Tabloid, Sit Coms, Talk Shows, Reality TV, gossip girls. Our media is seeped with gossip, and often pernicious hurtful gossip, or what we call in the Torah loshon hara. Because it is so commonplace in the public eye, people just accept that this is what people do. They talk about others. They comment about them, what they are wearing, who they are, how they look; often in a negative way.
People just accept and assume this is part of the public discourse. If you ask most people what they think about gossip, they would just say that it’s part of life. If you ask them why they do it, most people will not really be able to answer. Why do they do it? They do it for fun, they do it for kicks, they do it because they think that it makes them look smart or clever, sometimes they do it because they want to hurt the other person, or fit in, or sometimes they do it just because they are bored.
In most areas of interpersonal ethics, if you think about it, you do not necessarily need the Torah to know it is wrong; stealing, cheating, lying. The one exception is loshon hara, critical speech. In general society we take the attitude that “sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Words do hurt and talking negatively about someone to others can be especially harmful, it can destroy a person in the eyes of others. The Torah likens talking to loshon hara to shooting someone with an arrow. Why an arrow and not a sword? Because, the Midrash says, if a person takes out their sword to hurt someone, the person they are attacking can plead with them and save themselves. But once an arrow is shot is cannot be taken back. (midrash leket tov #120) Once loshon hara is spoken it cannot be taken back, it gets repeated and passed on to others, and people’s attitude towards that person can be turned sour. “So and so is a great guy, really nice, a good friend.” “Yea but he cannot keep down a steady job.”
Sometimes people say “well, what if it is true ?, I am not lying or making things up, I am just reporting on the facts.” That might be the case, but it is still loshon hara. Why? Because everyone has good traits and bad traits (yes, including ourselves) and it is really about what you choose to focus on. So for ourselves, we want people to focus on the what vase, but for other we focus on the black face (???).
In his excellent book Words That Hurt, Words That Heal, Joseph Telushkin asks; what if I were to present you with a challenge, to not speak harmful gossip for the next 24 hours, could you do it? If someone told you, I cannot go without a drink for 24 hours, you would tell them they have a problem. So if you cannot go without loshon hara for 24, do you think you might have a problem?
In the Torah reading this week it speaks of a skin hard, tzarat, that developed from speaking loshon hara, a type of spiritual ill with a physical symptom. Part of the treatment and the purification process was to take two pigeons. One was brought as an offering and slaughtered, the other was set free. What is this supposed to teach us? The bird that was slaughtered represents the elimination of harmful gossip. The second bird represents positive speech, replacing our harmful gossip with constructive conversation. Maimonides emphasizes this point: use your conversation with people to lift them up, to make them feel good about themselves, to do good, to understand the world around us and how we can approve it, and to see the Almighty in our lives.
There is a say:
Great people talk about ideas.
Average people talk about things.
Small people talk about other people
Let’s strive for greatness and in the process not do unto others that which we would not want them to do to us.