Do you ever wonder what people really think about you? Whether they think you’re brilliant, caring, and fun; or lazy, self-centered, and boring? The truth is, you’ll never know; people only talk about you openly when you’re not in the room. In these situations, don’t you think it’s possible that people might put you down, say negative things about you, or even make fun of you behind your back? After all, we’ve all been in the room when someone else was gossiped about. Gossiping is such a common occurrence, it almost seems to be human nature. We all know people who can find something bad to say about anyone, criticize anything and everybody, words of negativity easily flow from their mouths. But why do we have the desire to put other people down, to speak negatively about them behind their backs?
In Parshas Tazria and Metzora, we are introduced to the prohibition of lashon hara, evil speech, and many of its details. What exactly is the nature of lashon hara? There is a common misconception that lashon hara refers only to sharing false information about another person. They claim that if something is true, however, there shouldn’t be anything wrong with saying it. You’ll therefore often hear people say: “but it’s true”, as if this is a good defense, exonerating any possible wrongdoing. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. There is a separate prohibition of lying. The Torah prohibition of lashon hara refers specifically to sharing true information about someone in order to harm them. In order to understand lashon hara, we must clarify why we cannot say something hurtful even if it is true.
Another interesting feature of lashon hara is its punishment. The Torah describes a very strange punishment for someone who speaks lashon hara: he must leave the camp of the Jewish people and remain outside, isolated and alone. What is the meaning of this and why is it a fitting punishment for one who spoke negatively about someone else?
The Purpose of Speech
In order to understand this topic, we need to briefly review a topic we have discussed in the past. We are naturally isolated and separate from one another. We are separate beings, all living in our own subjective world, our own inner universe. We will never be able to experience life through anyone else’s perspective, only through our own inner consciousness. We have our own thoughts and feelings, things no one else can see. We face our own hardships and tribulations, ones that no one else truly understands. This results in several difficulties. If I am trapped in my own inner world, how can I connect with other people? How can I know what’s going on in their heads? How can I share my inner life with them? How can I overcome this infinite barrier between myself and everyone else?
This is the secret of speech. Speech allows us to connect with other people. You start with your own inner thoughts and experience. You take a deep breath and then use your throat to project your words outwards. You then use your mouth, tongue, teeth, and lips to form the specific words which will encase your thoughts as you give them concrete form. In essence, you then throw your words out into the world around you in the form of vibrations. If another person is nearby, their ears can pick up these vibrations and translate them into sound. Those sounds will form words and those words sentences. If they speak your language, those words will take on meaning as well. They must then keep track of all the different words and sentences, holding on to them, and bringing them back from memory, in order to form a complete picture of everything you said. Amazingly, this person can now experience your inner world inside their own mind. They now contain a piece of you within themselves. The barrier between your worlds has been diminished.
The Potential of Speech
Speech carries the potential to create relationships, lift people up, expand people’s minds, and enable genuine communication, genuine connection. An interesting illustration of this concept is that a person’s rebbe is considered to be his father in a sense. This is because there are two aspects of creating a human being. The biological parents use their DNA to create the physical child, but the inner being- the soul, the mind, the consciousness, is yet to be fully expressed. When a rebbe imparts deep Torah wisdom to his talmid through speech, the ideas that were once only in the rebbe’s mind are now within the student’s as well. The rebbe has, through the power of speech, helped created the inner world of his student. In doing so, he has become a partner in this student’s creation. In a deep way, he has become this student’s father as well.
Halachically, the rebbe, the spiritual father, even surpasses the biological father in some ways. The Rambam paskins (holds) that if both your father and your rebbe require your kavod (respect), your rebbe’s kavod comes first. This is because your father only brought you to Olam Hazeh- this physical and fleeting world, whereas your rebbe helps bring you to Olam Habah- the eternal World to Come. This process that your rebbe facilitates is effected through the power of speech, as he imparts wisdom and understanding to you. We, therefore, see the creative power and potential of speech. It connects us together, helps bridge our inner worlds, and allows us to expand our minds as we learn from others.
