Life and death are in the power of the tongue. The Midrash tells us of the various parts of the body arguing over which is more potent. The hands talk about their fine deeds, the legs about their running. The tongue bides its time.
The owner of these organs is on a mission to find the milk of a lioness to cure a Persian prince. The tongue speaks up on presenting the milk to the king, saying “here is the milk of the bitch you wanted”. Immediately the man is sentenced to death, but the tongue says: “In my country a lioness is sometimes referred to as
a bitch,” thus saving all the limbs.
With the internet, words are ever more dangerous. I refer to words written in haste without any malign intent and then picked on, the incessant bullying of Twitter and the tabloid echo chamber.
Most people do not analyse minor actions or throwaway comments, but as Marie Antoinette found out to her great loss, they can be twisted, sometimes with fatal consequences.
Unkind words have a severe effect. Our ancestor Yehuda could have been embarrassed by his daughter-in-law Tamar, when she was discovered to be pregnant – by him. She does not mention the culprit, and he saves face. The Talmud says one should rather die than embarrass someone.
The prophetess Miriam is punished when she speaks about Moses’ relationship with Tzipporah and gets leprosy for her ill speech.
The recent case of Caroline Flack, who took her own life after she was trolled online while awaiting trial for assault, is a sad example of what happens when prosecuting authorities are overzealous.
Sensitivity is vital. The balance between fair comment, which is of public interest, and salacious persecution, is what makes the difference. In Ms Flack’s case, the main prosecution witness withdrew his complaint. It could have ended there, with less serious consequences.
Once the words and information are out there, they cannot be taken back. In today’s internet-obsessed world this is more the case than ever.
We can only hope that those like Ms Flack, who suffer the most from this plague, find peace and shelter with God from their terror, despite their desperate and tragic response.
- Rabbi Zvi Solomons serves JCoB, the independent Orthodox community in Reading, Berkshire