My peaceful Shabbat was temporarily disturbed yesterday by the proliferation of an insidious rumour that was making its way around the North Jewish ghetto. A neighbourhood storekeeper was being unfairly, unjustly and FALSELY accused of behaviour that this community found reprehensible. I was first made aware of this rumour at shul yesterday morning, (believe it or not?) and by the time I returned home, my inbox was flooded with the same crappy bullshit sent to me by many misinformed individuals. Whatever the origins of this mendacity, be they deliberate slander or simple misunderstanding, we as a community and a society in general should know better about the devastating effects of Lashon Hara.
The prohibition against lashon hara can be traced to Leviticus 19:16 and is literally defined as the "evil tongue" or "evil speech". Leviticus states "Do not deal basely with members of your people. Do not profit by the blood of your neighbour: I am יהוה." It is interesting that this injunction against slander is found in the section of the Torah known as the Holiness Code-a codification of morality laws on which we should pattern our lives.
The rabbis were very concerned with the effects of speech. In Sotah 42a, the Talmud states that habitual speakers of lashon hara are not tolerated in God's presence. Further, Moses' sister Miriam is stricken with disease after gossiping about her brother and is made to reside outside of the camp until she is healed. (Numbers 12:1-16) Aaron, on whom she chooses to share her canards, is also punished. The rabbis note that speech can be an extremely powerful tool, but conversely an equally powerful weapon. They make mention that the universe is created through the divine speech of יהוה. "And God said 'Let there be light--and there was light'". (Genesis 1:3) Yet, the spoken word can inflict great damage. Of the 43 sins enumerated in the Al Cheit confession recited on Yom Kippur, 11 are sins committed through speech. The Talmud tells that the tongue is an instrument so dangerous that it must be kept hidden from view, behind two protective walls (the mouth and teeth) to prevent its misuse.
There are two major Halakhic works written on the subject of lashon hara, both by Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan. Chafetz Chayim (Seeker/Desirer of Life), published in 1873 was the Rav's first book and it deals with the Biblical laws of gossip and slander. In 1876, he publish Sh'mirat HaLashon (Guarding of the Tongue) a philosophical discussion on the power of speech. Rabbi Kagan intuitively understood the seriousness of the subject and the lasting, damaging effects that words can inflict and he chose to dedicate his life's work to edifying the congregation.
Several years ago, a neighbourhood restaurant was the victim of scurrilous lies and rumours. The effects of which saw tremendous loss of business, futile attempts to clear their reputation, and ultimately a complete shutdown that resulted in a lost livelihood. You might have thought we would have learned from that lesson, but apparently we are doomed to repeat our mistakes.
We live in an age where information is easily accessible, fast moving and can have extraordinary consequences. Knowledge is power, and those with power wield tremendous weapons. It would have served us better as a community if individuals receiving this email, would have stopped to question the source and done some research before spreading the lie like a wildfire. While the retractions have been issued and the mea culpas pronounced, the damage has been done and it has been extreme. Once the evil has been spewed, it is very difficult to put the proverbial genie back in the bottle. It is my fervent hope that this episode will at least have educated people on the power of the internet, and that every source must be scrupulously researched before the invectives are launched. It is too easy to hit the "Reply All" buttons on our computers. We all must assume responsibility for the evil tongue that is forever in our midst.
It is telling that Rabbi Kagan chose the title of his definitive work from the book of Psalms 34:12-15. "Come, children, listen to me; I will teach you the fear of God. Who is the man that desires life; who loves days, that he may see goodness [during them]? Guard your tongue from evil, and your lips from speaking deceit; turn from evil and do good, seek peace and pursue it." May we all recall these words the next time an unsubstantiated rumour comes across our screens. May we all remember the power of our words, and may we all attempt to live better lives through more righteous behaviour.