The Chofetz Chaim in his Sefer Shmiras Halashon goes parsha by parsha enumerating the many episodes of unfortunate lashon hara and the prohibitions that are listed in the Torah on this subject. In the first portion of this week’s double portion of Behar and Bechukosai, the conclusion of the Book of Vayikra, the Torah states, “And you shall not wrong, one man his fellow Jew, and you shall fear your G-D, for I am the Lord, your G-D” (Vayikra 25:17). The Chofetz Chaim explains that “here the Torah warns us about onaas devarim, wronging verbally, meaning a person should not provoke his fellow Jew with words, and it says in the gemara, Bava Metzia 58b, that wronging verbally is worse than wronging monetarily, for one is done with his body and the other is done with his money, one can be returned and the other cannot be returned. It says there, Bava Metzia 59a, that all the gates in Heaven are closed except for the gate of the wronged, in order to pay back the wrongdoer. Onaas devarim is also considered a subcategory of lashon hara as we find in Yoma 44a” (Shmiras Halashon, volume 2, chapter 17). (Click here for Hebrew text.)
Rashicomments on this pasuk, ולא תונו איש את עמיתו YOU SHALL NOT THEREFORE BE EXTORTIONATE TO ONE ANOTHER — Here Scripture warns against vexing by words (wounding a person’s feelings) — that one should not annoy his fellowman, nor give him an advice which is unfitted for him but is in accordance with the plan and the advantage of the adviser. But lest you should say, “Who knows whether I had any intention to do him evil?” Scripture therefore states: “but you shalt fear your G-D”! — He Who knows men’s thoughts, He knows it! In all cases where it is a matter of conscience (more lit., a matter handed over to the heart), when no one knows the truth except the one who has the thought in his heart, Scripture always states: “but be afraid of your G-D”! (Sifra, Behar, Chapter 4 1-2; Bava Metzia 58b; cf. also Rashi on Leviticus 19:14.)
The Sifra, or Toras Kohanim that Rashi is quoting, lists a number of examples of this prohibition:
- If a person is a baal-teshuva, penitent, don’t tell him, ‘Do you remember what you used to do…’
- If he is a son of a convert, don’t say, ‘I remember how your family used to act…’
- If a person is sick, suffering, or buried his children, don’t tell him what Iyov’s friends told him, ‘Isn’t your fear your foolishness, your hope and innocent ways, please remember who is cleanly lost and where did the straight people be annihilated.’
- If you see donkey drivers asking for grain or for wine don’t tell them to go to a certain person who never sold grain or wine in his life.
- Rebbe Yehuda says that one should not check into an item and ask for a price without any intent on buying it.
Rabbeinu Bachye shares a reason for the gemara in Bava Metzia 59a which says, ”Rav Ḥisda says: All the gates of Heaven are apt to be locked, except for the gates of prayer for victims of verbal mistreatment, as it is stated: ‘And behold, the Lord stood upon a wall built with a plumb line, and a plumb line in His hand’ (Amos 7:7).” The Reason is because the one who is verbally wronged is very much pained, and his mind is weakened, and his heart is humbled over his suffering, and he prays from out of his worrisome heart with intent and is heard. If the [speaker] would say ‘Who knows if I had bad intention’ therefore the pasuk concludes, “and you shall fear your G-D.” (Click here for Hebrew text.)
People sin for various reason but don’t deny afterward that no one knows what happened; so what’s the big deal? First of all, why would a person think that remorse for a sin is dependent on who saw it? Secondly, would a person who sins normally deny his folly towards Hashem once he realizes his mistake if he is a G-D fearing Jew? So why is this case any different? Does this person who speaks verbal abuse have to be a denier of Hashem to the point that the Torah has to say, “and you shall fear your G-D?” This expression is not found in too many places. It doesn’t say anywhere that when a person does a sin in private, he should fear Hashem! What is the emphasis here?!
However it would seem based on this Rabbeinu Bachye that this person actually might think he has an excuse to say to himself ‘Who knows if I had bad intention’ because look at the results that he produced by totally insulting and humiliating his fellow Jew. The victim was able to reach such great heights in prayer that he has the ability to be answered whereas others are not so readily answered. The perpetrator caused the victim to reach such great heights of intent in prayer that he might be delusional to think that in fact he did a mitzvah by helping another to come so close to Hashem, to the point that he might tell himself, “who knows if I had bad intentions”. That is why the pasuk concludes, “and you shall fear your G-d,” so one should not come to think that the end justifies the means.