In those days, fueled by the fear of public humiliation and banishment, people were certainly more careful about their speech. Today, we no longer have tzora’as to remind us when we have betrayed the gift of speech. To keep ourselves in line, we have to rely upon our fear of G-d and our intelligence, which often fail us.
Lashon harah is equated with those other improper actions, because at the root of lashon horah is the debasement of others. Those who engage in speaking lashon harah are not just engaging in idle talk, but are compensating for their own lack of achievement.
When a person looks at himself and wonders why he is not accomplishing much with his life, he may grow despondent. When he compares himself to others who are achieving, he questions his own worth. “Why can’t I be as good as that person?” he asks himself. “Why can’t I be as charitable as my neighbor? Why don’t I learn as much as that other fellow? Why don’t I have as many friends as this one or that one?
Instead of engaging in self-improvement, which can be both painful and difficult, he tells himself that the other guy doesn’t really learn that much. Besides, he rationalizes, that fellow can’t really learn. Surely I know how to learn better than he, because I went to a better yeshiva. He soothes his wounded self-esteem by telling himself that his neighbor, the so-called baal tzedakah, doesn’t really know how to give tzedakah and that, besides, he only gives when he gets a lot of kavod. He tells himself that the person he is jealous of is not really successful, and that it just looks that way. Really, he is corrupt and it is all a facade.
One who is unhappy with himself badmouths the other person to anyone who will listen. He spreads stories to prove his contention that the person is not nearly as good as everyone thinks he is. Thus, he calms his own conscience that is criticizing him for wasting his life away and at the same time ruins the reputation of the person who is actually doing something worthwhile with his life.
Is anyone perfect? Is there anybody we know who has no room for improvement? Is there anyone so pure that nobody can dig up a little morsel of derogatory information about him? Of course not. As the posuk testifies, “Ein tzaddik ba’aretz asher ya’aseh tov velo yechtah – There is no righteous person who does good and who has not sinned.”
Every person, great as he may be, has erred at some point in his lifetime. A baal lashon harah will seek out the tzaddik’s failing and proclaim it to the world. “How can you say that he is a tzaddik? Don’t you know that he did this and that?” A G-d-fearing and intelligent person who is content with what he has will concentrate on another person’s positive attributes and put aside his failings. He may even note the shortcomings, but will look at the whole picture. He will understand that although a person may have committed wrongdoing at some point, it does not define the individual or detract from the good person he really is.
The baal lashon harah is not just a gossiper. He is a person who seeks to destroy the order of the world. The world needs tzaddikim and people whom others can look up to. It needs people to dedicate themselves to good causes. The baal lashon harah, with his cynical and negative broadcasts, attempts to destroy the heroes of this world and discourage people from engaging in positive activities and contributing positively to society.
He would rather have a world in which every person’s faults are publicized than actually accomplish something noble in his own life. He would rather see people destroyed than assist in bettering mankind. The Gemarah therefore lumps him with a shofeich domim.
The punishment of a baal lashon harah is that he is afflicted with a wound on the surface of his body which is visible to one and all. Furthermore, he is banished and sentenced to live in isolation. A person who cannot look aside from another’s faults cannot live among people. Anyone who thinks that it is a mitzvah to advertise other people’s failings cannot live among the community of men, for there is no man who is unblemished.
If you notice a fault in your friend, you should definitely point it out to him in a nice way. Tell him, “You are such a good person, but if you would only rectify this certain aspect of your personality, you’d be so much better off.” If you do that, you have helped your friend and have done something constructive for the world. If you help him improve himself and his actions, you have actually accomplished something.
But if you don’t make the attempt to assist him and instead let everyone know that you have figured out what is wrong with Yankel, what have you achieved? You have brought down not only Yankel, but his family, too. You have done nothing productive for yourself or for anyone else.
On this year’s Oorah Shmorg DVD, there is a fascinating production entitled “Yankel Am Haaretz.” Yankel is a learning-disabled boy who can’t get anything right. Children mock him and no one has patience to study with him. His life is headed downhill. Finally, he decides to give it all he has and painstakingly teaches himself to read, daven, and study Torah.
