Dovid HaMelech says, “L’chu vonim shim’u li Yiras Hashem alamedchem” - Come my children, listen to me and I will teach you Fear of Hashem. What an exciting invitation! As we know, the acquisition of Fear of Hashem is the very essence of life. As Moshe Rabbeinu says, “Ma Hashem Elokecha shoel meimach ki im l’yirah” - What does Hashem ask of you but that you should fear Him. And as the Gemora teaches us, “Hakol biy’dei Shamayim chutz m’Yiras Shamayim” - Everything is in the hands of Heaven except for the Fear of Heaven, which is our only real challenge in life.
Now, with such a preface, we would expect Dovid HaMelech to start discussing with us the wonders of creation; for it is through the study of nature that we begin to realize the presence of G-d. As the posuk states, “S’u eineichem l’morom, oo’r’u Mi borah eileh” - Lift your eyes upon high and see Who created these things. Thus, for example, look at the sun, positioned perfectly at 92 million miles away. If it would be any closer, we’d be ‘Southern Fried.’ If it were any further, we’d be in the Ice Age. But the sun, which was never touched by human hands, is calibrated to perfection to give just the perfect amount of photosynthesis to all points on the globe, to warm all of mankind comfortably, to pump up the water of the seas as vapor and make rain clouds for rain so that the water cycle should operate to perfection. The sun illuminates the world for our viewing pleasure - not too bright and not too dim - but just right. All of this unmistakably points to the wondrous handiwork of Hashem. Indeed, the multiple global manifestations of the magnificent sun are the reason why the blessing that we say to thank Hashem for our luminaries is the longest of all blessings found among our prayers.
Yet, Dovid HaMelech does not speak about nature at all! Rather, after his ‘Fear of Hashem’ intro, he seems to veer in another direction completely. And he says, “Mi ha-ish hechafetz chaim, oheiv yomim liros tov. N’tzor l’shoncha mei-ra, u’s’fasecha midabeir mirmah” - Who is the man who desires life, loves days to see good? Guard your tongue from speaking evil and your lips from talking deceit.” This verse reveals to us a great principle. Namely, that the avoidance of lashon hara, evil speech, is the gateway to acquiring Fear of Hashem. How important this is - the fear of G-d! It is the very first step in acquiring wisdom, as the posuk teaches us, “Reishis chochma Yiras Hashem” - The first of wisdom is Fear of G-d.
When Moshe Rabbeinu chastised Dasan and Aviram for their fighting, they reacted by revealing that it was Moshe Rabbeinu who had slain the Egyptian. It was then that Moshe Rabbeinu made the declaration, “Achein noda hahovar” - Now the matter is known to me, which Rashi explains to mean that Moshe Rabbeinu was puzzled why the Jews were suffering so terribly at the hands of Paroh and the Egyptians, why their babies were drowned in the Nile, buried alive in the walls of Pitom and Ramses, why they had their necks slit to drain their blood to heal Paroh’s leprosy. (Indeed, the term bloodbath probably originates from Paroh’s heinous practice of bathing in the blood of Jewish babies.) Moshe Rabbeinu wondered why the Jews had to suffer over a century of avodas perech, inhumane servitude, which literally made them crumble. (The word ‘perech’ comes from the same etymology as ‘nifreches,’ which means to crumble.) Now, however, that Moshe Rabbeinu saw there were balei lahon hara, people who would slander, he said, “Now I understand why they have to suffer so much.”
The venerable Chofetz Chaim, zt”l, zy”a, asks in the preface of his monumental Shmiras HaLoshen, what was Moshe Rabbeinu so perplexed about? The Jews in Mitzrayim stopped circumcising themselves, they worshiped idolatry, and they sunk to the forty-ninth level of tumah, contamination. What was so puzzling about the fact that they were punished with suffering? The Chofetz Chaim explains that normally Hashem is nosei avon v’over al pesha, He lifts away our sins and looks away from our rebellion. He is also erech apaiyim, patient and long-suffering. He is a mochel v’solei-ach, One who forgives and pardons. How come, wondered Moshe Rabbeinu, they weren’t recipients of such treatment in Mitzrayim?
The Chofetz Chaim answers that Hashem always rewards and punishes midah k’neged midah, measure for measure. Therefore, while it is true that Hashem usually looks away from people’s sins, there is an exception. If a person is a baal lashon hara who focuses on other people’s sins instead of looking away from them, and then aggravates the crime by talking about it with others, Hashem treats him in kind and focuses on his sins instead of looking away - and punishes him for his misdeeds with alacrity. What a chilling lesson! When we speak lashon hara, Hashem shines a spotlight on our own aveiros and takes note of them instead of pushing them under the carpet.
