In our previous article, we began exploring the nature of lashon ha’ra and the unique nature of speech in general. Speech holds the power to create relationships, lift people up, expand people’s minds, and enable genuine communication and connection.
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?
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 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.
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 and 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. (This desire is rooted in the fact that we were created b’tzelem Elokim, the fact that we are, in truth, G-dly, and that we are each destined to achieve our own unique greatness. Self-worth and confidence are not bad; only distorted self-perception, ego, and haughtiness serve as a problem.) 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 it 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, and 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.
The other corruption of speech is lying. Unlike lashon ha’ra, which uses truth to create disconnect, lying is fabricating your own truths. Speech gives a person the ability to express his inner world – to genuinely connect with another through sharing inner consciousness, expressed outwards through speech. When a person shares a lie, the other person thinks that he has connected with you, that he knows something from within your inner world, and that you have bequeathed a piece of your very self to him. In truth, however, all he has is the lie you have fed him. Speech is the mechanism of expressing internal truth outwards; lying is a manipulation and misuse of the very purpose of speech.
Interestingly, the Hebrew word for connection is “kesher,” and, not coincidentally, the Hebrew word for a lie is “sheker” – the exact same letters but scrambled. Lies corrupt the potential for genuine connection. Sheker takes the potential for connection and twists it into disconnect and falsehood. While the listener thinks he is connecting to you, nothing could be further from the truth.
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 motivate him to create connection and harmony going forward.
Harnessing 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.
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.