It is hard not to identify with Yankel and his struggle. Eventually, his rabbi sends him to Israel, where he enrolls in a yeshiva and returns home as Yankel Talmid Chochom. There are many ways to react to people like Yankel who we encounter, and even to the little bits of Yankel inside all of us. We can either mock him, or we can pity him. We can either work to improve ourselves or we can give up in desperation.
We can write off the Yankels in our community or we can approach them with love and patience, working with them until they are brought around. We can restore their self-confidence and give them an excuse to wake up in the morning or we can smash them to smithereens as they attempt to get up off the floor after being mocked and left disillusioned.
We can point and snicker as Yankel Am Haaretz stumbles through life or we can lend a helping hand. We can use our tongues to wag and taunt or we can use them for what they were intended for – to support, educate and help Yankel make a mentch of himself.
There are people who derive their greatest satisfaction in life from bashing others. Sometimes they are quite justified in perceiving serious flaws in a person, organization or movement. Nobody is perfect and there is nothing wrong with constructive criticism. But it should not be taken to an extreme. Good people do not deserve scorn and contempt for making mistakes. They can be given mussar and corrected with love and respect. It can be done without rancor, without hate, without wild-eyed glee, and without lashon harah.
Criticism is fine, but we must keep things in perspective. Before we accuse someone of a capital crime, we should carefully measure our words. The mitzvah of tochachah carries a caveat: “Hochei’ach tochiach es amisecha,” the posuk says, but “velo sisah olov cheit.”
My rebbi, colleague and friend, Mr. Avi Shulman, addressed this topic last week in his weekly Yated column. He quoted from the Meiri, who writes, “Anyone who teaches Torah publicly and his words are not as sweet as milk and honey, it would have been better that they had not been said.”
To quote Mr. Shulman, “It is the wise person – rebbi, teacher, parent or friend – who chooses his words with wisdom and makes his speech sweet so that he will be listened to and effective.
“A person can be smart and full of wisdom, yet if he doesn’t present his message or lessons in ways that his audience will enjoy hearing, the Meiri says that it would have been better had he not said them…
“This doesn’t mean that I have to patronize you, flatter you, or even agree with you. It means that whatever I say has to be said as nicely and gently as possible.”
The same is applicable to lashon harah, which is permitted [if certain conditions are met as laid out in the sefer Chofetz Chaim klal 10, 7, and] if it is spoken for a positive purpose, “leto’eles.” If a person is accomplishing something good with his remarks, they are not sinful. They are only sinful when one seeks to destroy someone’s communal standing. Lashon harah is evil because it is negative. If you demand nothing but perfection from others, you are punished by having to remain alone, forced to contemplate your own sins until the tzora’as departs from your body.
We all know that lashon harah is a serious sin and now we have another understanding of why this is so. It assuages a person’s feelings of not having achieved and destroys those whose lives are marked by accomplishment, despite their personal failings.
The oft-quoted posuk in Tehillim (34:16) states, “Mi ha’ish hechofeitz chayim oheiv yomim liros tov. Netzor leshonchah meirah usefosecha midabeir mirmah.” These lines are commonly translated as, “Who is the person who wants to live, who wants to see good in his days? Let him watch his tongue from speaking ill and his lips from speaking bad.”
Perhaps we can understand the posuk homiletically to also mean that one who seeks life and loves to have more days of life should try to see good in others – liros tov. In addition, he should watch his tongue and lips from speaking negatively of fellow Jews.
Liros tov. Look for the good. It will help you live long and save you from lashon harah.
It is so easy to take the easy way out and destroy people. It is so much harder to focus on the good and look away from people’s shortcomings. But do it anyway. That approach will benefit the world, it will benefit others, and it will benefit you.
We are no longer blessed with the Divine disciplinary measure of tzora’as to keep us straight and to remind us to guard our tongues and not engage in anti-social behavior. But since we all seek life, let us keep in mind that watching how we treat and talk about other people is a good way to earn it.
Sweet speech is the way to go, whether we are dealing with Yankel Am Haaretz, Yankel Talmid Chochom, or anyone in-between.