By Michael Detwiler
“Who is the person who desires life and loves days that he may see the good? Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit. Depart from evil, and do good; Seek peace, and pursue it.” (Psalm 34:12-14).
One of the most difficult sections of the Torah to understand is the discussion of “Tzarat,” a skin disease commonly mistranslated as “leprosy.” In truth, Tzarat is a physical manifestation of a spiritual deficiency. The Talmud (Arachin 16) says that Tzarat comes specifically as a consequence of “lashon hara” – negative speech about another person. We see a solemn story of the dangers of saying something out of turn in the Haftarah. In this story, we see that it can even lead to bloodshed. It is recorded in the latter half of Leviticus 19:16 that “you shall not stand aside while your fellow’s blood is shed.” The story of Doeg the Edomite (I Samuel 21-22) is often used to illustrate the harm that can be done by tale bearing. Doeg saw Achimelekh the priest give David bread and a sword, a completely innocent act intended to aid a leader of King Saul’s court. Doeg reported this to Saul. Doeg’s story was completely true, not negative, not secret, and Achimelekh would have told Saul exactly the same thing if asked (which he did later). Yet Saul misinterpreted this tale as proof that Achimelekh was supporting David in a rebellion, and proceeded to slaughter all but one of the priests at Nob. We also recall the story in Numbers 12 where Miriam was stricken with Tzarat (leprosy) for having spoken ill of her brother Moses, even though what she said about him was true What’s the connection between speaking badly – gossiping about another, and contracting this skin disease?
TO BUILD OR TO DESTROY
Speech is the tool of creation – through it we can build individuals and the world. We can praise, encourage, and give others confidence. Ancient Biblical Judaism, (the setting of the earliest Church) was acutely aware of the power of speech and of the harm that can be done through speech. The early sages and Rabbis note that the universe itself was created through words. Bereshit 1, “and YHWH said, let there be light . . . and YHWH said, let there be a firmament, and YHWH said, let there be water in the midst of it, and YHWH said,let the earth bring forth grass and herbs, etc.” The Ruach Ha Kodesh teaches us in the Brit Chadisha a parallel of this Torah truth as we see the examples of the fig tree that was cursed by the words of YAHshua and it withered and died.” It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a man; but what comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.” Matthew 15:11. In addition, we read in the Gospel of Mark 11:23-24 that there is power in our words that are significant enough to even move mountains. We are all familiar with the warnings afforded by James, the half brother of YAHshua when he tells us that “the tongue is a fire, a world of iniquity. The tongue is so set among our members that it defiles the whole body, and sets on fire the course of nature; and it is set on fire by hell . . . no man can tame the tongue. It is an unruly evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our YHWH and Father, and with it we curse men who have been made in the image of YHWH. Out of the same mouth proceeds blessing and cursing. . . these things ought not to be so.” James 3:6-10.The words that we speak can create peace, harmony, joy and unity, or conversely, can create jealousy, anger, hatred, resentment, violence and even murder.
The Talmud tells us that the tongue is an instrument so dangerous that it must be kept hidden from view, behind two protective walls (the mouth and teeth) to prevent its misuse. It also teaches that the harm done by lashon hara is even worse than the harm done by stealing or by cheating someone financially, because amends can be made for monetary harms, but the harm done by an evil tongue can never be repaired.
By making others feel important, we build them up, as if to say, “Your existence is necessary.” This is life giving and life- affirming. One of the great American rabbis of the past generation, Rabbi Shlomo Freifeld, was known to have brought a neighbor back to YHWH and to Torah observance simply by caring enough to say “good morning.” On the other hand, speech can also be used to destroy. Words like “you’re worthless” wipes out a person’s self-esteem. As King Solomon says, “Life and death are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it (lashon hara) will eat it’s fruit.” (Proverbs 18:21). The Talmud (Arachin 15b) explains that negative speech is even worse than a sword -since it kills many people, even at great distance.
From here we can understand a section of the Torah portion, Tazriah, found in Leviticus 13:45-46. The Torah says that when someone has been diagnosed as having Tzarat, they must go outside the boundaries of the city and shout “Contaminated, Unclean!” to warn any-one who approaches. The punishment is measure-for-measure: If you promote divisiveness amongst others, then you will suffer divi-siveness yourself.
