Hateful words harm all concerned – speaker, listener and target
Rabbi Elliot Strom taught: We are a society that does not seem to value politeness and delicacy of speech. We consider it a virtue to “tell it like it is.” We say whatever comes into our minds – no matter how rude, how abusive. If we thereby hurt someone, humiliate them, even destroy them, we protest that we were only telling the truth.
Take a moment. Think how uncivil our society has become. Nasty comments, mean and untrue accusations and evil speech, are ugly and cruel and have real and terrible consequences.
Lashon harah: evil speech, nasty comments, spreading rumors, is seen by our tradition to be a form of murder. It can destroy one’s reputation, standing in the community, life’s work. Nothing is more un-Jewish than this kind of talk.
Our sages taught: “There are three offenses for which one is punished in this world and forfeits his portion in the world to come. These are idolatry, incest and murder; but the evil tongue is equal to all three put together … To indulge in evil speech is denying a fundamental principle of our religion … whether one indulges in evil speech about a person in his presence or his absence, or makes statements which might hurt him physically or injure him financially, distress or alarm him – all this is evil speech.” Talmud Arakhin explains: Why is gossip like a three pronged tongue? Because it murders three people: the person who says it, the person who hears it, and the person about whom it is said. In Yalkut Shimoni, we are reminded that slanderers deny the existence of God.
The onus is on us to speak with kindness, civility and respect with each other – in our political debates, on the streets, in our Jewish community and in our homes.
John Dickson in “Humilitas” explained that we need “to learn to respect and care even for those with whom we profoundly disagree … to maintain our convictions but choose never to allow them to become justification for thinking ourselves better than those with whom we differ.” Hillel and Shammai always opposed each other, but the Talmud records that they always treated each other with respect, no matter how deep their disagreement. They argued about text, and did not let their differences become personal.
In Albany, NY, I knew a lovely woman, a survivor. She was sent to the gas chambers twice at Auschwitz. Both times they failed. She may be the only survivor to have had such an experience.
She told me that each time as she entered the gas chambers, she prayed with all her heart, promising God that if she could somehow survive, she would dedicate her life to a simple idea: to being nice. To being good. To caring about other people. To refrain from saying hurtful and mean things. That she would dedicate her life to making her corner of the world a better, kinder place. A place infused with love and respect. A place where God can dwell among us. She embodied the teaching of Pirkei Avot 1:6 to judge everyone on the positive side of the scale, to keep ourselves under control and to always remember that there is holiness in each of us.
An anonymous poet once wrote:
“Once I tarnish a reputation, it is never the same. I topple governments, and wreck marriages. I ruin careers and cause sleepless nights, heartaches and indigestion. I make people cry in their pillows. Even my name hisses. I am called Gossip. Before you repeat a story, ask yourself: Is it true? Is it fair? Is it necessary? If not, don’t repeat it.”
Ask yourself if you have started sentences with phrases like these: But it’s true … Well, I didn’t say who it was … Everyone knows that … Just kidding … There s/he goes again … But you can tell me. Is that who you really want to be? Is that what you really want to listen to?
Rabbi Gamaliel said to his servant, Tabbai: “Go and buy me good food in the market.” He went and bought him tongue. Then he said: “Go and buy me bad food in the market.” Tabbai again bought tongue. Rabbi said to him: “What is this? I told you to buy good food and you bought tongue. I told you to get bad food you also bought tongue!” Tabbai replied: “Good and bad come from it. When the tongue is good there is nothing better, and when it is bad there is nothing worse.”
May we remember the teachings of our faith and the promises of that very special survivor. May we act as God’s hands on earth, helping to bring goodness, kindness, civility and respect into all of our conversations. May we truly do our best to make our world a better place.
The Rabbinically Speaking column is provided as a public service by the Jewish Press in cooperation with the Pinellas County Board of Rabbis. Columns are assigned on a rotating basis by the board. The views expressed in the column are those of the rabbi and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Jewish Press or the Board of Rabbis.