On Pesach, we use the power of speech to tell the Passover story. According to Rabbi Rose, Pesach can be translated as two words: "peh sach" meaning “the mouth speaks.” Rabbi Davod Green says that Pharaoh can be read as "peh ra" or bad mouth. Just as speech has the power to recount and create, it also has power to destroy, not only families, but also friends and communities.
The Tanakh (Bible) has its share of examples of gossip and the consequences of it. Miriam and Aaron speak ill of Moses’s choice to marry a Cushite woman, and Miriam is stricken with a skin disease; Haman slanders the Jewish people, and the Jews of Persia are almost destroyed. According to a Midrash, the Israelites in Egypt were shameless gossips. Because of this, they remained enslaved. The 40 years in the desert might have ended sooner if the Israelites had not believed the false report that the 12 spies brought back from the land of Canaan.
Proverbs tells us, "Death and Life are in the power of the tongue." The Talmud includes the plea, "My G-d, keep my tongue from evil, my lips from lies." And Leviticus teaches, "Do not go about as a talebearer among your people."
In Judaism, this concept of gossip is called lashon hara. What is interesting about lashon hara is that it is not about defamation which is a common concept associated with gossiping. With lashon hara, it is about spreading and using true speech for a wrongful purpose. Making up a story about someone and spreading it is not lashon hara. That would be Motzi Shem Ra. Spreading a truth about someone that is negative, not previously known, and is for no positive purpose is lashon hara. This covers a lot of circumstances!
This is one of my favorite Chasidic stories that illustrates the damage which can be caused by lashon hara. A man went through the community spreading lies about the Rabbi. This went on for some time until one day, the man felt remorse and asked the rabbi to forgive him. After discussing with the rabbi, he indicated that he was willing to do anything to make amends. The rabbi advised him to take several feather pillows, cut them open and scatter the feathers to the wind throughout the streets. The man did so and returned to the rabbi to let him know what he had done. The rabbi then instructed him, "Now go and gather ALL of the feathers." The man protested, "But that's impossible." "Of course it is," replied the rabbi. "And although you may regret the evil you have done and truly desire to correct it, it is as impossible to repair the damage done by your words as it is to recover every single one of the feathers." The rabbi was not overstating the damage. For the Talmud teaches us that destroying another person's name is akin to murder and like murder, the damage is irrevocable.
In his book It's a Mitzvah, Rabbi Bradley Artson provides some suggestions on how to guard the tongue. He recommends the following:
- Do not repeat jokes that degrade others.
- Limit negative comments about others to only one trusted person.
- Remain silent when others start to gossip.
- Avoid praising someone to his or her enemy. This is because the enemy is then triggered into making a negative comment.
Gracious and merciful G-d, help me to restrain myself from speaking or listening to derogatory, demeaning or hostile speech. I will try not to engage in lashon hara, either about individuals or about an entire group of people. I will strive not to say anything that contains falsehood, insincere flattery or elements of needless dispute, anger, arrogance, oppression or embarrassment to others. Grant me the strength to say nothing unnecessary, so that all my actions and speech cultivate a love for your creatures and for You.This Pesach, as I contemplate the narrow places and spaces in which I dwell, I plan to make a concerted effort to refrain from lashon hara, and I will pray this prayer with my 7 year old, who even at this young age, encounters opportunities to participate in and/or witness lashon hara.
May we all be redeemed this Pesach from all the narrow places in which we dwell, may we journey together toward freedom, and rejoice and dance on the other side with our timbrels in hand!