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The Iron Dome Against Lashon Hara

By: Rav Yonny Sack

After Parashat Yitro’s revelation of Hashem to the entire Jewish nation at Mt. Sinai and the giving of the Torah, this week, in Parashat Mishpatim, the Torah brings that spirituality down to earth with the teaching of tangible worldly mitzvot: everything from not taking a bribe to not cooking meat and milk together.

There is one particular Lo Taaseh taught in this week’s parasha which presents a particularly difficult challenge to many and despite being one of the most serious of sins, many are unaware of it or how to work on preventing themselves from its transgression.  This avera comes up on a daily basis and holds extremely severe negative ramifications, having the ability to completely undermine our growth as a person. This is the mitzvah of “Lo Tisa Shema Shav”. This is the source of the Torah prohibition to not believe or even listen[1] to Lashon Hara[2]. The literal translation is “Do not bear (carry) a false hearing” or in easier language  ‘Don’t carry in your heart the negative things you may hear about others’.

Most Jews today are well aware of the damage and seriousness of speaking Lashon Hara which constitutes negative comments about other people, even if they are true. The Talmud teaches that Lashon Hara is parallel in severity to Murder, Idolatry and Immoral relationships – combined! Another statement in the Talmud teaches that Hashem cannot “co-exist” with one who speaks Lashon Hara. Midrashim liken Lashon Hara to an arrow which, unlike a sword, strikes from afar without the victim’s knowledge or expectation and once ‘shot’ can never be retracted. Today, with Facebook and the like it takes only a slight movement of the finger or a click to spread Lashon Hara to thousands of people instantaneously, ‘killing’ the victim’s reputation, self-esteem, career, friendships, relationships. . . the list goes on.

This applies to the one who is speaking/writing Lashon Hara. What about the one who listens in, reads or who believes what is said or who passively sits in on a conversation where someone else is the one doing the talking? Is that really so bad? The Chofetz Chaim quotes the Rambam who mentions that believing Lashon Hara is actually worse in some respects than speaking it[3]!

Imagine the following situation, you are sitting with some friends and chatting about things and someone in the group begins to say something along the lines of: “Once you get to know Bob, you realize how irritating he can actually be . . .”. What do you do? It is one thing to work on your own speech and try to slowly learn how stay far away from saying anything negative about people, but to control another person’s speech is seemingly impossible. What are we supposed to do in situations like this? Have we transgressed this serious prohibition, even against our will?

Let’s delve into this practical halachic area and discover something both profound, thought provoking and instructive for how we conduct our conversations with others.

Firstly, we need to understand the damage that hearing/believing Lashon Hara can cause. Spiritually speaking, the Chazal explain that our experience in the next world and for eternity is based purely on how we behave in this world. The Sefer Shaarei Kedusha by Rav Chaim Vital Ztz”l explains how our soul is made up of spiritual limbs and sinews that parallel our body. When we do mitzvot in this world with our body we bring spiritual life-charge, like a battery, to the corresponding soul parts that we did the mitzvah with. When we sin, we attach impurity to the corresponding soul part. Listening to Lashon Hara damages the spiritual ear of the soul so to speak, and believing Lashon Hara as true, brings impurity to the soul’s heart[4].

 On a ‘this-worldly’ plane, the damage is also profound. The language in the Torah is very instructive. When it teaches us not to listen and believe Lashon Hara it actually uses the phrase “do not carry . . .” Why carry? Because when you hear something negative about someone else and you let it sink into your memory bank and you carry it around with you. You may have heard something negative about someone years ago, but every time you see that person the first thing that unavoidably pops into your head is a little voice reminding you of the negative trait you once heard. Worse still, you may begin to project that negative information you heard about them onto their current actions so that the slightest resemblance they might show to the lashon harah you heard about them becomes a concrete reminder for you that what you heard was true. Let’s say you heard that a certain wealthy acquaintance is miserly with his money. When you see interact with him you will notice the slightest resemblance to miserliness and the voice goes off in your head “they were so right about him”. It is as if we paint pictures of how we will judge others based on the various reports we have heard about them. Then we carry these frames around with us and each time we see the people we squash them into the negative frame.

From a relationships perspective, believing Lashon Hara can lead to major hurt and fighting. In moments of frustration or anger with a friend or family member we can let loose of negative things that we heard and have been carrying around about others and cause untold damage to relationships with those we love saying something like; “Well now I see what so and so meant when they said you were so (insert negative comment here)!” .

Listening in on or reading Lashon Hara also trains us to enjoy the belittling of others. There are magazines, websites and TV shows out there that draw thousands of viewers or readers purely lured by the excitement of hearing the latest ‘goss’. People who speak/write Lashon Hara, often do so because they enjoy the sensation of pulling someone else down. It makes them feel better about themselves. We must remind ourselves of the famous line; “those you can’t be great, be-little”.  Comments like “He is not as nice as you think, he actually has a real ugly side to him” or “She might be beautiful on the outside but she is so full of herself” or posts on Facebook that draw attention to people doing embarrassing things which they regret, are often said/written by people who are jealous or feel some lacking in themselves which they try and fill through taking bites out of other people. When we enjoy hearing/reading these things we are giving the speaker our tick of approval and sinking into the same psychological trap that feeds our ego off others shortcomings.