In the sichos, the Chofetz Chaim teaches us yet another element in Moshe Rabbeinu’s newfound realization. He says that anytime we do a sin, we create a maloch m’katreig, a prosecuting angel. For most sins this angel is created mute and is therefore unable to go up and immediately prosecute against us. Rather, these angels wait for the time of one’s final reckoning when they will all be tabulated together to his demerit. But, for a sin of improper speech, the prosecuting angel that is created is formed with a mouth and therefore immediately goes before the Throne of Glory with his prosecutorial tale, thereby generating immediate punishment to the baal lashon hara.
To truly appreciate the magnitude of this terrible sin, one must be aware of a Yerushalmi in the beginning of Masechtas Peah (1:1). There it states that for three grave sins one is punished in this world while the principle punishment remains in full for the Next World. These crimes are idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed. Then, the Yerushalmi concludes with a chilling statement, “U’k’negdon lashon hara,” meaning, ‘Equal to all of these is the sin of evil speech.’ How frightening - that one’s casual and oftentimes flippant gossip can be worse than idolatry, immorality, and bloodshed combined. This information alone should really galvanize us to take fresh stock of the way we converse in general.
I believe that the sin of lashon hara is the nisayon, the challenge, for the besserer mentchen, more refined and scrupulous people. Consider this: many people say daily after their morning prayers the sheish zechiros, the six thoughts that a Jew is supposed to remember every day. One of those remembrances is to recall daily what Hashem did to Miriam in the desert: striking her with leprosy and putting her in seven days of isolation in full view of millions of people. Imagine! Of all of the lessons that a Jew should remember, this is one of the top six - and we know that Miriam was stricken with the leprosy because she spoke lashon hara about her brother Moshe. Now, Miriam was one of the greatest women of all time and, therefore, when we hear this event, we sit up straight and take notice for, when we are told the likes of Haman or Paroh spoke lashon hara, we shrug it off, musing to ourselves, ‘This has nothing to do with me. I’m not like them at all.’ But, if the crime of evil speech can plague even Miriam, it surely can happen to us.
Similarly, not many of our historic greats merited having the title tzadik, righteous, to be permanently affixed to their names. One of those who did was Yosef HaTzadik, Yoseph the Righteous. Still, it was he who was guilty of speaking a dibah ra’ah, an evil report, about his brothers to Yaakov, which activated the chain of events that would lead to the terrible persecutions of the Jewish people in Egypt. So, too, we find that the very great 24,000 disciples of Rebbi Akiva, the ‘creme de la créme’ of Judaism at the time, succumbed to the terrible death of diphtheria because of the crime of lashon hara. (See the Maharsha in Masechtas Yevamos.) Thus, we see that fine people, who would never think of stealing, desecrating the Shabbos, or eating non-kosher foods, can succumb to this deadly sin. Together with my entire fine readership, I join with you in the attempt to be more careful to avoid speaking about other people.
The Chofetz Chaim, zt”l, zy”a, asks a fascinating question. We see by Miriam that the punishment for the sin of speaking lashon hara is tzoraas, biblical leprosy. We also find that when Moshe Rabbeinu was given some miracles to present to the B’nei Yisroel, one was to place his hand in his bosom, take it out again, and it would be leprous like snow. Rashi explains that the reason Moshe Rabbeinu had to contract this momentary leprosy is because he said lashon hara about the B’nei Yisroel, “Hein lo ya’aminu li” - They won’t believe in me. Once again, we see leprosy as a penalty for evil speech.
Furthermore, the Gemora teaches us in Masechtas Erachin that the word ‘metzora,’ the leper, is a corruption of two words, ‘motzi’ and ‘ra,’ which mean, ‘one who expresses evil.’ Since this is so, asks the Chofetz Chaim, why aren’t there many more people who suffer from leprosy? Since we are painfully aware of how much of our population is criminal in this regard, there should be leper colonies in every neighborhood. Why doesn’t leprosy ravage our population? The Chofetz Chaim answers with a scary thought. He says, quoting from an ancient sefer, that poverty is a substitute for leprosy. Therefore, many people who speak lashon hara are stricken with impoverishment or financial hardship instead of leprosy. This goes a long way in explaining today’s sorry plight of unemployment and the many families that struggle mightily to just make ends meet. But, you might ask, why aren’t there wealthy people stricken by leprosy? I would like to suggest that poverty is not only found in one’s bank account. As the Mishna says, “Azeihu ashir? Hasomei’ach b’chelko” - Who is wealthy? He who is satisfied with his lot. There are many wealthy people who are tremendously unhappy, and this is also a form of poverty.
