing the person who they ask to buy wheat from. As a result of their question he is going to feel inadequate and embarrassed that he doesn’t have any wheat to sell.

Rambam uses these principles and adds another law. One is not permitted to ask a question to their teacher if you think that in all likelihood they don’t know the answer (Mekhirah 14:14).

There is even a way to violate this prohibition without saying anything at all.

In the 18th century there was a rabbi known as R. Refael Yosef Chazan. He was born in Turkey and then moved to the land of Israel where he became rabbi first of Chevron and then of Yerushalayim. In his work Chikrei Lev he is asked the following question:

The custom of the congregation was for the shaliach tzibbur to recite a mishaberach for everyone who had an aliyah and to mention the names of their friends and relatives. In this case, the shaliach tzibbur took an oath not to mention a certain person’s name. Is this considered a valid oath?

R. Chazan suggests that the oath is not valid because one cannot make an oath that violates a commandment of the Torah. Since there is a prohibition of ona’at devarim (oppression with words), by not saying this person’s name the shaliach tzibbur is causing them pain.

Usually this prohibition of ona’at devarim requires us not to say something to a person, but R. Chazan argues that the underlying reason for the prohibition is that the misuse of words causes pain and distress. Therefore, even by passively not mentioning the person’s name it is causing distress and is a violation of ona’at devarim.

His proof that one can violate ona’at devarim even without speaking comes from the case in the Talmud where the person was merely window-shopping. He argues that since in that case the problem is that we caused the shopkeeper distress even without saying anything because the shopkeeper thought that he had a real potential customer, we therefore see that one can be in violation of this prohibition even without saying anything.

Thus, we see that not only must a person be sensitive about what they say but they must also be sensitive about what they don’t say. By not saying something we can also oppress someone with words and violate the prohibition of ona’at devarim.

How beautiful are the ways of the Torah! The Twitter culture rewards the one line insult while our Torah commands us to be careful even about what we don’t say!

It is noteworthy that the Torah elsewhere seemingly repeats this prohibition when it says, “lo tonu ish et amito ve-yaretah mei-elokekhah ani Hashem, one should not oppress his friend and you shall fear God, I am Hashem” (Vayikra 25:17).

The Shulkhan Arukh explains that the Torah repeats the commandment multiple times in order to teach us to be exceedingly careful about the prohibition of ona’at devarim (Choshen Mishpat 228:2).

Ona’at devarim does not only apply on an individual level. It of course applies on a communal level as well. Our communities and our leaders must be exceedingly careful with the words we use and make sure that we do not oppress and hurt those who are the most vulnerable—the geirim in our midst.

We are living with this distasteful and unpleasant Twitter culture, but the greatest danger of the Twitter culture is where might it eventually lead us.

Words are words and deeds are deeds, but words lead to deeds.

In its most perverse outcome, when society embraces a culture that rewards words of pain and hurt it allows for the acceptance of the ideas behind the words. This type of language can allow wicked demagogues to elevate themselves by targeting their words and using the vulnerable as fodder for their attacks.

We know these dangers all too well because in our history the straw man used by wicked politicians has been our grandparents and great grandparents. That’s how the medieval kings of England, France, and Spain did it to our ancestors. That’s how Torquemeda did it. And that’s how Chmielnitzky and so many others did it as well.

This is why we must speak out against those who use their words in a bullying and irresponsible manner, especially and most dangerously when they combine their message with that of their own personal charisma.

Such behavior represents an existential threat to our society, which we have a duty and responsibility to speak out against. When we hear such words being spoken we have a religious duty to say: this is not our path. Our path teaches us that words are important and hurtful language is deeply problematic.

At the end of our portion Moshe goes up the mountain to get the Torah (24:13). As he ascends he tells the elders these words—these are the final words he says before he goes up to get the Torah on Sinai, “Behold Aaron and Chur are with you. Whoever is a ba’al devarim can come near to them.”

Ba’al devarim literally means a master of words.

Only one who is careful with their words is worthy of coming near to the Torah.



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