One day, a young boy came home from school with a note for his mother. He gave it to her with a smile, and said, “My teacher gave me this paper and told me to give it only to you.”
His mother read the letter quickly, and her eyes filled with tears as she then read the letter out loud to her son. “Your son is a genius. This school is too small for him, and the teachers are not qualified to teach him. Please educate him yourself.”
His parents embraced this mission, teaching him and raising him to become one of the greatest thinkers of his time. He became a leading innovator, a Torah sage, and inspired an entire generation.
Years later, after his mother passed away, he was going through some old family documents. He noticed a folded paper in the corner of a drawer, and curiously opened it.
On the paper was written: “Your son is mentally incapable. The teachers do not want to teach him anymore. Please educate him yourself.”
He cried as he remembered his mother reading the letter to him, realizing the positive impact it had on his life. That night, he wrote in his diary: “I was a mentally incapable child, but because of my hero mother, I became the person I am today.”
This is the power of words. The words of his teachers could have destroyed him, but the words of his mother supported, empowered, and enabled him.
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 that 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 have 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. They criticize anything and everything, anybody and everybody; words of negativity flow easily 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?
This leads us to a fundamental question: What exactly is the nature of lashon ha’ra (evil speech)? There is a common misconception that lashon ha’ra 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 (“Mi’d’var sheker tirchak” – Sh’mos 23:7). The Torah prohibition of lashon ha’ra refers specifically to sharing true, negative information about someone (in order to harm them). In order to understand the prohibition against lashon ha’ra, we must clarify why we may not say something hurtful about another person, even if it is true.
In addition to the prohibition itself, the punishment for speaking lashon ha’ra is puzzling, as well. The Torah describes a strange punishment for one who speaks lashon ha’ra: In addition to receiving tzaraas (affliction), 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 several times before. As human beings, we are naturally isolated and separate from one another. We are individual beings, all living in our own subjective world and 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 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 inside their heads? How can I share my inner life with them? How can I overcome the infinite barrier between me and everyone else?
As we have explained before, this is the gift of speech. Speech is the mechanism that enables us to connect with other people and overcome the barrier between us. You begin with your inner thoughts and experience. You then form the specific words that will encase your thoughts, as you give them concrete form and throw these words out into the world around you in the form of vibrations. If another person is nearby, his ears can pick up these vibrations and translate them into sound. These sounds form words, and the words form sentences. He must then keep track of all the different words and sentences, hold on to them, and bring them back from memory as they work to recreate a complete picture of everything you said. Amazingly, this person can now experience your inner world inside his own mind. He now contains a piece of you within himself. The barrier between your worlds has been diminished.
The Mouth As the Organ of Connection
The mouth is therefore the organ of connection, holding the potential to create deep, existential connection. As we have previously explained, all the functions of the mouth serve to connect two disparate pieces 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 him. 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 and connection. An interesting illustration of this concept is the fact that a person’s rebbe (spiritual teacher) is considered, in a sense, to be his father. 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 (student) 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 becomes a partner in this student’s creation. In a deep way, he has become this student’s father, as well.
According to halachah, the rebbe – the spiritual father – trumps the biological father in some ways. The Rambam paskens (codifies) that if both your father and your rebbe require your kavod (honor), 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 HaBa – the eternal World to Come. This process that your rebbe facilitates is realized 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 ha’ra truly is. Lashon ha’ra takes the very tool of connection – speech – and uses it to disconnect people from each other. When you speak negatively about someone, you create a 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 ha’ra, showing its power to disconnect:
The first, primal example of lashon ha’ra in the Torah was in Gan Eden, at the very inception of creation. The nachash (snake) is notorious for speaking lashon ha’ra to Adam and Chavah, condemning itself to a life of curse. It is notable that what the nachash said about the Eitz HaDaas was, in a sense, true, but it caused a major disconnect between Adam and Chavah, and between them and Hashem.
Another example of lashon ha’ra’s disastrous effects is the sin of the M’raglim (Spies). Again, what the M’raglim 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 ha’ra is Miriam’s criticism of Moshe. While her intentions were noble, and she even intended to help create connection between Moshe and Tziporah through her words of rebuke, she was judged according to her lofty level. Through her words, she created a rift between her and Moshe Rabbeinu, and potentially did the same between Moshe and Tziporah, as well as between Moshe and klal Yisrael. She was therefore punished for the sin of disconnecting others through negative speech, forced to temporarily leave the camp of klal Yisrael.
Now that we understand the severity of lashon ha’ra 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? In our next article, we will delve more deeply into this fascinating topic and try to understand it on an ever more profound level.
Rabbi Shmuel Reichman is the author of the bestselling book, The Journey to Your Ultimate Self, which serves as an inspiring gateway into deeper Jewish thought. He is an international speaker, educator, and the CEO of Self-Mastery Academy. After obtaining his BA from Yeshiva University, he received s’micha from RIETS, a master’s degree in education, a master’s degree in Jewish Thought, and then spent a year studying at Harvard. He is currently pursuing a PhD at UChicago. To invite Rabbi Reichman to speak in your community or to enjoy more of his deep and inspiring content, visit his website: www.ShmuelReichman.com.