We read in Parashat Ki-Tavo the list of curses which the Leviyim were to pronounce at Mount Gerizim and Mount Eivel after Benei Yisrael’s entry into the Land of Israel, condemning violators of certain transgressions. One of the curses was pronounced upon “makei rei’eihu ba-sater” – “one who strikes his fellow in hiding” (27:24). A number of commentators, including Rav Saadia Gaon and Rashi, interpret this verse as referring not to actual beating, but rather to lashon ha-ra – gossip and slander. One beats his fellow “ba-sater,” secretly, by defaming him, sharing negative information about him in private conversations with others, thereby causing him shame and isolation. This is the approach adopted also by Rav Shimshon Raphael, who explains, “…he strikes his neighbor without the latter knowing it, or finding out from where the blow came. This is the blow struck with slander…which, out of the reach of the law courts, undermines the happiness, peace and honor of one’s neighbor.”
Rav Hirsch suggests explaining on this basis a subtle grammatical nuance in this verse, noting that the word for “strike” here is “makei” (with a tzeirei vowel), as opposed to “makeh” (with a segol vowel). The difference between “makei” and “makeh,” Rav Hirsch explains, is that the former is a noun and the latter is a verb. “Makeh,” the more commonly-used term, denotes the occurrence of a beating, whereas “makei,” the word used here, refers to a habitual beater. The Torah uses makei, the noun, in this context because it speaks here not of actual beating, but rather of lashon ha-ra, gossip and slander, a transgression which so commonly becomes habitual. Rav Hirsch explains:
Scandal-mongering is a sin which, like no other, becomes so easily a habit, it becomes more and more a daily and hourly practice. That is why it does not say here makeh which as a verb would also designate the blow being given just once, but makei (a smiter) which as a noun form designates one to whom scandal-mongering is habitual and has become part of his character. It does not designate the sin itself but the disgraceful creature who is a scandal-mongerer.
The curse pronounced here is upon the person who habitually indulges in gossip and slander, who relishes opportunities to observe or hear, and then relay, negative information about other people. This is an activity which becomes habitual and even addictive, as people seeking to boost their fragile egos turn their attention to the faults of others in order to avoid having to acknowledge and address their own failings.
If, indeed, this is the meaning of the curse pronounced upon “makei rei’eihu ba-sater,” then the converse must also be true. Namely, the Torah confers great blessing upon those who turn their attention away from other people’s wrongdoing and focus instead on their own imperfections, working to constantly grow and improve themselves rather than blissfully ignore their deficiencies by proudly mocking the deficiencies of others.