The Torah in Parashat Ki-Teitzei presents a number of different commands relevant to warfare, including laws aimed at maintaining personal dignity in the military camp. Specifically, the Torah commands designating a place outside the camp for performing bodily functions (23:13), and having a shovel together with one’s military equipment with which to conceal bodily waste after defecating. These commands are listed by the Rambam as two of the Torah’s 613 mitzvot (asei 192, 193). The Torah itself explains the reason for these commands, stating that “the Lord your God is present among your camp to save you and to hand your foes before you,” and therefore, “your camp shall be sacred” (23:15).
The Gemara in Masekhet Ketubot (5a) presents a different reading of the second command – “Ve-yateid tihyeh lekha al azeinekha” (“You shall have a shovel in addition to your weapons”). The word “yateid” can mean not only “shovel,” but also “peg,” and the word “azeinekha” (“your weapons”) can be read as “oznekha” – “your ear.” The Gemara thus reads this verse to mean that we are created with a “peg” with which to “plug” our ears when people around us speak inappropriately, engaging in gossip and slander. The earlobe, the Gemara explains, is created in such a way that it can be used to cover the passage of the ear when necessary to avoid hearing improper speech. This verse thus teaches the importance of turning our attention away from inappropriate gossip and talebearing.
Rav Kalonymus Kalman Epstein, in Ma’or Va’shemesh, suggests linking the Gemara’s reading of this verse to the Torah’s command in the introduction to this brief section: “When you go out in a camp against your foes, you shall guard yourself against all evil things” (23:10). As the Ramban explains, soldiers waging battle often drastically lower their moral standards and engage in all kinds of misconduct, and so the Torah here issues a generic warning against all forms of inappropriate behavior. However, the Ma’or Va-shemesh suggests focusing on the word “davar” (“thing”) in this verse, which can be understood to mean “word.” The Ma’or Va-shemesh explains this command to mean that as we wage our lifelong “battle” against our sinful instincts and inclinations, a crucial component of this effort is abstaining from “davar ra” – improper speech. In order to successfully subdue our negative tendencies, we must have the humility and discipline to restrain ourselves from ridiculing and mocking other people.
And for this reason, the Ma’or Va-shemesh writes, the Gemara found in this context an allusion to the need to avoid hearing other people speak improperly. He insightfully explains that we are often led to speak lashon ha-ra (negative speech about others) because we grow accustomed to, and are interested in, hearing lashon ha-ra. Our natural curiosity leads us to try to keep abreast of the latest gossip, to hear what is being said about people, to gain access to as many “scoops” as possible. The more we do this, the Ma’or Va-shemesh teaches, the more likely we are to seek to share this information with other people and indulge in vain gossip. In order to fulfill the command of “ve-nishmarta mi-kol davar ra” – to avoid forbidden speech – we need to resolve to “plug” our ears, to restrain our natural curiosity, to subdue our innate desire to hear about the faults and foibles of our peers. We will then be able to focus our attention on the “battles” that we confront each day in our effort to properly serve God and be worthy of His presence in our midst.