Monday, September 14, 2009
Mightier Than a Sword
“I have been given a piece of information I didn’t want or need. It is tearing me apart. I can’t share it with anyone and it will destroy my friendship with the person who told me and with the person it is about.” My friend sat behind the driver’s wheel of her car, weeping uncontrollably. I realized I was watching the drama of the effects of lashon hara (evil tongue – derogatory or defaming speech) unfolding in front of me. The interaction between me and my friend was timely. I had been reading about gossip in Rabbi David Cooper’s book, GOD IS A VERB. Gossip is subtle and dangerous. A word misused can destroy a person’s reputation in seconds; it can ruin a life. A word planted in someone’s mind can poison a relationship forever.
Because derogatory speech is such a common fact of life in contemporary society, we hardly recognize when we are engaging in it. It ranges from the simple “he said, and then she said….” at the water cooler to the excessive and damaging discourse that follows politicians, entertainers, policy makers and others in the public domain. In the guise of “information” lashon hara assassinates character, destroys relationships, kills policy before it can ever see the light of day. Alan Morinis, in EVERYDAY HOLINESS, writes that “…speech is judged more powerful than the sword because a physical weapon can injure only those in proximity, while speech can kill at a distance. Death and life are in the power of the tongue.”
As I watch my friend suffer, I see the effect of the violence that spins out from a casual, unskillful act of imparting damaging commentary about one person to another person. This kind of violence strikes very close to home and no one is impervious to it. My friend’s suffering challenges me to a greater mindfulness about the ways in which I exercise my tongue. But as I read further, it is not only my tongue that needs guarding. The rabbinic tradition teaches that I am not even to listen to gossip. Even to listen is to allow damage to occur whether I pass on the words or not. If I can summon the courage to tell the other person that I do not wish to hear the gossip she is ready to share, I can stop the violence right there. So – guarding my ears is as crucial as guarding my tongue.
Learning about the nature of lashon hara makes watching or listening to the daily news a challenge of epic proportions. Innuendo, fear-mongering, half truths and blatant negative mis-information are powerful forms of lashon hara.
Maimonides warned that wrong speech is a transgression that is the equivalent of murder, but more heinous because it kills three people: the one who said it, the one who heard it, and the one about whom it was said. Absorbing this wisdom leaves me feeling challenged to a greater mindfulness as I listen to the “news” - - to a greater level of discernment in order to see what is actually important information and what is really lashon hara at work. I am convinced that somewhere in the process of guarding ears and tongue, there is wisdom to be found that will lead me to less participation in the violence of the unbridled tongue.