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, 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 that 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?
In Parshas Tazria, we are introduced to tzaraas (affliction), which Chazal tell us is a punishment for speaking lashon ha’ra (evil speech). What exactly is the nature of lashon ha’ra? 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 (midvar 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 him or her). 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: 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
As human beings, we are naturally isolated and separate from one another. We are individual beings, all living in our own subjective world, our own 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, ones 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 myself and everyone else?
This is the gift of speech. Speech is the mechanism that enables us to connect with other people, to 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, the words, sentences. He must then keep track of all the different words and sentences, hold on to them, and bring them back from memory, as he works 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. 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. And speaking connects people’s inner worlds together; when you speak with someone, you share your inner world with him or her.
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.
What Compels Us to Speak Lashon HaRa?
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? If we are clearly disconnecting people from each other, misusing the holy organ of connection in the process, why is it such a struggle to avoid negative speech?
There are a few reasons for the strong sense of satisfaction we feel when we gossip about others. As we mentioned above, people are naturally lonely and isolated, and therefore yearn for connection, yearn to be liked and accepted by others. Many people try to connect with the person they are talking to by putting someone else down. After all, stories about other people’s pitfalls are often amusing. Thus, we attempt to connect to those around us by disconnecting both ourselves and the listeners from the person we are talking about. The irony, though, is that this actually achieves the exact opposite effect. The person you are speaking with now knows that you talk about people behind their backs, and he has no reason to believe that you won’t do the exact same thing to him the moment he leaves the room. Therefore, in your attempt to create connection with this person through disconnecting someone else, you have now disconnected yourself from everyone!
Another equally problematic motivation for speaking lashon ha’ra is the desire to feel good about oneself. We all desire to feel important, significant, and worthy of respect. We not only desire the love and admiration of others, but our own, as well. Often, when we see the success of people around us, it challenges our self-worth, our ego, and forces us to question our own accomplishments in life. The quick and easy fix to this problem is to speak lashon ha’ra about anyone who challenges us. If we tear him down and reduce the significance of his accomplishments, our own worth is protected.
Of course, this is not an appropriate way to generate self-worth. Instead of raising yourself up and investing in your own spiritual and existential growth, you instead drag someone else down. In both scenarios, you appear to have achieved success, but only one is real, only one is genuine, only one is lasting. When you put someone down, you may appear to have achieved success, but you have gained nothing. You are left only with a fleeting, false sense of ego, pervasive disconnect, and the resulting lack of personal growth.
We can now understand why the punishment for speaking lashon ha’ra is temporary isolation. The person who spoke lashon ha’ra disconnected people from each other. As a result, he now becomes disconnected from everyone. He misused the organ that helps free one from the isolated prison of one’s inner world; as a result, he now becomes isolated in his own inner world, separated from everyone in his life, incapable of any communication and connection with the rest of klal Yisrael. This punishment is not only punitive in nature; it is reformative, as well. This time in isolation gives him the opportunity to contemplate his past failures, helping him truly understand the pain of isolation and disconnect, and hopefully motivating him to create connection and harmony going forward.
The Power of Speech
Speech is powerful. It’s a tool of connection, communication, and expression. You can tell a lot about someone by listening to what he or she talks about. As the saying goes, small minds discuss people, average minds discuss events, and great minds discuss ideas. Speech can be used to tear people apart, destroy relationships, and pass the time, but that is not the path to greatness. We can use speech to bridge the walls between us, to discuss the loftiest ideas and ideals of life, and to gain a higher sense of clarity and connection with both the people around us and our inner selves. When we speak, we share our souls with the universe, we express what we value, and in doing so, we also tell the world, “This is how I use my gift of speech.” May we be inspired to harness the full potential of our ability to speak and use speech in order to build genuine connection, understanding, and oneness.
Shmuel Reichman is an inspirational speaker, writer, and coach who has lectured internationally at shuls, conferences, and Jewish communities on topics of Jewish Thought and Jewish Medical Ethics. He is the founder and CEO of Self-Mastery Academy (ShmuelReichman.com), the transformative online course that is revolutionizing how we engage in self-development. You can find more inspirational lectures, videos, and articles from Shmuel on his website: www.ShmuelReichman.com.