Once a man approached Rabbi Hillel and asked him a question about the commandments:

“I understand why the Torah prohibits idolatry, murder, and stealing but why is there a commandment against slander? Surely this is not as grave a sin as the rest…”

Rabbi Hillel responded, “I will answer your question but first I must ask you to do something for me.”

“Of course,” said the man, “what is it?”

Rabbi Hillel handed the man a sack of feathers. “This evening place a feather on the front porch of every house in your neighborhood, then come back in the morning and I will answer your question.”

The man was perplexed by the request but he really wanted an answer to the question so he agreed to the terms. The next morning he returned and Rabbi Hillel greeted him with a smile.

“Did you do as I asked?”

“Yes,” the man replied, “Yesterday evening I placed a feather on the front porch of every house in my neighborhood, just as you asked. Now please answer my question about the commandments.”

“Patience,” said the Rabbi, “First do me this one last favor: go back and collect all those feathers you laid on those doorsteps and bring them back to me.”

The man laughed incredulously. “What you ask is impossible! Surely the wind has blown away every single one of those feathers by now. There’s simply no way I could retrieve them all for you!”

Rabbi Hillel’s eyes beamed and he said with a smile, “Ah… and so it is with slander. The lies we tell about our neighbors can never be retrieved. They are like feathers scattered to the wind.”

I love the Jewish tradition of Rabbi stories. Especially those where the Rabbis are given a difficult question and respond with a parable (a trait which readers of the Gospels find all too familiar). Rabbi Hillel stories are my favorite. Living in the century before the Common Era, Rabbi Hillel’s interpretations always emphasized God’s compassion over rigid adherence to law (that might be familiar too). This parable beautifully demonstrates the hurt we can cause with our words. Such damage is all too often irreversible. Who among us doesn’t have words they desperately wish that they could take back? But once a thing is said, no matter how many times you say you didn’t mean it and apologize, the words still linger and cause pain. A rumor similarly continues to spread like a wildfire. In this era of fake news and social media slander, we’d do well to remember that we are commanded to choose our words wisely. We are commanded not to invoke God’s name for our own purposes and to not bear false witness against our neighbors. What we say matters. Pray before you speak. A feather in the wind can never be retrieved.

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear…

One thought on “A Sack of Feathers

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