Taking a Lesson From a Fish
Quite a few years have passed since the story of a talking fish made the headlines of The New York Times and other papers, and spread around our community like wildfire. While some thought it was just a Purim prank, most others actually believed it. Perhaps the most important lesson we should take from the story of the “talking fish” is for us to realize the great speed with which even the most outlandish story can be spread, and how easily it can gain thousands of ardent believers. Thanks to the telephone, radio, e-mail, Internet, and fax machine, words can travel more than seven times around the world in less than a second, and the damage they can cause is absolutely frightful.
If an incredible story can quickly gain thousands of believers, how much quicker and easier can general gossip or malicious slander captivate the fertile minds of the unwary and curious, who are eager to swallow whatever they are fed, no matter how unbelievable and nonsensical it may be! While the belief or disbelief in the tall fish tale is inconsequential, the damage done by spreading slander or gossip can be devastating. It can ruin reputations, destroy businesses - and many a time be as lethal as murder.
Just invent a rumor that some rabbi’s son or daughter was arrested for dealing drugs, and you can bet the story will spread far and wide, even if the person doesn’t have a son or daughter. In fact, no matter how much the person will deny the charges, and no matter how preposterous the claims may be, there will always be some people who will believe it. The myth that Jews use Christian blood for the Passover matzos has been responsible for the deaths of thousands. The malicious slander of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” has caused the murder of countless Jews. Just spread a rumor that someone’s meat is not kosher and you have ruined his business.
Just think how many times we have believed some of the gossip making the rounds in the community, only to find out later that there was no truth to it. How often have we read slanderous articles in the newspapers, only to read retractions a few days later? Most of the stories may not have caused any harm, but from time to time they can be quite devastating. Look what happened to Dovid Hamelech when people spread false accusations against him.
Unfortunately, people seem ready to believe even malicious stories, no matter how absurd or impossible. That so many people fell for the fish story, hook, line and sinker, goes to prove how gullible people can be.
The Torah requires us to constantly remember what happened to the great prophetess Miriam, Moshe Rabbeinu’s sister, who was punished with tzoraas for making a slightly derogatory remark about her beloved brother. She failed to understand why Moshe was not living with his wife and wanted to help the marriage. Despite having only the best of intentions, she was punished.
When Moshe Rabbeinu found out that people had told the Egyptians that he had killed a taskmaster who was attacking a defenseless Jew, he wondered if this was the reason for our exile in Egypt. (See Rashi.) Can it be that our present long and dark exile has anything to do with this horrific sin?
Lashon hora and hotzo’as shem ra - slander - have caused the deaths of more people than the deadliest weapons. Shlomo Hamelech, the wisest of all men said, “Life and death is in the power of the tongue.” (Mishlei) It is also in the power of the pen. Perhaps this is the lesson we should take from the “talking” fish story!