When people hear the term “lashon hara“, they automatically associate it with gossip. Speaking about someone behind their back to others, usually in a manner that is denigrating and unflattering, often describing alleged activities or doings that put the subject of the discussion in a rather negative light. This is the ultimate interpretation of lashon hara.
But there is another component to lashon hara, literally, “bad speech”, that is often overlooked. This version entails speaking one on one, or directly to a person, but using words or a tone, inadvertently at best, or on purpose, at worse, that upsets the listener, causing the hapless individual distress, sorrow, anger or feelings of inadequacy or worthlessness.
I strongly feel that in most cases, this lashon hara is not deliberate, but is the outcome of gross insensitivity, usually because the speaker hasn’t “been there, done that,” has never “walked in the other person’s shoes” and thus is relatively clueless about the listener’s reality.
Case in point, based on a true incident. Suri, a widow, was talking to her late husband’s sister, Rivka, with whom she is relatively close, especially since both lived in the same community and have mutual friends. Rivka’s brother in Israel was making a simcha, and had of course invited his American siblings as well as his late brother’s wife. Rivka was very excited about the simcha and told Suri that she was booking a flight for a 10-day visit – even though her husband would not be able to come along. She was thrilled that she would have a golden opportunity to reunite with two of her sisters who had made aliyah recently. She missed them terribly.
“I haven’t been to Israel in quite a few years,” Suri told Rivka after hearing her plans.” Maybe I will go to the wedding too. We can go together.”
Her sister-in-law’s response to her enthusiastic suggestion, however, stopped her in her tracks. ” Suri, I’m going to be busy with my sisters.”
Suri felt as if icy water had been poured over her. “Oh,” she managed to stammer. “I had the thought that it would be a good opportunity for both of us to travel with someone, rather than alone, it’s such a long trip,” adding that she had her own relatives and friends to be with.
With that she changed the topic, any desire to go to the simcha completely erased.
Days later, when asked by a friend why she wasn’t going to the wedding when earlier she was seriously considering it, Suri confided how hurt she was, how diminished she felt. ” Did Rivka really think I’m a friendless nobody that I have to tag along with her? And suppose I did have nowhere else to be, why exclude me? Why shouldn’t I hang out with HER SISTERS? I was married to their brother!”
A week passed and a confused Suri called up her friend. “Do you think I was over-reacting? Rivka has always been nice to me. I have been a guest at her Shabbat table too many times to count. Maybe she was just simply letting me know that she couldn’t be a proper companion to me while in Israel since she would be running around, and this way I could make a better decision about the trip”.
“It’s very likely that was what her intention was,” her friend stated. “She was giving you a heads up as to her availability in terms of being with you.”
“So I was being over-sensitive?” Suri asked, beginning to feel somewhat foolish.
“No, actually, your sister-in-law was being under- sensitive. Grossly insensitive, actually, but not deliberately, of course. She, like most people, forgot to SEE who she was talking to.”
Because Suri does not have a husband, she is all too familiar with what it is like to travel alone, especially great distances. She has experienced the long silences; the boredom; the shlepping of heavy luggage; the stress of having to deal with any hassles on your own. That is her reality. But it is not Rivka’s, who went straight from living in a home full of brothers and sisters to having a devoted husband as her constant companion, in and out of their home.
Rivka did not gossip or talk behind Suri’s back; she did not malign her or ridicule her – yet she is guilty of lashon hara because the words that came out of her mouth caused tzaar – pain. Had Rivka been more conscientious; if she had invested some thought towards whom she was addressing, she could have modified her message, conveying the same information in a respectful and uplifting way – speaking in what would rightfully be viewed as lashon tov.
“Suri, I would love to have you sitting next to me for those 12 long hours in flight, though if I fall asleep, I can’t promise I won’t snore! Everyone in the family will be so happy to see you, but I want you to know that I am so looking forward to connecting with my sisters and will likely be spending most of my free time with them. You are most welcome to join us, but I don’t want you to feel obligated to. You may have more interesting people to visit or places to see than a bunch of yentas catching up on old news. It’s your call.