Lashon Hara: Corruption of Speech
Now that we know the purpose of speech, we can understand just how unspeakably abhorrent lashon hara is. Lashon hara is taking the very tool of connection, speech, and using it to disconnect people from each other. When you say something negative about someone else, you have created a conceptual wall between the subject of your negativity and the person who you’re talking to. The very tool of connection has been corrupted to achieve its opposite goal.
Examples in the Torah
The very first example of lashon hara in the Torah is in Gan Eden, at the very inception of creation. The Nachash, the Evil Snake, is notorious for speaking lashon hara to Adam and Chava. It’s interesting to understand that what the Nachash said about the eitz hada’as (tree of knowledge) was, in a sense, true, but it caused a major disconnect between Adam and Chava and Hashem.
Another example of lashon hara’s disastrous effects is the sin of the Miraglim (the spies). Again, what they said about Eretz Yisrael was technically true. The problem lay in the fact that they used speech to create a separation between Klal Yisrael and the land of Eretz Yisrael, and in doing so, created a separation between Klal Yisrael and Hashem as well.
What Compels Us to Speak Lashon Harah?
Now that we understand the severity of lashon hara and its devastating effects on those around us, we must ask the obvious question: Why do we feel so compelled to speak negatively about others? If we are only disconnecting people from each other and misusing the holy organ of connection in the process, why is it such a struggle to avoid negative speech?
There are a few reasons that we get such a strong feeling of satisfaction when we gossip about others. As we mentioned above, people are naturally lonely and isolated, and therefore yearn for connection, yearn to be liked and accepted by others. Therefore, many people try to connect with the person they are talking to by putting someone else down. After all, it’s often quite funny and amusing to hear about someone else’s pitfalls. Thus, we attempt to connect to the present company by disconnecting both ourselves and the listeners from the person we are talking about. The irony, though, is that this actually achieves the exact opposite effect. The person you are speaking to now knows that you talk about people behind their backs, and he has no reason to believe that you won’t do the exact same thing to him the moment he leaves the room. Therefore, in your attempt to create a connection with this person through disconnecting someone else, you have now disconnected yourself from everyone!
Another equally problematic motivation for speaking lashon hara is the desire to feel good about yourself. We all desire to feel important, significant, and worthy of respect. We not only desire the love and admiration of others, but also that of our own. Very often, when we see the success of people around us, it challenges our self-worth, our ego, and forces us to question our own accomplishments in life. The easy and quick fix to this dilemma is to speak lashon hara about them. If we tear them down and reduce the significance of their accomplishments, our own worth and self-worth are protected and magnified.
Of course, this is not an appropriate way to create self-worth. Instead of raising yourself up and investing in your own spiritual and existential growth, you instead undeservedly drag someone else down. In both scenarios, you appear to have achieved success, but only one is real, only one is genuine, only one will last. When you put someone down, you may appear to have achieved success, but you have gained nothing. You are left only with pervasive disconnect, a false and fleeting feeling of ego, and a complete lack of personal growth.
We can now understand why the punishment for speaking lashon hara is temporary isolation. The person who spoke lashon hara disconnected people from each other. As a result, he now becomes disconnected from everyone. He misused the organ which helps takes you out of the isolated prison of your own inner world; as a result, he now becomes isolated in his own world, incapable of any communication and connection with the rest of Klal Yisrael. Hopefully, from this time in isolation, he will be able to contemplate his past failures, confront what he did, and find a way to improve moving forward.
The Power of Speech
Speech is powerful. It’s a tool of connection, communication, and expression. You can tell a lot about someone by listening to what they talk about. As the saying goes, small minds discuss people, average minds discuss events, and great minds discuss ideas. May we be inspired to harness the full potential of our ability to speak and use speech in order to build genuine connection, understanding, and oneness.