The Meam Loez asks the same question as the Chofetz Chaim. He was also troubled by why there aren’t many more cases of leprosy, and he gives a different answer. He explains that there are two types of leprosy. One afflicts the body and the other afflicts the soul. Although, since the destruction of the temple, leprosy of the body is not common nowadays, there is still the terrible punishment of the leprosy of the soul. This, he elaborates, manifests itself when, in the night while a person is sleeping, the soul returns to heaven. As we say, “Ki biyadecha afkid ruchi” - In Your hands, I deposit my spirit. It is at this time that the other souls in heaven shun the soul that is stricken by leprosy and it is banished to the fourth chamber known as ‘Tit Hayavan,’ and is inflicted with suffering. One of the most common maladies in today’s society is insomnia. Perhaps, one might suggest that this is caused sometimes because one’s soul has leprosy and does not want to succumb to sleep and leave its body because it is afraid of what’s in store for it in heaven.
The Chofetz Chaim, zt”l, zy”a, writes that after all the terrible things the Torah warns us about lashon hara, it begs the question of why so many people are nevertheless guilty of this heinous sin. Just to mention another example, the posuk warns us, “Orur makeh rei’eihu ba’sauser” - Cursed is he who smites his friend in secret. Rashi informs us that this refers to someone who speaks lashon hara about a person behind his back. How dreadful! The sinful gossiper risks being cursed by G-d. And yet, wonders the Chofetz Chaim, so many people throw caution to the wind and casually shoot the breeze about other people’s deficiencies. The Chofetz Chaim suggests that many people think that to talk about others is all right as long as what they are saying is true. However, this is of course sheer ignorance for it is considered lashon hara only if it is true. If it is false, it is another, entirely different bundle of trouble called motzi sheim ra. Then, the Chofetz Chaim writes that more knowledgeable people justify their lashon hara by saying to themselves, ‘So-and-so’s such a bad person that whatever people hear about him is really coming to him, and Hashem is not interested in protecting the reputation of such a monster.’ This is again a non-truth. Two wrongs never make a right, and, while the sinner will have to answer for his transgressions, most of the time the people who talked about his sins will be punished even more severely.
I believe there is another strong reason why people succumb to this deadly temptation. Let’s say someone parks in front of your driveway and blocks your car from being able to get out. You start honking and sit there in immense frustration. A full twenty minutes later, a man who you know jumps into his car and speeds away before you even get a chance to give him a piece of your mind. You are so upset that you need to share this episode with someone in order to get it off your shoulders and relieve your burden. So you go to your friend or your wife and say, “Can you believe what Chaim Yankel just did to me?” With righteous indignation, you feel completely justified in venting your frustration in this fashion. However, you must know that this is simply not allowed. Just like you can’t eat a ham sandwich to calm yourself down, you can’t speak lashon hara and inflict the lashon hara upon your friend or wife just to make yourself feel better.
In Mishlei, there is a fascinating posuk. “Baz l’rei-eihu chaser leiv” - One who despises his friend lacks heart. Now, to lack heart is a terrible thing for we are taught, “Rachmana liba bo,” what Hashem wants from us is heart. Obviously, when Shlomo HaMelelch mentions baz l’rei-eihu, one who despises his friends, he is not talking about someone who does good things for, if you despise someone who does good things, you’re a fool. Rather, he’s talking about someone who behaves poorly. Even so, if you despise him, you lack heart.
Why is this true? I recall - decades ago - many boys had a penchant for memorizing the batting averages of Mike Schmidt and other baseball players. Many knew the ERAs of Sandy Koufax and all of the other greats - by heart. How did the rebbi get them to stop memorizing such useless information? He told them that they couldn’t speak about it with their friends - and if they couldn’t speak about it and share it with others, there was simply no reason to memorize it. I sincerely believe that this is a powerful tool to employ in a career of stopping to speak badly about others for, if we commit ourselves not to speak lashon hara, we will eventually simply stop noticing the bad in other people. It will become useless information to us since we can’t share it with others anyway. I further believe that this is the deeper intent of Dovid HaMelech when he states, “Mi ha-ish hechafetz chaim, oheiv yomim, liros tov. N’tzor l’shoncha mei-ra” - Who is the man who desires life, loves days, to see good? Guard your tongue from speaking evil.” Note that Dovid HaMelech emphasizes seeing good, since if a person gets into the habit of never speaking poorly about others, he will gradually adopt the coveted trait of only seeing good in others. After all, that will be the only thing of use to him. He will embrace the Torah directive of, “B’tzedek tishpot amisecha” - Judge your friend righteously. Ultimately, he will live the ideal of what we are taught: Man was given two eyes - one to see his friends favorably and the other to see himself critically.
