Rabbi O’s Weekly Parsha:Metzora (Leviticus 14-15)
Critical Conversations Part II: The Most Important Question to Ask Yourself Before Speaking
This week’s Parsha continues discussing the harmful effects of
lashon hara, senseless negative speech. Many people don’t take speech seriously; they freely speak about others without regard for their feelings or the potential damage it can cause. King Solomon wrote, Life and death are in the hands of the tongue. One explanation given in the Talmud is that negative talk has the ability to destroy someone’s life and might even lead to his death. In this sense it is worse than a sword (the Talmud compares it to an arrow) because it can kill people even at great distances. The Midrash relates that a peddler used to travel from village to village in the area of the Golan Heights called Tzipori. He called out, “Who wants a medicine that gives life?” A crowd assembled; when Rabbi Yannai (3rd century) insisted that the peddler show him his goods, the peddler opened the book of Psalms and pointed to the verse “Who is the person who desires life and loves days that he may see good? Guard your tongue against evil and your lips from speaking deceitfully.” (34:13-14) Rebbi Yannai said “My entire life I have been reading this verse and never understood its full meaning until this peddler came and told me who is the person who desires life…”
The obvious question is, what new insight did the peddler give to Rabbi Yanni by merely showing him a verse that he already knew? Rabbi Yannai noticed that the peddler had announced that he was selling ‘medicine’ that would give a person long life. He only revealed the secret after the crowd was aroused and curious. Rabbi Yanni learned two important lessons: (1) It is not sufficient for a person to be careful with his own speech. He must also impress upon others the importance of refraining from speaking
lashon hara. (2) Until that point, Rabbi Yannai might have thought that the verse was referring only to highly refined spiritual people and the reward from refraining from lashon hara was purely spiritual. However, now he understood (from the peddler) that avoiding lashon hara benefits a person in a physical way because it lengthens one’s days. Any man or woman who is cognizant of what comes out of his or her mouth, will avoid quarrels, heartache, conflict and other harmful things that can shorten a person’s lifespan. His/ her existence will be tranquil; that peace of mind will help him/ her to live longer.
Speech connects people. Families, even dysfunctional families, are connected by virtue of the fact that they share blood and have a decade or two of shared experience but speech is the vehicle that turns strangers into friends; it creates relationships. In a New York Times article “What Are Friends For? A Longer Life,” Tara Parker Hope brings reams of evidence to support the claim that good friendships lead to longer life. In Jewish consciousness, we are in this world to live not only to be upright, moral citizens, but also to have pleasure that leads to sustained happiness that benefits us and also as many people as we can. One cannot do this alone; s/he needs friends and speech is an essential tool in making that happen. Lashon hara is the great destroyer of friendships.
The Talmud mentions that lashon hara not only damages the person spoken about, it is also detrimental to the speaker and listener. It is easy to understand how the one spoken about is damaged, but what harmful effect is it having on the speaker and listener?
When Steve speaks negatively to Elizabeth about Sophie, he isn’t just saying not nice things, he creates a construct in which there are no possibilities. When we speak negatively about someone, we destroy any possibility to help, encourage, love, or connect to the person about whom we are speaking. Friendships create possibilities, lashon hara destroys them.
Jews are supposed to create and nurture life and be models (A light to the nations) for the world on how to do that. The peddler’s message to Rabbi Yanni was that one who is committed to life, will not only refrain from speaking lashon hara, he will instruct others to do so and even inform them that it is physically beneficial for them.
People who reach old age ask themselves, “What have I done with my life?” For some the answer is that they have helped to create good children; for others it is the friendships, acts of kindness, teaching or helping others to live a better life. All of these share a common thread; these people have created possibilities for others. Perhaps one of the reasons the Torah has such severe punishments for habitual speakers of lashon hara is because they are doing the opposite of what they were created for. Destroying possibilities is one of the great crimes of humanity. Whether it is denying a person an education due to his race or the color of her skin, or committing genocide, although the magnitude of the evil is different, its underlying theme of destroying potential is the same.
Next time we are about to say something negative about someone for no reason other than I feel like it or I’m mad¸ or some other non-justified reason that seems to be overpowering us, think of how heinous the crime of destroying possibilities is and how great the personal reward for creating possibilities is. Nothing can be better than life itself; we all want it and that’s why people crowded around the peddler to learn about his elixir for life. What’s the take home? Refraining from speaking lashon hara is not complicated but it does take a short thought; is this conversation creating possibilities? If the answer is yes, proceed; if not¸ control the need.
(Sources:Proverbs 18:21; Arachin 15b;Vayikra Raba 16:2;Ksav Sofer cited inLove Your Neighbor;Mayanah Shel Torah from Kochav m’Yaakov ibid.)