Parashat Bechukotai includes the section known as the tokhecha, which describe the calamities that God threatens to bring upon Benei Yisrael should they reject His laws. He warns that they would be exiled from the Land of Israel and dispersed throughout other countries, and that those who survive will live in constant fear: “Those of you who remain – I shall bring dread into their hearts in the lands of their enemies, and the sound of a driven leaf will pursue them, and they will flee as though fleeing from the sword; they will fall without any pursuer” (26:36). The simple meaning of this verse is that the people will live under the constant threat of persecution, such that innocent noises – such as “the sound of a driven leaf” – will lead them to panic and cause them to flee and stumble.
Keli Yakar, however, creatively suggests that the Torah also alludes to a secondary tragedy of Benei Yisrael’s exile – the internecine fighting that will ensue. Though it could have been expected that the people’s shared suffering would tighten their bonds of loyalty and friendship and bring them closer together, the Torah, according to Keli Yakar, warns here that we are prone to turn against each other even more bitterly while enduring exile and persecution. Keli Yakar suggests that the rustling of the leaves mentioned in this verse alludes to the “rustling” of gossip and talebearing. Even as the people suffer the hostility of enemy nations, the Torah foresees, they will also endure the hostility of their fellow Jews, who will spread rumors about them and seek to harm their reputation. They will be “pursued” not only by external foes, but also by the “sound of a driven leaf” – the incessant gossip spoken about them. As Keli Yakar describes, “Everyone rejoices in his fellow’s misfortune, and it would be sweet for his mouth like honey if he finds an opportunity to speak derogatorily about his fellow.” Keli Yakar concludes: “In our generation, this characteristic alone suffices to prolong our exile.”
While Keli Yakar’s comments are clearly intended to draw attention to the gravity of gossip, they also convey an important lesson for those about whom the gossip is spoken. The Torah here speaks of a perfectly innocent, harmless noise – “the sound of a driven leaf” – which will cause undue panic and make people flee despite there being no pursuer. According to Keli Yakar’s reading, then, the verse teaches us to put the “noise” of offensive speech about us in proper perspective. When somebody knows he is the subject of rumors, that people are speaking disparagingly about him behind his back, it might appear as though he is being “pursued,” and he might, understandably, “panic” and feel so ashamed that he wants to “flee.” However, Keli Yakar’s reading of this verse perhaps instructs that this reaction is, very often, unnecessary, that the “noise” of gossip should not be taken quite as seriously as it might at first seem. Of course, when we speak, we must recognize the harm that our inappropriate speech about other people could potentially cause, and avoid such speech. However, when we are the subject of other people’s inappropriate speech, we are advised to approach it, to the best of our ability, as “the sound of a driven leaf,” to remember that even when we might feel that we are “pursued,” this is not always the case. By putting people’s “rustling” about us into perspective, we can, in many instances, spare ourselves pain and humiliation, and not allow the words spoken to disturb us more than they need to.