Our discussion of the evils of lashon hara, evil speech and gossip, must include the repercussions it has upon our Torah and Tefilah. We should take note: the longest period of mourning in the Jewish year are the days of sefira. During that time, we keep thirty-three days of mourning for the 24,000 disciples of Rebbe Akiva who died horribly from the terrible death of diphtheria. The Maharsha in Yevamos says this was a punishment for lashon hara. Thus, we see a very painful lesson. Torah, which normally is the greatest protection against retribution, as the Mishna teaches us in Pirkei Avos, that Torah is “k’sris bifnei hapuronios,” it is like a shield before retribution, might not afford this if we speak lashon hara. And, as the Gemora tells us, Torah is “meigan u’matzlei,” it defends and it shields. Yet, the rarified Torah of the disciples of Rebbe Akiva, the creme de la creme of Torah scholarship at the time, was not able to protect them from a tortuous death because of the sin of lashon hara.
So too, the collective Torah study of the dor dei’a, the generation of the desert, the only time when all of Klal Yisroel dedicated themselves in unison to the study of Torah, could not save them from the collective sentence of death caused by the crime of the lashon hara of the meraglim, the spies. Similarly, such a Torah great as Doeg Hadomi met a dreadful end because of the sin of lashon hara. Yoseif haTzadik studied Torah with his father during his adolescence, absorbing all that his father learned in the academy of Sheim v’Eiver. Yet, when he spoke one diba ra’a, evil tiding, against his brothers, his learning didn’t protect him from being sold into slavery away from his family to the licentious, idolatrous Egyptians.
So, we must remember that if we want the powerful protection of Torah, we must keep our mouths clean. In that way we will merit the blessing of, “Chaim heim l’motza’eihem,” it will bring life to those that find Them (Torah). The Gemora expounds on this to mean, “l’motzi’eihem b’peh,” to those who say it with their mouths. It is for this reason that at the end of the Shemone Esrei, we plead with Hashem, “Elokai, nitzor lishoni mei’ra, u’sifasai midabeir mirmah,” G-d protect my tongue from speaking evil and my lips from uttering deceit, and only then do we petition Hashem, “P’sach libi l’Sorosecha,” - Open my heart to Your Torah, for it is only after we succeed in guarding our tongues properly that we can properly engage in a career of Torah.
The same is true for the effectiveness of our prayers. The Gemora in Rosh HaShannah says that on the Day of Judgment we are instructed to say Malchios, Zichronos, and Shofros, verses of Kingship, Remembrance, and Shofar. The Gemora explains, ‘Say before Me verses of Kingship to coronate Me anew as your King. Say verses of Remembrance so that I should remember you for the good. And the Gemora concludes, “U’bameh?” With what (will I remember you)? “BaShofar,” through the shofar. The Chasam Sofer, zt”l, zy”a, notes that this is odd. We pray in shul on Rosh HaShannah for at least six hours and yet Hashem still only remember us through the shofar? He answers that we have a principle, “Ein kateigor naase saneigor” - A prosecutor cannot become a defender, and therefore, since our mouths are guilty of regular lashon hara, they cannot successfully help us with prayer on the Day of Judgment. But, the pure peal of the shofar, which is unadulterated by any sins, can bring our remembrance before the Throne of Glory successfully.
So too, we find that the metzora, the biblical leper, is charged, “Tomei, tomei yikra,” to proclaim to all passersby that he is contaminated. This is not simply so that people should not come near him. Rather, it is also because the Gemora in Erachin informs us that the metzora is one who is “motzi ra,” speaks bad about others. Therefore, he cannot pray for himself that he should be cured of his leprosy. The Torah instead recommends that he alert other people to his plight so that they should pray for him to be cured.
If we want Hashem to heed our prayers for good health, wealth, tranquility and happiness, we need to purge from our speech any negative comments about other people. We will then enormously boost the effectiveness of our prayers.
