One of the best services I’ve ever attended was in the south Bronx. When it came time for the sermon, the Reverend said, “What we’re going to talk about this morning is–stick to it. I like that. No sitting in puzzlement, “What is she talking about?” So, what we’re going to talk about this morning is lashon ha ra, otherwise known as malicious gossip.
It was the month of Elul and everyone in the village was busy examining his and her deeds and asking forgiveness of one another. If a debt could be paid, an apology made, or any necessary restitution acted, this was the time for it. The rabbi was sitting in his study, when a man tapped on the door. He sat down facing the rabbi, and almost in a whisper, said, “Rabbi, I’ve come to ask your forgiveness.”
“For what?” the rabbi asked, puzzled.
“The truth is, Rabbi, I’ve said a few things about you this year that weren’t exactly complimentary, and I want to make amends. What can I do?” The man’s hands shook in nervousness, because he knew that talking badly about anyone was serious enough, but talking about the rabbi was a very great sin.
The rabbi thought for a moment. “It’s simple, Chaim. You have a pillow?” The man nodded. “Good. Get it and punch it full of holes. Let the feathers fly in the wind. And then gather them all and put them back in the pillow.”
Chaim sputtered, “But that’s impossible! The feathers will fly everywhere. I won’t be able to grab them all.” The rabbi smiled and nodded.
Gossip. We love it. A divorce entertains a dinner party, a bankruptcy fills the car ride home. We feel important with confidential information and we enforce each other’s righteousness in our shared judgment. An executive of a major movie company was talking to an associate about the purchase of his company, and his son overheard the conversation. The father warned the son not to betray the conversation; it was confidential. Two days later the stock in his company rose dramatically based on a rumor of a takeover. When the father found out that his son had leaked the information he said, “Knowing what someone else doesn’t know is power. My son wanted to feel important.”
Gossip draws two of us close when we talk about another. We seem to be intimate with each other in sharing our feelings about an individual, but really, when we talk about people, we don’t talk to each other. We hold up another as a shield to hide ourselves. Let me tell you about Joe’s vulnerability so that you won’t go looking for mine. Yet–What good has been created by the bond glued together by mutual negativity? If God dwells between human beings, you can be sure it’s not in destructive words. The Hassidim talk about God crying with each bitter word we hurl at each other.
We gossip because we are uncomfortable with whatever is different from us. Another’s beliefs, opinions, and customs bring our own into question, and we need to find someone else who agrees that we are right and the one who is different is wrong. Yet the Midrash says: “Just as people’s faces don’t resemble each other, so too their thought processes don’t resemble each other.”
The first recorded gossip in Torah was Miriam. And it was a juicy tidbit. She was talking with her brother, Aaron, about their brother, Moses, who apparently no longer co-habited with his wife, Zippora. Miriam says, “Is he better than everyone else, that he has no marital responsibility?” And God thunders, “Are you talking about the one I speak to directly, who is more than merely a prophet like you?” Immediately Miriam’s skin turns leprous for her sin of talebearing. Isn’t this story reassuring, because we’re talking about a very enlightened person who misused the great power of speech. It’s not just us who has work to do, even Miriam had unfinished business!
The Torah begins with the word. God speaks before creating the world. And since we are in the divine image, it is no different with us. We too create with words. Our blessings turn wine into Kiddush on Shabbat, two people standing under a huppah become united through the sanctity of marriage. Obviously, a tool exclusively for human use is immensely important for the welfare of the world, and so the Torah is filled with directions concerning speech. The laws concerning language are medicines to cure anger, bitterness, and jealousy. Most of all, they direct us toward peace between human beings.
Yet the laws are about more than words but about who we are–our mouths reveal our hearts. Maharal playfully suggests that God designed the tongue, as both hidden and revealed, to reflect its function, which is to reveal the hidden self. Does one full of love shout words of anger, does one full of rage offer words of kindness? In the 12th century Rambam wrote, “Smooth speech and deception are forbidden us. Our words must not differ from our thoughts; the inner and outer person must be the same; what is in the heart should be on the lips. We are forbidden to deceive anyone even in seemingly small matters. Yet who watches every uttered word? Everybody flies off the handle from time to time, gossips about others, or reveals a secret. Maybe that’s just the way it is.
One man thought otherwise. In the 19th century, Chofetz Chaim, which means one who desires life, believed that paying close attention to the laws and therefore to one’s words, was as much a spiritual path as prayer and study. For the first time, he gathered all the laws about speech into a single volume called Shmirat Halashon, Guard Your Tongue. By following his directions, we learn how to look at people, speak to people, and speak about people.
What is lashon hara, or wicked speech? And what does shmirat halashon, guarding one’s speech, mean? Simply, it requires that in every interaction, one is focused on not causing others pain. How do we do that? By seeing good in others and in life, and by avoiding all negative speech. This doesn’t mean that we’re going to like every one, but the stronger we love each other, the stronger we feel God’s love for us.
Our speech is our connection to heaven, because like love, it can’t be touched. Our bodies are of the earth, reducible to elements and minerals. Words bring our Godliness to the physical world. When we speak negatively, we are doing more than choosing not to restrain ourselves. We are choosing the earthly self over the higher self.
So here’s a little test about how much we understand how this works specifically.
True or False:
It is all right to tell your spouse a confidence someone shared with you.
You may relate something derogatory about others if it is true.
Speaking highly of someone to a third party is always appropriate.
If someone swears they won’t repeat what you’ve told them, and they persist, it’s permissible to tell them a little.
If a teacher or parent asks for information about an incident and you know your answer will mean lashon hara, you may not tell them.
If I read in the New Mexican that a member of our temple has embezzled money, you and I can talk about it.
When someone harms you, you may tell others about it.
It is never permissible to say something derogatory about someone else. False. If you’re about to go into business with someone who has cheated me, I have good reason to tell you about your future partner.
It is permissible to tell Aaron that you don’t like the rabbi. False. It is all right to openly say this, but your mistake is in not fulfilling the commandment to love each other.
We’re only talking about talking here, but I’m sorry to tell you listening is as grave an offense. We have a responsibility to stop the person or walk away. It may be easier to keep your mouth shut than your ears.
Lashon hara has four categories: one refers specifically to harmful speech when related to a third party. The second, rechilut, means talebearing. I know of a case where a man was having a longtime affair with a woman and his wife seemed not to know. A friend of the wife felt she should tell her friend. Whether the wife knew it or not, she was humiliated by the information made public. A divorce and an untimely death followed the news.
The third category is the spreading of falsehood about someone, and the final category is simply causing pain with words. The Torah sees this as real as a slap. Humiliation in Hebrew is the same root as the shedding of blood. Obviously, sometimes we have to reprimand a child or fire an employee, but we are commanded to be as kind as we can to convey the message.
So, how many of us will get home tonight before we commit lashon hara? It’s so hard not to do! Yet I must tell you, when I began this study and decided to put it into practice, I was astounded by how much better I felt. I liked myself better and felt powerful–I could comfort, encourage, console, support, build self-confidence, and advise through gentle conductors of words.
The power of positive speaking is more than a way to bring good to oneself and others. By refraining from negativity in speech we must look for good. If I can’t say or even imply that Irving Shwartz is selfish, I can say that he’s fun to be with, and that’s just as true and interesting about him. Guarding the tongue is a spiritual path because it changes how we see the world. We cease to be cynics and critics as we become celebrators and friends to each other.
It’s hard work to watch one’s words and not much fun–at first you’re afraid to say anything. But it’s worth the effort. By making one’s words a caress, a rampart, or a kiss, you will be the beneficiary of peace and happiness. Try it. It works.