A person’s reputation precedes him. A bad reputation prejudices any chance of a successful encounter. Damaging a person’s reputation is tantamount to booby-trapping human relations before they can blossom into happy relationships.
When one slanders or otherwise taints the reputation of another person, one causes damage not only to the slandered person but also to oneself and to the person listening to the slander. By uttering words of slander one renders all parties to the conversation accomplices to the crime. One also offends God in Whose image the slandered person is created.
If one denigrates the human being, one denigrates The Maker. God cannot bear to hear slander spoken about His people. If individuals use their freedom of choice to slander each other, God uses His freedom of choice to remove Himself from the scene. Regarding anyone who speaks lashon hara, God says, “I and the slanderer cannot dwell together in the world.”
“What,” asks the Talmud “is the meaning of the phrase “Life and death are in the hands of the tongue”? Does the tongue have hands? Rather, it is this metaphor that is used to convey the following message – just as hands can kill, so too can a tongue kill.” Except that killing with one’s tongue is worse than killing with one’s hands because it is anonymous. The poisonous words are aimed at the victim’s reputation but the killer can rarely be identified.
We are told that one of the punishments for slandering another is tzara’at, an ailment loosely translated as leprosy, which eats away at one’s body. The Torah tells us “this will be the punishment of the metzorah.” And what was the crime of the metzorah? He or she was motzi shem ra, a slanderer of another person. Perhaps the punishment of tzara’at fits the crime of lashon hara. The slanderer’s very own person will be diminished in the same way the slanderer diminished the reputation of the slandered. In addition, one of the consequences of tzara’at was that for a period of time the person afflicted with it was shut off from the rest of the community and kept in isolation. Anybody who has been slandered knows the feeling.
If the consequences of slander are so dire and the temptation to engage in it so overpowering, what is the antidote? What should one do to overcome the temptation?
First of all, we should take advantage of the two natural slander barriers God has created us with – namely, our teeth and our lips that enclose and guard our tongues. We should contemplate the irrevocable havoc our tongues can wreak before letting our tongues loose.
The second antidote might sound trite but it is nevertheless true. We have been given something far more stimulating to talk about than other people. It is a subject that draws people together and allows them to live an interesting yet harmonious life. My father never allowed the name of another person to be mentioned at our table and yet we kids were never bored.
“What is the remedy for speakers of lashon hara?” asks the Talmud. “Ya’asok baTorah” – one should talk about Torah, because its ways are harmonious. Torah is the conversation of our Maker who made us all in His image. If we join in His conversation He will remain at our table and spread harmony among us. If we speak about each other, He will depart and leave us to destroy each other.
Lashon hara has always been a problem. During the days of the Temple many preventative and corrective measures were taken to combat lashon hara. These measures, though not applicable today, leave behind very powerful and practical messages.
First, we are told that each of the eight vestments worn by the high priest during the avodah, the Temple service, had the power to atone for certain sins. Lashon hara often disrobes people, strips them of their social status and exposes them. The me’il, the robe, which was made of turquoise wool, a color reminiscent of God’s heavenly abode, covered the high priest from the head down, and atoned for the sin of lashon hara. Around the hem of the me’il were sewn thirty-six small bells which rang out as the high priest walked about performing the avodah, to drown out, as it were, the words of lashon hara and prevent them from expelling God from His Sanctum.
Second, we are told that the ketoret, the incense that was burned by the priest on the inner altar of the Temple, atoned for lashon hara. The ketoret was made up of ten sweet smelling ingredients and one foul-smelling ingredient known as chelbonah. Rabbi David Feinstein, in his commentary on Vayikra, explains the slander atoning power of the ketoret in the following way. Just as the ten sweet smelling ingredients of the ketoret were able to overcome the one foul smelling ingredient, so too should we strive to view people so that their good qualities outweigh the bad.