Finally, I’d like to conclude with a practical application to the potential consequences of lashon hara on ourselves and our families. This is a true story but the names have been changed to protect the innocent and the guilty. Chaim was sitting together with his wife at a dinner party with his friends. Sitting next to Chaim was a friend who said something extremely rude to him. Chaim, who experienced an internal shock from this verbal assault, was cultured enough to simply shrug it off and not respond. Nevertheless, Chaim is still a member of the species known as Human Beings, and he could not help but be visibly perturbed by this personal attack. Chaim’s wife, Chavie, ever astute to his moods, immediately picked up that something was troubling her husband. As an aside, this is the mark of an Aishes Chayil, a Valorous Woman. As the Torah teaches us, the good wife should be an eizer k’negdo, a helper opposite him, for, when she faces her husband, she can take note if there’s something troubling him and attempt to help him remedy the situation. A spouse must be in tune with their mate’s mood changes and visages of disturbance so that she can come to the rescue as much as possible. (The Ran, in Nedarim, tells us that one day the wicked Roman governor, Turnus Rufus, came home and his devoted wife immediately spotted that he was troubled. She asked him, “My dear husband, what has happened?” He informed her that Rebbi Akiva had once again made mincemeat out of him in one of their theological debates. Perhaps another time, I will share with you the conclusion of this fascinating story and how Rebbi Akiva would eventually wed this woman. She too demonstrated the sensitivity of a good wife to her husband’s needs.)
So Chavie asks Chaim, “What’s bothering you?” Of course, Chaim is not going to talk about it at the table so he tells her, “It’s nothing.” But, Chavie notices throughout the evening that her husband is more quiet than usual and, when they go out to the parking lot to retrieve their car, she immediately demands from her husband, “What’s up? I could see that you were not your usual self for the entire evening. Something must have happened!”
It is here that Chaim is faced with a powerful nisayon, a test. He desperately wants to vent his frustration and anger at the deplorable way he was treated at the dinner table that evening. He knew his wife would be a balm to his spirit and empathize with the way he had been treated. At the same time, he combated this temptation by realizing that if he would indulge in this temporary fix, not only would he be transgressing the grievous sin of lashon hara, sinful speech, he would also make his wife a partner in the crime, thereby also transgressing the sin of “lifnei iver lo sitein michshol,” causing another Jew to stumble; in this case, his nearest and dearest, Chavie. So instead, he told her that it was only something foolish, something not worth even talking about. Chavie, figuring her husband didn’t want to relive the moment, wisely let it go.
Later on that evening, Chavie noticed that her husband was having a flashback. She, with the perception reserved exclusively for a wife, noticed that he twice gnashed his teeth in disgust. Finally, she couldn’t contain herself, and said, “Chaim, you really should tell me what happened. Get it off your chest. You’ll feel much better.” Realizing that his loving wife had all of the best intentions, he finally said, “Chavie, I’d love to tell you, but it is pure lashon hara.” Chavie responded, “But I’m your wife and I care about you. I want to make you feel better.” Chaim, a true ben Torah, answered her, “I know. But just because it will make me feel better doesn’t allow me to say the lashon hara. You wouldn’t want me to have some bacon just because it would give me better nutrition, nor would you advise me to take the elevator up to our apartment on Shabbos because I’m not feeling well and I’m too tired to walk.”
This was indeed a very great challenge for Chaim. But, upon reflection, he realized how wise was the teaching of the Torah that he shouldn’t vent his feelings to his beloved wife. For, if he would have shared this sorry story with his wife, she would in turn develop a strong dislike for the person at the table who insulted her husband. This would risk her transgressing not only the acceptance of lashon hara, but also the sins of “lo sisna es achicha bilvovecha,” not to hate your friend in your heart, and also the Torah prohibition of “lo sitar,” not to bear a grudge. Furthermore, if she would harbor the thought of getting back at this person, she would trample upon the terrible sin of “lo sikom,” not to take revenge. By simply not sharing the event with her, he spared her from all of these grave temptations.
Even more so, by not giving in to the temporary pleasure of venting to his wife, he merited for himself one of the greatest rewards possible: the Vilna Gaon, zt”l, zy”a, said that for every moment a person holds back from saying lashon hara, he is rewarded with the ohr haganuz, the hidden light which is saved for the righteous in the future. We must realize how great this reward is for it was the only part of Creation that Hashem saw was too good for the wicked to enjoy, and He therefore hid it away for the righteous in the Afterlife. Keep in mind that the Riviera, the beaches of Aruba, caviar, and all other sorts of sensual ecstasies, were not too good for the wicked. That gives us an idea of how very special this hidden light is - and it is this reward that Chaim earned for himself by not succumbing to the momentary relief of sharing the lashon hara with his wife.
May Hashem enable us to have the smarts to act like Chaim when the Yeitzer Hara inevitably knocks at our door and, in that merit, may Hashem bless us not only with the hidden light but with long life, good health, and everything wonderful.