LASHON HARA- IRREVERSIBLE DAMAGE
A Chasidic tale illustrates the point: A man went about the community telling malicious lies about his Rabbi. Later, he realized the wrong he had done, and began to feel remorse. He went to the Rabbi and begged his forgiveness, saying he would do anything he could to make amends. The Rabbi told the man, “Take a feather pillow, cut it open, and scatter the feathers to the winds.” The man thought this was a strange request, but it was a simple enough task, and he did it gladly. When he returned to tell the Rabbi that he had done it, the Rabbi said, “Now, go and gather the feathers. Because you can no more make amends for the damage your words have done than you can recollect the feathers.” Evil speaking of another has been compared to an arrow that once released cannot be stopped or recalled. Likewise, the words spoken once released cannot be stopped from harming their intended target . . . the character and soul of another. The person who listens to gossip is sometimes viewed even worse than the person who tells the story, because no harm could be done by gossip if no one listened to it. It has been said that lashon hara (an evil tongue and speech) kills three people: the person who speaks it, the person who hears it, and the person about whom it is told.
VIOLATIONS OF TORAH
There are 31 commandments that relate to lashon hara in the Torah. Two in particular will be considered here. These mitzvoth specifically address inappropriate speech or gossiping about another: “Thou shall not go up and down as a talebearer among thy people” Leviticus 19:16. Leviticus 25:17 says, “You shall not wrong one another.” This has traditionally been interpreted as wronging a person with speech. It includes any statement that will embarrass, insult or deceive a person, or cause a person emotional pain or distress. Israel Meyer haKohen, better known as the Chafetz Chayim, wrote several books about lashon hara which all go into great detail. The basics of the laws are these:
ÿ You are not to say derogatory things about anyone whether they are true or not.
ÿ You are not to imply derogatory things about anyone.
ÿ You are not to listen to derogatory things about anyone, and if you do, you’re not to believe it.
To violate these Torah instructions is to become one who is known as having an”evil tongue,” or one who commits lashon hara. Tale bearing is, essentially, any gossip. The Hebrew word for talebearer is “rakheel” (Resh-Kaf-Yod-Lamed), which is related to a word meaning trader or merchant. The idea is that a talebearer is like a merchant whose merchandise is gossip or tale bearing. Some other terms that bring more understanding to the solemnity of this subject are avak rechilut or the dust of gossip and avak lashon hara, the dust of an evil tongue. Sometimes a violation of Torah can be committed in lashon hara, without even saying anything specific about another. The “dust” of lashon hara could be a statement that you may make such as “well, so-and-so said something about you, but I won’t tell you because that would be wrong,” or “did you read their latest book? Well, I suggest that you do, and draw your own conclusion regarding how really sound they are.” The worst offense is motzi shem ra, or purposely spreading a bad name or lie about another, with the intention of bringing injury.
We who are attempting to walk in obedience to Torah must correct our speech, change our habits, and learn to walk circumspectly before YHWH and men. Western Christianity has evolved into a system that strongly preaches what one “believes,” but that belief system is not necessarily expressed in everyday living. Early Biblical Judaism is contrary to this life style. It is not what one believed that was preached, but rather, how he lives. The words that proceed from his mouth show his belief system.
LIMITS OF LASHON HARA
Many people make the mistake of thinking that the prohibition of lashon hara – negative speech – is limited only to saying falsity and untruth. But this is not so. Lying falls under a separate prohibition, expressed in Exodus 20:13, 23:7. Lashon hara is the prohibition against saying anything negative or derogatory about another person – even when it’s true! Often, lashon hara will couch itself in a cloak of rationalizations. It doesn’t even matter whether the words are spoken implicitly or implied. If the message can be construed negatively, then it is a violation of lashon hara. Be aware of potential lashon hara situations and stop them before they start.
WHY DO PEOPLE GOSSIP?
