parsha of the week

Exercising self-control: Speaking lashon hora is like firing a speeding bullet


Yaakov spends 20 years living in Lavan’s house. He has his rows with Lavan – more than a third of the parsha, Vayetzei, is dedicated to their dialogues. And it isn’t pretty. Accusations, threats, etc.

One would think Yaakov has every right to talk about Lavan, to let it out about how bad a guy Lavan is, to announce to the world that Lavan is the biggest cheat, to let everyone know they should never deal with Lavan, never work for Lavan, never have anything to do with Lavan.

But he doesn’t do that. He does speak to his wives about their collective relationship with Lavan before they leave, on account of the evil eye Lavan has been pointing in their direction. But this is not lashon hora; when there is an existential threat facing himself, his children, his family, he must talk about it. But at the end of the parsha, Yaakov and Lavan reach an agreement. We’ll build a pile of rocks — I’ll stay on my side, you stay on your side, and we will leave each other alone.

Translation: The threat is passed. So there is nothing to say.

Now he is out of Yaakov’s life. And when do we next find Yaakov talking about Lavan? At the beginning of next week’s parsha, Yaakov will send a message to Eisav — “im Lavan garti” — I’ve been living with Lavan. Plain fact. Non-judgmental. No incriminating information about his experience.

Rashi even puts a positive spin on it, saying “and I kept the 613 mitzvos” — meaning, I remained steadfast with G-d in Lavan’s house. The part of “not learning from his wicked ways” is Rashi’s comment suggesting an implication from Yaakov’s words, but it does not mean that Yaakov said that.

The Chofetz Chaim decried lashon hora because he saw people had no shame in speaking it. One of the Talmud’s examples of how you know if something is lashon hora is you have to turn around to see if someone you don’t want to be hearing is listening. That’s a telltale sign that the words are lashon hora.

The Gemara in Arachin 15b has a number of aphorisms about lashon hora, but they’re not just lip service:

And R. Johanan said in the name of R. Joseph b. Zimra: One who bears evil tales almost denies the foundation [of faith].

R. Johanan said in the name of R. Joseph b. Zimra: Anyone who bears evil tales will be visited by plagues.

Further said Resh Lakish: One who slanders makes his sin reach unto heaven.

R. Hisda said in the name of Mar ’Ukba: One who slanders deserves to be stoned with stones.

R. Hisda said in the name of Mar ’Ukba: Of him who slanders, the Holy One, blessed be He, said: He and I cannot live together in the world.

Further said R. Hisda in the name of Mar’Ukba: About one who slanders, the Holy One, blessed be He, said to the prince of Gehinnom: I shall be against him from above, you be against him from below, and we shall condemn him.

R. Hama b. Hanina said: What is the remedy for slanderers? If he be a scholar, let him engage in the Torah. But if he be an ignorant person, let him become humble.

The Talmud also compares lashon hora to an arrow, or nowadays a bullet, because once it’s fired, you can regret it all you want but you can’t stop its trajectory. The damage is impossible to be undone. The best a person can achieve MAYBE is to be granted forgiveness and MAYBE a chance to clarify or “take back” the comment before whom it was said.

So let’s make some ground rules. If one can learn, learn Torah and have it be an antidote to engaging in lashon hora. If a person is not so learned, practice a bit of humility. We wouldn’t want people to speak about us, so let us not speak about others.

When my grandmother, a”h, was in her mid-70s she told me a story which she found to be instructive in how she viewed the gossip that some people live to discuss. One day she was in the company of some of her longtime girlfriends. One of them had a piece of juicy gossip. The others were begging her to tell them. The woman with the gossip asked, “Can you all keep a secret?” They leaned in, “Yes, yes, of course.”

“Well so can I.”

My grandmother was very impressed by this person.

We must learn from Yaakov avinu — when you are threatened, any lashon hora you engage in must be l’toeles, to achieve a goal which is for the betterment and wellbeing of your family or community. But if it is simply aimed at destroying and just bringing people down, it has no place in our community. We must eradicate the evils of lashon hora from among us.