This past weekend I had the pleasure of attending a Seudah Shelisheet (third Sabbath meal) which was part of a Shabbaton at the Adath featuring a woman named Adrienne Gold. Adrienne grew up in Toronto and has become observant over the last 20 years of her life. Some of you might recognize her name from her former days as a commentator on the show “Fashion Television”. Adrienne spoke to us about 10 ideas in Judaism that are crucial in making our children and ourselves into a “mentsch”. These included the obligation of giving tzedakah, being sensitive to the environment, and treating everything in this world with respect (kavod). There was one topic that she mentioned which we often forget: refraining from lashon hara or gossip.
Parshat Metzora deals with the restrictions on someone who becomes infected with a particular skin disease called tzara-at (which many have translated as leprosy). The rules for quarantine and purification are provided in detail. The connection between tzara-at and gossip is established with the story of Miriam, Moshe’s sister, who is afflicted with the disease after becoming involved in an episode of gossip about her brother. The prohibition against Lashon Hara (gossip/slander) is built around the lesson that “words can kill” both purposefully and inadvertently. Our words have the power to deceive, cheat, slander, malign and hurt. Once they are delivered to others they cannot be retrieved. What’s fascinating is that we understand the negative side of gossip. But what happens when we say gossip about something positive about someone else? I had not really thought about it, but Adrienne mentioned that we also have to be careful when we say nice things about someone else.
The laws of lashon hara are very clear in terms of telling something to someone else EVEN if it is the truth. True statements can be even more damaging than false ones, because you can’t defend yourself by disproving the negative statement if it’s true.
But we also have to be careful when we want to say something nice. What exactly does this mean?
When we want to say something positive, we have to look at the whole situation. We have to be careful when speaking positively about someone, because at times it can encourage your listeners to try to balance your praise with criticism; such situations occur when you speak positively about someone in front of people who dislike that person. We are also not allowed to speak excessively positively about any individual. This too is a safeguard against an instinctive need to create balance by adding in the “whole picture”. How many times have we been in a conversation where our positive words about someone get turned on their heads with the word BUT…?
Adrienne gave other examples of how kind words can create negative outcomes. For example, when publicly praising the extraordinary generosity of a person, we might end up overwhelming this person with solicitations. If we stand in a room full of people and make loud declarations that a particular person is the best in his or her field, then we end up inadvertently disparaging others in the room who are also talented.
What I found fascinating about this presentation was that the rules against gossip need to be carried out with our hearts and our minds. There are times when kind words can have a negative impact, even though we don’t want them too. Language is a powerful tool, and this parsha reminds us that we need to be careful and measured with our words.