What would motivate one person to speak badly about another? Low self-esteem. When a person feels down about themselves, there are two ways to feel better. Either
1) make the effort to work and build oneself up (this is a lot of hard work!), or
2) put others down. (The reasoning being, if I can lower others, then I don’t look so bad by comparison!) That’s the easy way, the “quick high.” But is that the kind of person you want to be?
The first step in avoiding lashon hara is to recognize our own faults and commit to improving on them. When I accept that I alone am responsible for my inadequacies, then I will similarly be less critical and more tolerant of others. If you find yourself getting “down” about yourself or others, try focusing away from the faults and instead on the virtues. It will lift you out of your negativity. The Torah says: Don’t take the easy way out. Feeling down? Work hard and improve yourself.
JUDGE OTHERS FAVORABLY
So what happens if we inadvertently hear lashon hara? The Talmud says that we should not automatically accept it as being true. Rather, the rule is “innocent until proven guilty.” There is a famous story about the great Talmudic sage the Rashash (Rabbi Shmuel Shtrashun, 19th century Vilna) who had a fund to lend money to poor people. One day while the rabbi was studying Talmud; a man came in to repay his loan of 10,000 rubles. The rabbi was so engrossed in his learning that he stuck the money in the book and forgot about it. A week later, the rabbi was reviewing his loan ledger and noticed that the 10,000 ruble loan was never paid. So he called the man and asked him to pay it. “But I paid you back last week,” said the man. “Okay, then where’s your receipt,” said the rabbi, who truly had no recollection of being paid back. “You were studying and I didn’t want to disturb you,” replied the man. Soon enough word got out that the poor man and the rabbi were involved in a financial dispute. “The nerve of this man to pit his word against the rabbi!” they all said. The man’s reputation was ruined, and the community shunned him. About a year later, the rabbi was reviewing a section of Talmud and came across an envelope containing 10,000 rubles. Then he realized what had happened! He immediately called the man and apologized. “But your apology doesn’t help me,” said the man, sadly. “My reputation is ruined forever!” “Don’t worry,” said the rabbi. “I’ll make a public announcement in the synagogue, letting everyone know that it was me had made the mistake.” “But that won’t help,” said the man. “They’ll think you’re just saying it because you feel sorry for me.” The rabbi thought long and hard until he came up with a solution. “You have a daughter and I have a son,” he said. “Let’s arrange for them to be married. In that way, everyone will be assured that you are fully trustworthy, for otherwise I would never have suggested this match.” And with that, the harm was repaired. But it’s not always so easy…
SPEECH AND THE PROCESS OF REDEMPTION:
The Talmud asks: Why was the Holy Temple destroyed? Because people spoke lashon hara about each other. Thus, says the Chofetz Chayim (the 20th century codified the laws of lashon hara), refraining from gossip is the single most effective way to reverse the damage and bring about the redemption! Why is it that YHWH is so concerned about this? In the big picture of the universe, what harm does it do? It violates the purposes of Torah and YHWH’s plan for man. Maimonides said that the “Ordinances of the Torah are not a burden, but a means of ensuring mercy, kindness, and peace in the world.” Lashon hara destroys the harmony of YHWH’s plan for the world. “And YAHshua spoke to them, saying, ‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithes of mint and anise and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.'” Matthew 23:23. “What does Adonai require of you? But to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your YHWH?” Micah 6:8.
Most who are taking hold of the faith of our fathers, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, will find that they can be very successful in regard to the Shabbat, kosher eating, and the starting places of a walk in Torah as described in Acts 15: 28-29. One of the most commonly violated segments of Torah, and perhaps the most dif-ficult to gain mastery in, are the laws regard-ing lashon hara or, an “evil tongue.” This is a very important area of Torah; few men master this Yetzer Hara (evil inclination). Disharmony will remain, and the full light of YHWH cannot be found in this life without mastery over lashon hara, an evil and gossiping tongue. There is no better time to undertake this challenge than today. We find ourselves in the season of redemption. Pesach celebrates our emergence from slavery unto freedom. And we are now counting the Omer, on the way toward receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai. Now is the time to break the dissention and divisiveness that plagues our people.