For more than two millennia we have tried to extinguish the flames of lashon hara, yet its embers continue to smolder. It is time to kindle a new fire in our hearts; the time has come to focus on lashon tova.
Thirty-five years ago in Jerusalem, I was given a copy of the Chofetz Chaim’s writings by his grandson.
The Chofetz Chaim, Rav Yisrael Meir HaKagan, is well known for his masterful works on Jewish law. But he is commonly known by his pen name derived from his focus on and mastery of guarding his tongue from speaking evil and seeing the good in others. A few weeks ago I decided to pull the still fresh-looking sefer off the shelf and use it teach my morning class. We selected sections to focus on, trying to absorb the primary ideas and themes of his book on Shmirat HaLashon, guarding one’s tongue.
What emerges from the study of the Chofetz Chaim’s writing is that lashon hara is not just speaking negatively. Lashon hara is a perspective and a thought process which ultimately leads to hateful speech. The genesis of lashon hara is the negativity in one’s heart and mind.
It seems inevitable, if not impossible, to prevent, so how does one not speak lashon hara? In general, we speak about what is on our mind; therefore, we must be certain not to have lashon hara in our thoughts. When one does not produce negative thoughts, no negativity is present to share with others. Since our minds are always active we must consciously focus and control our minds to think and perceive life in a positive manner.
The Psalmist advises, “sur meyrah v’aseh tov – let go of bad and do good.” This means that one must first give up a bad behavior and adopt a beneficial one to replace it. If we have a negative outlook, we must let go of it and adopt a more positive perspective.
The Chofetz Chaim presents the downside of speaking evil by listing the numerous and severe Torah violations one transgresses when uttering words of lashon hara. He then builds a strong case for restraint and avoiding unnecessary conflict by describing the enormous earthly and spiritual benefits, specifically the benefit of being shielded by G-d.
He gives a wonderful metaphor to help us realize the importance of keeping our tongues free of evil. Imagine a king’s artisan who possesses the skill and wisdom to fashion a beautiful article of clothing or jewelry. By virtue of his position as the king’s master craftsman, it is clear there is no one better in the land or with more talent. Yet, with all these abilities, if his tool is blunted or broken, the artisan can create nothing of value or beauty. A Jew’s primary tool is his tongue. We employ our tongue to pray and learn Torah. When one speaks evil one is blunting this precious and sensitive tool. Even though we may have the most passionate feeling towards G-d, our prayers will not be effective, for our tool is dull and ineffectual. However, when our tool is sharp and tuned, our prayers reach G-d, and will be answered.
Negative speech is negative energy and the Chofetz Chaim directs us to avoid it like disease. One may not speak negatively about another person in the same way one may not sneeze or cough on one’s friend. If a person is sneezed upon then he or she must try to escape the germs. Similarly, one who hears negative speech being spoken must take preventative measures and not listen. If the person cannot prevent hearing the pejorative speech, he or she must not believe it, or assign a reasonable and beneficial explanation to the negative tale. Just like the person sneezed upon would immediately wash his hands and take all steps to minimize and diffuse the germs so as not to pass it along to another, a person who absorbs negative energy should not transfer it to another. The contamination process of lashon hara must be shut down immediately!