לשון הרע – Derogatory Speech

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By Rabbi Naftoly Bier

The גמרה ערכין טו: states: Rav Yossi the son of Zimra taught, “Whoever speaks לשון הרע, derogatory speech, malicious speech, will we afflicted by נגעים, (spiritual) leprous marks as it is stated (Psalms 101, 5) ‘Whoever defames his neighbor in secret, it will destroy him…’” We are being taught the principle of מידה כנגד מידה, that one is punished or rewarded commensurate to their action, creates a severe punishment for one’s derogatory speech. Many other statements speak of this terrible sin.

We are being taught in the חובות הלבבות, Duties of the Heart, an idea, of the severe consequences of one speaking לשון הרע, unique to this terrible sin: “It is told of a pious man, about whom something bad had been said, that when a report of this reached him, he sent a basket filled with the choicest fruits of his country to the one who had spoken ill about him and wrote to that person, “I acknowledge receipt of a gift of your merits and send you a gift in return.” Another pious man once said, “Many, when they come to their day of reckoning and their deeds will be shown to them, will find in the book of their merits, merits which they had not earned. They will say, “We have not done these good deeds” Then they will be told, “They were done by one who spoke against you and published an evil report about you.” Similarly, those who spoke evilly of others will find that the number of their merits had been diminished. They will be told, “When you spoke evilly of that individual, those merits of yours were forfeited”. So too, some will find in the record of their offenses, offenses that they had not committed. They will protest, “We did not commit these,” and will be told, “These were added to the list of your misdeeds because you spoke evilly of that individual,” as it is said, “And render unto our neighbors sevenfold unto their bosom their reproach, wherewith they have reproached Thee, O Lord” (Psalms 79:12).”

What is the essential cause of one that speaks unkindly of another? Why should one squander their time to be productive rather than focusing on another’s faults? What is a person gaining for themselves while paining another?

Let us quote the Ramchal זצ”ל in the Paths of the Just, at the end of Chapter 11: “The general principle: honor is what pushes a man’s heart more powerfully than every other lust and desire in the world. Without this, a man would suffice to eat whatever he could, to wear whatever he can, and to dwell in a house which shelters him from harm. His livelihood would be easy on him and he would/not feel any need whatsoever to strain himself to attain wealth. But since he cannot bear to see himself lower and lesser than his peers, he puts himself squarely “under the thickness of the beam”. Thus there is no end to all his labor. Therefore, our Teachers, of blessed memory, taught us “jealousy, lust, and honor remove a person from the world” (Avot 4:21), and warned us: “do not seek greatness for yourself, and do not lust for honor” (Avot 6:5).

The Ramchal is teaching us the fundamental, relentless drive of a person to be validated and recognized by others. While this is true, it ‘really’ is the need to be thankful for what one has accomplished, to validate and respect oneself for their contribution to Hashem’s world in whatever manner one has succeeded. Every person – all 8,000,000,000 in today’s world, is endowed with a special mission unique to them as manifested by all people having a unique countenance.

Sadly, people tend to define themselves by comparing themselves to others. A repercussion of this attitude is that one invariably will feel if they besmirch (even to think with these terms) another’s reputation, they will attain a loftier level in society, therefore gaining an eminent position. In one’s mind, they think, “I would never do such a terrible action!” In this manner, day after day, a person wrongfully gains a nonsensical, illusionary perception of themselves. Even more so, they truly feel inadequate, for they have not attained a valid appreciation of themselves.

But why should they be punished so that the positive actions they did are taken away from them? After all, they did it, the person who they vilified didn’t do it. How can the vilified person be recognized for something they never did?  Why should the one who was defamed and sinned other times be relieved of his sins and they are passed on to the slanderer as if he conducted himself in the wrong manner? It is the actions that one does in this world that create one essence and in turn his place in the world to come!

The answer lies in the spiritual makeup of Klal Yisrael. We are a nation all bonded together as one, not compete as individuals, but rather a unified group that depends on every single individual dedicating their individuality to the community. To live like the ancient Egyptians whose ideology was that all have to compete as to who will amass the most wealth is completely wrong. We rejected this by sacrificing the Passover lamb in Egypt and eating its meat in unison with scores of people, thereby manifesting the idea that we are all one inseparable unit. When one speaks or thinks abusively of another, one is effectively removing oneself from the unity of Klal Yisrael and rejecting Hashem’s planned unique partnership of Klal Yisrael based on the honor, respect and validation for every single individual, no matter their standing or reputation.

In the world to come, this negative behavior is atoned for by the disparager having to ‘carry the burden’ of the other’s sins; for it raises his consciences of the value of every person. The disparaged is blessed with the disparager’s positive actions due to him being the cause of the sinner’s elevation to a higher level of appreciation of the dignity and nobility of all.

At the onset of the Pesach Seder, we invite those who are financially or spiritually needy to our home. But we are home, sitting by our table! Who are we inviting? One answer is that we declare that we are in גלות, Galus now; but if we sincerely care about every Jew then we will merit to be in Eretz Yisrael with the advent of Mashiach, במהרה בימינו.

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