The High Holidays are approaching. Every year we think about how to live lives more pleasing to God. This is an annual time to look inside, to look at the results of our choices and attitudes during the previous year, and to look ahead to a year lived more like the image of our Father. I know that one area we need to think seriously about is Lashon Hara, the evil tongue. I offer the following thoughts, largely based on Joseph Telushkin’s A Code of Jewish Ethics
Lashon Hara (the evil tongue) is not slander, which means untrue statements defaming another person. Lashon Hara is about true statements that in any way damage another’s reputation or cause embarrassment. Lashon Hara could also cause financial damage or simply demean the one we are talking about.
Are there some exceptions? Are there times when we must make negative statements about others? Yes, but we too easily excuse ourselves and imagine that we often have a right or a need to speak ill of others. Instead of focusing on exceptions (we’ll discuss them in another post), we need to think about the great harm of Lashon Hara.
Rabbi Telushkin gives some examples of common speech that would be classified as Lashon Hara:
1. “She is only interested in boys and never spends any time studying.”
2. “When he was a boy, he was expelled from school for cheating.”
3. “He’s not very bright; the only reason he got the job is that his father owns the company.”
4. “He cheated on his wife.”
5. “Let me tell you what I really don’t like about her.”
In one of Rabbi Telushkin’s other books, Jewish Wisdom, he tells a classic story. A man spread some negative remarks about the local rabbi and over time, the rabbi found out what the man had said. The man felt guilty and he came to the rabbi. “Can you forgive me?” he asked the rabbi.
The rabbi told the man he would forgive him if he went home, cut up a feather pillow, and scattered the feathers to the wind. The man eagerly went home to do as he was told. When he came back, the man said, “Am I now forgiven?”
“One more thing,” the rabbi said. “Now go and get back all the feathers.”
“But that’s impossible,” the man exclaimed.
“Exactly,” explained the rabbi, “and neither can you get back the things you told to so many others that did harm to my reputation.”
Leviticus 19:16 says that we should not be tale-bearers. The word for tale-bearer is related to the word for a peddler. Some people are, essentially, selling gossip. Instead of money, they get respect for themselves or the pleasure of entertaining others at someone else’s expense. Peddling dirt on other people is a shameful way to gain prestige.
Rabbi Telushkin points out that speaking negatively about others violates the command to love our neighbor as we love ourselves (Leviticus 19:18). We love ourselves enough not to go around mentioning all our past failures and present flaws. Why do it to someone else?
Rabbi Aryeh Levine used to tell a story about Rabbi Chayim and Rabbi Yitzchak. They made an agreement that whichever one of them died first would agree to appear in the dreams of the surviving one to tell them what the life to come is like. Rabbi Chayim died first and so he appeared in Rabbi Yitzchak’s dream. “Well, what is the life to come like?” asked Rabbi Yitzchak.
Rabbi Chayim said, “The profundity of the Divine judgment is immeasurable. The sins of the tongue are worst. But those who are humble and lowly, forbearing and forgiving, receive special consideration.”