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Parasha Insights

By Rabbi Raphy Garson

“Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.”  –  Henry Thomas Buckle

Recently the Daily Mail ran an article headlined “Gossip is good for you: Women who chat regularly are happier and healthier”. Scientists claim it makes you healthier. Research shows gossiping boosts levels of progesterone, a hormone which reduces anxiety and stress.

Headlines like this, coupled with a world where the media makes a living off gossip, makes the area of controlling our speech difficult for the Jew.

The Rabbis teach that each time someone speaks badly of others, it is like killing three people.

  1. THE PERSON SPEAKING – is being killed in the eyes of God. Hashem gave that person the gift of speech, and its being used to put others down.

But Lori Palatnik  in her book “Gossip — Ten Pathways to Eliminate It From Your Life and Transform Your Soul,”  explains that on another level, the speaker is being killed in the eyes of all those who are listening.

When you have “the goods” on some-one and say to a group of people, “Did you hear why James broke up? Everyone leans in to hear the juicy gossip, and you become the centre of attention. At that monet you are crowned as the King! Yet, it only lasts a moment. As people will shy away from you if you are known as the type of person eager to speak badly of others. Others will no longer come to you for advice or trust you.

Temporally you are popular but in the long run, you are lessened in everyone’s eyes if you gossip. When you speak badly of others, it is like committing slow suicide.

  1. THE PERSON YOU ARE SPEAKING ABOUT – The person who is the topic of discussion at hand is obviously being killed. Such people are going about their business innocently, oblivious to the fact that you are speaking about them and affecting the way others view them. Irreparable damage can be done with every word, whether the information is true or not.

We live this word with a shem tov. A person’s reputation is a major part of their existence. Money can be earned back, but a reputation for honesty, integrity, and kindness, for being a good parent, or a kind person, while developed over years, can be wiped away instantly in a flash of evil speech.

In today’s age of emails and facebook posting going viral – one click of a button can destroy lives!

The Chinese phrase ‘tiu lien’ describes what happens when a person’s reputation is damaged. They translate into: ‘Lose face’ ‘to suffer public disgrace’, i.e. to be unable to show one’s face in public .. “lost face,” as if they no longer exist.

  1. THE PERSON LISTENING – The Talmud says that the person who is damaged most of all is the one who is listening. Worse than gossiping is listening to gossip!

Why in the eyes of God is the passive listener the one who is doing the most harm?

The answer is profound – Of all three parties, the listener is the only one who has the ability to stop the evil speech in its tracks. The speaker has already made the decision to speak, the one being spoken about is clueless of the situation. The listener is the only one who has the power to change the course of the conversation, which is why God puts the onus on the listener.

She suggests that there are TEN PATHWAYS TO POSITIVE SPEECH, and we would be well advised to internalise these truths.

  1. Speak No Evil. Say only positive statements. Let words of kindness be on your tongue.
  2. Hear No Evil. Refuse to listen to gossip, slander and other negative forms of speech.
  3. Don’t Rationalize Destructive Speech. Excuses like “But it’s true” or “I’m only joking” or “I can tell my spouse anything” just don’t cut it.
  4. See No Evil. Judge people favourably, the way you would want them to judge you.
  5. Beware of Speaking Evil Without Saying an Evil Word. Body language and even positive speech can bring tremendous destruction.
  6. Be Humble; Avoid Arrogance. These will be your greatest weapons against destructive speech.
  7. Beware of Repeating Information. Loose lips sink ships. Even positive information needs permission before being repeated.
  8. Honesty Really Is the Best Policy — Most of the Time. Be careful to always tell the truth, unless it will hurt others, break your own privacy or publicize your accomplishments.
  9. Learn to Say “I’m Sorry.” Everyone makes mistakes. If you’ve spoken badly about someone, clear it up immediately.
  10. Forgive. If you have been wronged, let it go.

Achieving forgiveness is not always easy.  There is a famous story about the great sage the Rashash (Rabbi Shmuel Shtrashun, 19th century Vilna) who had a fund to lend money to poor people. One day while the rabbi was studying Talmud, the local tailor came in to repay his loan of 10,000 rubles. The rabbi was so engrossed in his learning, that he stuck the money in a book and forgot about it.

A week later, hei was reviewing his loan ledger and noticed that the 10,000 ruble loan was never paid. So he called the tailor and asked for it. “But I paid you last week,” said the tailor.

“Okay, then where’s your receipt?” said the rabbi, who truly had no recollection of being paid back.

“You were studying and I didn’t want to disturb you,” replied the tailor.

Soon enough, word got out that the tailor and the rabbi were involved in a financial dispute. “The nerve of this man to pit his word against the rabbi!” they said. The tailor’s reputation was ruined, and he was shunned by the community.

About a year later, the rabbi was reviewing a section of Talmud and came across an envelope containing 10,000 rubles. Then he realized what had happened! He immediately called the tailor and apologized. “But your apology doesn’t help me,” he said sadly. “My reputation is ruined forever!”

“Don’t worry,” said the rabbi. “I’ll make a public announcement in the synagogue, letting everyone know that it was I who made the mistake.”

“That won’t help,” said the tailor. “They’ll think you’re just saying it because you feel sorry for me.”

The rabbi thought long and hard until he came up with a solution. “You have a daughter and I have a son,” he said. “Let’s arrange for them to be married. In that way, everyone will be assured that you are fully trustworthy, for otherwise I would never agree to this match.” And with that, the harm was repaired.

But it’s not always so easy.  One man spread a rumour about another. He later felt regret, and went to the rabbi to ask how to make amends. “Go to the store and buy a bag of seeds,” said the rabbi, “then go to a big open field and scatter the seeds into the wind. Do so and report back to me in a week.”

The man did as he was told, and came back the next week to find out what to do next. “Now,” said the rabbi, “go back to the field and pick up all the seeds.”

“But,” the man protested, “those seeds have scattered far and wide! I’ll never find them all. Many have even already taken root!”

“Exactly,” explained the rabbi. “Now you understand. When we speak badly about another person, the effect is far and wide. And it is damage that can never be fully undone.”

Speech has been compared to an arrow: once the words are released, like an arrow, they cannot be recalled, the harm they do cannot be stopped, and the harm they do cannot always be predicted, for words like arrows often go astray.

ParshaatMetozora is a timely reminder. Tzara’at was an entirely spiritual sickness – just as lashon hara, causes mainly intangible harm rather than physical. The spiritual nature of gossip is actually that which makes it such a great transgression, worthy of a such intense punishment.

The Beit Hamikdash was destroyed because of evil slander. Which is why the Chafetz Chaim explains that refraining from gossip is the single most effective way to reverse the damage and bring about the redemption!

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