The Weight of Words
April 8, 2022
There are few who do not know or acknowledge that gossip is a bad thing to do. Some might enjoy the act of “unconstrained conversation” that may or may not be true about another, but liking it has never been a qualification for the behavior being good.
In Jewish tradition, gossip, traditionally referred to as “lashon hara” (evil speech), has volumes of texts dedicated to the laws around this sinful act. In fact, this week’s Torah portion, Metzorah, is the name given to the biblical punishment for evil speech.
Being the eternal optimist that I am, when reflecting on this topic I used to defer to the Talmudic principle that, “From the negative you can infer the positive.” If there is a law that forbids a certain action, then it can be understood that the opposite behavior should in turn be a blessed action. Therefore, if evil speech is forbidden then sacred speech must be the blessed behavior Gd demands of us in its place.
Apparently, not. The laws around evil speech are detailed with such great clarity that the alternative to gossip and slander is not to be actively sacred with one’s words, rather, it is to stay silent. Silence is the path to avoid lashon hara.
For years, this teaching confused me greatly. Why would the action of sacred speech not be the desirable alternative to evil speech? Instead of gossiping about a neighbor, why not encourage kind and supportive words to be shared? It was my need for balance, for mathematical equality, if there was a yin there needed to be a yang, if one action was wrong then the opposite needed to be right. But not apparently with lashon hara.
Then one day I was exposed to the late Elie Wiesel’s famous quote, “The opposite of love is not hate, it’s indifference” and suddenly lashon hara made sense. Not doing something could be the opposite to doing something. We didn’t need to necessarily do something opposite we just needed to not do the behavior.
Speech, language, and words are uniquely powerful in our tradition, and therefore how we use our words -or not use them- has tremendous weight. The world was created with the words “and Gd said,” our seminal prayer begins with the command “shema” (listen), and our relationship with Gd is through words and descriptions because we are forbidden to create an image of Gd.
So, as we prepare for Shabbat and reflect on the challenge to stay silent when silence is warranted and speak up when sacred speech is necessary, I suggest two immediate opportunities to fulfil these solemn blessings:
- Let us all take a moment of silence to remember all those whose lives were stolen from them this week; those fighting for their country and home in Ukraine and those who perished at the hands of terror in Israel. Let our silence be a prayer to Gd to comfort their loved ones and welcome their precious souls to Gd’s heavenly domain; and
- Let us reach out to a loved one, a neighbor, or even an unknown stranger and share some sacred words of support, kindness, and blessing.
Because we are…