Rabbi Daniel Stein
Protect Your Reputation
"And these are the generations of Yizchak the son of Avraham, Avraham begot Yitzchak" (Breishis 25:19). Rashi comments in the name of the Medrash that the pasuk stresses twice that Yitzchak was the son of Avraham, because Yitzchak's physical appearance bore an uncanny resemblance to that of his father Avraham. The Medrash continues that Yitzchak's likeness to Avraham was ordained deliberately and miraculously by Hashem in order to dispel the insinuations of the scoffers of the generation who were murmuring that since Avraham and Sarah had been married for decades without children, Yitzchok's biological father must have been Avimelech and not Avraham. This speculation was summarily dismissed when Yitzchak was born bearing a striking similarity to Avraham, attesting to their genetic relationship. The meforshim are troubled, why was Hashem so concerned with the baseless allegations of those who sought to malign and ridicule Avraham? Rav Mordechai Gifter (Pirkei Torah) suggests that the Medrash is instructing us regarding the malignant nature of negative speech, mockery, and derision. Even when it is completely without merit, it can be exceedingly pernicious and dangerous, to the degree that Hashem had no choice but to quash it swiftly and overwhelmingly. This is because even one cynical remark can have devastating and far reaching consequences, whose ripple of effects can sometimes still be reverberating generations later.
The pasuk states, "And Yaakov gave to Esav bread and a pottage of lentils, and he ate and drank and arose and left, and Esav despised the birthright" (Breishis 25:34). The Gemara (Bava Basra 16b) claims that the five consecutive verbs at the conclusion of the pasuk are an allusion to five transgressions that Esav performed on that very day: He engaged in relations with a betrothed maiden, he killed a person, he denied the existence of Hashem, he denied the resurrection of the dead, and he disparaged the birthright. However, even though he committed five misdeeds on that same day, the only aveirah mentioned explicitly in the Torah is that he denigrated the birthright, which is ostensibly the least egregious sin on the list. Rav Ahron Kotler explains that this is because Esav's precipitous decline and all that later ensued was triggered by his one comment besmirching the birthright. In fact, the Baal Haturim notes that the language "vayivez Esav", "and Esav disparaged", is only found once more in Tanach in the pasuk "vayivez be'einav lishloach yad be'Mordechai levado", "but it seemed contemptible to him to lay hands on Mordecai alone" (Esther 3:6). This indicates that Haman's despicable plot to eradicate the Jewish people centuries later in the times of Esther, can also be attributed to Haman's ancestor Esav, and his flippant insult of the birthright all those years ago.
Therefore, just as Hashem protected the reputation of Avraham and Sarah, we must all vigilantly protect our own reputation from the potential scoffers of our time. This includes conducting ourselves in a fashion which is beyond reproach and lacking any possible perception of impropriety. The Mishnah (Shekalim 3:2) prohibits the treasurer of the Beis Hamikdash from entering into the vault while wearing clothing, shoes, or an amulet, that could conceal a potential theft, "lest he become rich and people say that he became rich from the appropriation of the chamber; for one must be free of blame before others as he must be free of blame before Hashem, as it states, 'And you shall be guiltless before Hashem and before Yisrael' (Bamidbar 32:22)." Similarly, the Gemara (Bava Basra 13a) bars communal collectors of charitable funds from exchanging small coins with their own private monies, or collectors of food who have leftovers from purchasing it for themselves. These inherently innocent activities are proscribed because they can potentially be misconstrued by others. Rashi (Avodah Zarah 12a) claims that this concern is also one of the underlying motivations behind the general notion of Maris Ayin, which prohibits many otherwise permissible actions when they could be reasonably misinterpreted by an onlooker as inappropriate.
At the same time, the Mishnah (Avos 1:6) enjoins us to judge all people and situations favorably, and to refrain from looking askance at anyone. If every ambiguous act should be viewed positively when does Maris Ayin apply? Why would any onlooker ever be justified in presuming the worst? Rabbi Chaim Chizkiyah Medini (Sdei Chemed) explains based upon the rule of the Mishnah (Avodah Zarah 11b) which states that when a road is generally used exclusively for idol worshipers, it is prohibited to use the road for any reason, as onlookers will understandably assume that the traveler intends to join the idol worshipers. However, if the same path leads to a second destination as well, it is permitted to use the road, and onlookers would be obliged to judge the traveler favorably. Therefore, only when most reasonable and plausible assessments of the situation suggest that a sin was intended or performed, would the issue of Maris Ayin arise. However, if Maris Ayin only applies when the circumstances imply that an aveirah was likely performed, why must the treasurer of the Beis Hamikdash or the gabbai tzedakah be overly cautious when performing their regular duties, which give no indication whatsoever of nefarious intent?
The Chafetz Chaim resolves that while a private citizen can depend upon the presumption of innocence, a communal leader who is in the public sphere must take every possible precaution to avoid suspicion, because communal figures often can't assume that they will be afforded that same courtesy. For this reason, the Medrash Tanchuma states that Moshe voluntarily provided a complete accounting of all of the expenditures involved in the building of the Mishkan, in order to avoid any potential feelings of mistrust. In addition, Rav Pam records that while collecting tzedakah, Rav Yisrael Salanter would not even allow himself to remain secluded in a room together with someone else's money (see Bava Basra 165a). The Chasam Sofer once lamented that ironically it is often easier to be found virtuous before Hashem than in the eyes of Yisrael, however, the chillul Hashem created by failing to protect our reputation, can sometimes be the gravest sin of all. If we take the necessary steps to always conduct ourselves in a fashion that is beyond reproach, in our individual lives and when conducting activities on behalf of the community, may Hashem protect us from the potential scoffers of our time, and enable us to fulfill the mandate of being "guiltless before Hashem and before Yisrael."