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 the subject of gossip. Gossiping is such a common occurrence, it seems to be an almost built-in practice of 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 even if we are not negative people, we still experience the desire to occasionally put other people down, to share negative stories about them behind their backs. Why do we feel this compulsion to speak negatively about others, to criticize, and gossip about them?
In parshas Tazria, we are introduced to the prohibition of lashon hara (evil speech) along with 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. People claim that if something is true, however, there is nothing wrong with sharing it. You’ll therefore often hear people say: “but it’s true”, as if this is a good defense, exonerating themselves from 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 the prohibition against lashon hara, we must clarify why we may not say something hurtful about another person, even if it is true.
In addition to the difficulty of the prohibition itself, the punishment for speaking lashon hara is puzzling as well. The Torah describes a strange punishment for one 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 punishment, and why is it fitting for one who spoke negatively about another?
The Power of Speech
In order to understand this topic, we must briefly review a concept we have discussed in previous articles. As human beings, we are naturally isolated and separate from one another. We are individual 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 gift of speech. Speech is the mechanism that enables us to connect with other people, to overcome the barrier between us. You start with your inner thoughts and experience. You then take a deep breath and use your throat to project your words outwards. You then use your 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 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, while they try to recreate 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 eroded.
Mouth as the Organ of Connection
The mouth is therefore the organ of connection, bearing the potential to create deep, existential connection. As we explained in the past, all the functions of the mouth serve to connect two things together: Eating connects the physical body to the angelic soul; if you don’t eat, your soul leaves your body. Speaking connects people’s inner worlds together; when you speak with someone, you share your inner world with them. Kissing connects two physical bodies together, reflecting a deeper form of internal connection and oneness.
The Potential of Speech
Speech holds the power to create relationships, lift people up, expand people’s minds, and enable genuine communication, genuine connection. An interesting illustration of this concept is the fact that a person’s rebbe is considered to be his father, in a sense.This is because there are two essential aspects of a human being, requiring two different forms of creation. A child’s physical makeup is formed from his biological parent’s DNA, but the inner being- the soul, the mind, the consciousness- is yet to be fully expressed and developed. 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 create 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 trumps the biological father in some ways. The Rambam paskens that if both your father and your rebbe require your kavod, your rebbe’s kavod comes first. This is because your father 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
Once we understand the purpose of speech, we can begin to comprehend just how 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 you are speaking with. The very tool of connection has been corrupted to achieve its opposite goal.
Examples in the Torah
There are examples throughout the Torah illustrating the disastrous effects of lashon harah, illustrating its power of disconnect. The first, primal example of lashon hara in the Torah was in Gan Eden, at the very inception of creation. The nachash (snake) is notorious for speaking lashon hara to Adam and Chava, condemning itself to a life of curse.It’s notable that what the nachash said about the eitz hada’as was, in a sense, true, but it caused a major disconnect between both Adam and Chava, and between them and Hashem.
Another example of lashon hara’s disastrous effects is the sin of the Meraglim. Again, what the meraglim 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.
[Another interesting case of lashon hara is Miriam’s criticism of Moshe. While her intentions were noble, and she even intended to help create connection between Moshe and Tzipporah through her words of rebuke, she was judged according to her lofty level. Through her words, she created a rift between herself and Moshe, and potentially did the same between Moshe and Tzipporah, as well as between Moshe and Klal Yisrael. She was therefore punished accordingly for the sin of disconnecting others through negative speech.
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 for the strong sense of satisfaction we fell 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. Many people try to connect with the person they are talking to by putting someone else down. After all, stories about other people’s pitfalls are often amusing. Thus, we attempt to connect to 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 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 oneself. We all desire to feel important, significant, and worthy of respect. We not only desire the love and admiration of others, but our own as well. 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 quick and easy fix to this problem is to speak lashon hara about anyone who challenges us. If we tear them down and reduce the significance of their accomplishments, our own worth and self-worth is protected.
Of course, this is not an appropriate way to generate self-worth. Instead of raising yourself up and investing in your own spiritual and existential growth, you instead 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 a fleeting, false sense of ego, pervasive disconnect, and the resulting lack of personal growth.
The other corruption of speech is lying. Unlike lashon hara, which uses truth to create disconnection, lying is fabricating your own truths. Speech gives a person the ability to express his inner world, to genuinely connect with another through sharing inner consciousness, expressed outwards through speech. When a person shares a lie, the other person think sthat he has connected with you, that he knows something from within your inner world, that you have bequeathed a piece of your very self to him. In truth, however, all he has is the lie you have fed him. Speech is the mechanism of expressing internal truth outwards, lying is a manipulation and misuse of the very purpose of speech.
Interestingly, the Hebrew word for connection is “kesher,” and, not coincidentally, the Hebrew word for a lie is “sheker,” the exact same letters, scrambled. Lies corrupt the potential for genuine connection. Sheker (falsehood) takes the potential for connection and twists it into disconnect and falsehood. While the listener thinks he is connecting to you, nothing could be further from the truth.
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 free one from the isolated prison of their own inner world; as a result, he now becomes isolated in his own inner world, separated from everyone in his life, incapable of any communication and connection with the rest of Klal Yisrael. This punishment is not only punitive in nature, it is reformative as well. This time in isolation gives him the opportunity to contemplate his past failures, helping him truly understand the pain of isolation and disconnect, and hopefully motivating him to create connection and harmony going 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. Speech can be used to tear people apart, destroy relationships, and pass the time, but that is not the path to greatness. We can use speech to bridge the walls between us, to discuss the loftiest ideas and ideals of life, and to gain a higher sense of clarity and connection with both the people around us and our inner selves. When we speak, we share our souls with the universe, we express what we value, and in doing so, we also tell the world “this is how I use my gift of speech.” 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.