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Tazria 5782 - Lashon HaRa: Speak No Evil

April 2, 2022 - 1 Nisan, 5782

We are a synagogue with a long history of intense interpersonal dynamics. Like any healthy community, we have pairs of community members who know and love each other like family, and we have pairs of community members who might choose to sit on opposite sides of the room at Kiddush lunch. The people in this room have helped each other through simhas and tragedies. As is true in so many close relationships, I would imagine that some of the people in this room have involuntarily hurt each other, as well. In such a small, dynamic community, it is hard not to talk about other community members when sitting together at services or when out to dinner on a Saturday night, and yet, we strive to embrace a fundamental aspect of Jewish belief and practice, abstaining from lashon ha-ra.

Lashon ha-ra quite literally means “the tongue or language of evil.” While lashon ha-ra is often translated as “gossip,” it encompasses much more than one word can suggest. For the Hafetz Hayim, a rabbi and halakhist of late-19th and early-20th century Poland, lashon ha-ra spans at least four basic categories of destructive speech. First, basic lashon ha-ra happens when Person B shares harmful but truthful speech about Person A with Person C. Such harmful speech, according to the Hafetz Hayim, includes not only outright rude information, but also, positive information that Person A may not have wanted to be shared. The Hafetz Hayyim’s second category, rehilut, constitutes Person C telling Person A that Person B shared such information. Category number three, motzi shem ra, or slander, refers exclusively to false statements shared about another person. And finally, ona’at devarim, causing pain with words, refers to all other techniques of harmful speech, including sarcasm, improper tone, and inappropriate gestures and facial expressions. In each of these situations, respect, confidentiality, and sometimes, honesty are set aside in favor of speech shared by impulse. 

In the majority of this weekend’s parashah, we read the graphic details of diagnosing a scaly skin condition known as tzara’at. Much like a chain of lashon ha-ra begins with two individuals sharing a laugh, tzara’at begins in a small, distinct place, like the home. As gossip, opinions, and news spreads over time, tzara’at spreads to clothing and garments, and eventually, to human skin. Then, tzara’at spreads from person to person. When we share one bit of information, whether false or true, not only does that information have the potential to spread, but to morph into something different, to hurt feelings along the way, and to reach people that information never needed to reach. While the metaphorical connections between tzara’at and lashon ha-ra may be convincing enough of a connection, the Torah links tzara’at and lashon ha-ra in the books of Numbers and Deuteronomy. In Numbers, Miriam and Aaron share words about their sister-in-law, and Miriam is smitten with tzara’at. Much later, in Deuteronomy, Moses reminds the people Israel, “In cases of tzara’at, be most careful to do exactly as the levitical priests instruct you. [...] Remember what your God Adonai did to Miriam on the journey after you left Egypt” (Deuteronomy 24:8-9). For the Torah, and perhaps more clearly, the Rabbis of the Talmud and later commentaries, Miriam’s embrace of lashon ha-ra leads directly to her experience of tzara’at.

While I certainly don’t know whether gossip can cause skin affliction, I do think when we read our tzara’at laden parshah, we have a clear opportunity to reflect on the consequences of our words about others. Whether news is joyous or tragic, no news should be shared without the consent of the subject of that news. When a person is in the hospital, she may or may not want a flow of visitors. When a person has been accepted into university, she may or may not want to share until her friends have heard back, too. When a rift has happened between two people, those two people deserve the privacy to deal with their relationship on their own, if privacy is what they seek. A rift between two does not need to become a rift between ten. Unless negative information about another person is helpful for another person’s safety or well-being, the risk of that opinion’s spread and transformation outweighs the benefit of getting something off of the chest. For ona’at devarim, we cannot know how one person’s volume, gestures, or facial expressions can trigger another person’s emotions. Truly, lashon ha-ra can be likened to a plague, a matter that starts small and spreads widely if not contained.

While avoiding lashon ha-ra may be easy to preach, some of us crave the ability to vent, to share our thoughts and emotions about others with others. If the urge is to share information for the sake of the person it is about, we can always ask for consent. If that person’s relative has died or that person has been promoted to a new job, she will tell you whether wider knowledge would be helpful. When we hear something about another person that gives us pause, rather than sharing further, we can ask that individual directly about that information’s truth. If it’s something too embarrassing to ask, it’s probably too embarrassing to share. And when the urge is just to get an opinion about another person off of our chest, journaling is always an option. Many of us also have loved ones whom we either trust to keep our thoughts to themselves, or loved ones nowhere near the subject of the lashon ha-ra. If we choose one or two loved ones to be confidential recipients of that information, and if they approve of keeping that confidentiality, we have somewhere to end that desire to share with someone.

Bamidbar Rabba, a midrash on the book of Numbers, teaches, “Just as people’s faces don’t resemble each other, so too, their thought processes don’t resemble each other.” We cannot know how each person will take information that is not ours to distribute. We cannot know how each subject of gossip or news will react to their reality being given a life of its own. However, we can know what we do with the words we hear. We can intentionally choose how to craft the words from our mouths into helpful, compassionate speech.

Sat, June 25 2022 26 Sivan 5782