The important point to remember is that with Lashon Hara, the listener is the one in control of whether the evil gets off the ground or not. If you are talking to someone and they belittle someone else, they are passing you a package of negativity to carry and you can simply say “No”.  If you do that, then as bad as the speaker is, you have stopped the negativity from having its impact. You have knocked the missile off its course mid-flight – Iron Dome style.

How do you do this?

There are a number of practical halachot here to keep in mind:  Firstly, in general, the more of an expert you are at judging people favorably, the less you will believe Lashon Hara. In addition, the more you show the people you socialize with that you don’t like hearing Lashon Hara, the more careful they will be from speaking it. One would also need to ask him/herself – am I spending time with people who build others or try and destroy them? Socializing with habitual lashon hara speakers is something that Chazal severely warned against saying that when the group is inscribed above, all who are present are inscribes as part of a Chavurat Resha( an evil grouping), even if you are absolutely passive[5].

If you already have close friends or family members who speak Lashon Hara often, you would be wise to gently approach the subject with them. A subtle and successful way to do this is to present the issue as something that you are personally trying to work on and ask them for their help in the matter. If done correctly, they should not feel judged by you but rather feel that you are asking their wise counsel and practical assistance in your own personal mission.  The result will hopefully be a heightened sensitivity to Shmirat haLashon in your future conversations.

More specifically, what do you do in a situation where you hear Lashon Hara? (We will just raise some of the basic concepts here as they appear in the Chofetz Chaim. This is not meant to serve as a final halachic guide.)

If you are speaking to a friend and they begin to speak Lashon Hara, you should ideally try and change the subject. To do this you could excitedly interrupt with some news that changes the subject; “Wait! I have to tell you something! I (insert some random news that will steer the conversation in a different direction). If this will not work, then you need to think to yourself: will this friend listen to me if I gently tell her I would rather not hear such things? If she will listen, or even if you are not sure about it, you have an obligation to stop her from saying the Lashon Hara[6]. You must be very gentle and sensitive in doing so.  You could just say “Can we please rather speak about something else” or “wait, let’s think of a different topic to chat about”. Just be clear so they get the picture, but gentle so you don’t hurt them in the process.  If they are someone who you know won’t stop so easily and will speak further negativity as a result of your attempt to stop them, then rebuke is forbidden and the best thing to do is leave the conversation. Go to the bathroom, make a phone call, do something to get out of the situation. If this is not an option, then you have no choice but to be strong; you can drift off mentally as they are talking (some people are good at this in non-Lashon hara situations anyway) but at least do not believe what is being said, don’t enjoy what is being said and don’t show your agreement with what is being said[7].

When you are in a group, again try and change the subject if you can. It is often much harder to stop the Lashon Hara in these situations because the speaker will often be embarrassed by you implying that she is doing something wrong and in an effort to not be discredited she might shift the attack onto you with something like“ Oh and you are such a Tzadeket? As if you don’t speak about people too!” or worse.  In such a case, you should ideally just get up and leave. This is a subtle way of teaching everyone sensitivity to Lashon Hara and showing them that you don’t want to be a part of such talk (it is a big mitzvah to do so). If leaving is not an option, then try and fill your mind to think of something else. If you can’t avoid hearing, then once again, as above, put on your battle gear and fight with your Yetzer Hara to not believe, not enjoy and not show you agree with what you are hearing. To do this, tell yourself that what is being said is not true and the speaker is just exaggerating, making it up or got the story wrong. Remind yourself of all those stories you have heard about misjudging people, and judge the person you are hearing about positively.  If you can do that, and block your heart from letting in the Lashon Hara, then you have done an enormous mitzvah[8].

Finally, there will of course be times when you need to hear something negative about someone else for a constructive purpose, for example to save yourself from harm they might cause you or others. The details of when and how this is allowed requires more explanation and I urge you to study these halachot in detail as they appear in the Chofetz Chaim, Clal 6.

In the mean-time, may we take these messages and internalize them to become hyper-sensitive to what we let enter our ears and hearts and promote positive speech and kind words wherever we are.

Shabbat Shalom.

 



[1] Chofetz Chaim, Hil. Lashon Hara, Clal 6 ,siif 2 and see the Beer Mayim Chaim there for the sources.

[2] See Chofetz Chaim Peticha, and Hilchot Lashon Hara Clal 6.Mechilta, parashat Mishpatim. See Rambam hil. Deot Perek 7.

[3] Rambam Hil. Deot 7:3, Chofetz Chaim, clal 6, siif 1.

[4]See the introduction to Shmirat Halashon by the Chofetz Chaim where he explains this in detail.

[5] See Chofetz Chaim, Hil, Lashon Hara, Clal 6, Siif 5 and 6. This could also involve a bitul of a positive commandment of “ boh Tidbak” and other Torah mitzvot. See Clal 6, Beer Mayim Chayim 17 and the petichah to the sefer.

[6] This is a mitzvah of Tochacha and is brought in the Chofetz Chaim numerous times. See Hil. Lashon Harah, clal 6, siif 5 and the Beer Mayim Chaim there in the name of Rabeinu Yona.

[7]Ibid, siif 5.

[8]Again, this is not meant to serve as a final halachic guide. At times it is best to verbalize a positive way of looking at the story in front of the group to reverse the negativity of what has been said. At other times this is not advisable. It depends on the speaker of the Lashon Hara and his/her personality. There are many more halachot that surface here and one is advised to learn clal 6 of Chofetz Chaim in detail to become familiar with the various intricacies of these laws.

 

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