A Grain of Sand

"I will multiply you as the stars in heaven and as the sand upon the shore." - Genesis 22:17

"I can see the master's hand in every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand." - Dylan, Every Grain of Sand (on Shot of Love)

Monday, November 15, 2010

613 Habits - Lashon Ha Ra #1

This is the first of what will be several entries connected to my class, "The 613 Habits of Highly Effective People: Get Over Your Self." I am teaching about the spiritual discipline of mussar. The class will draw on several primary sources from the tradition, but principally is based on Orchot Tzaddikim (The Ways of the Righteous) and Mesilat Yesharim (The Path of the Upright). We will also use Rabbi Ira Stone's "A Responsible Life."

In this month's reading, "Sha'ar Lashon Ha-ra," which is translated by Rabbi Silverstein as "The Gate of Slander," there is a puzzling observation in the second (English) paragraph. The text reads,

Certainly, one who is given to slander removes from himself the yoke of Heaven, for he sins without pleasure and is worse than a thief or an adulterer, who pursue pleasure (Shochar Tov 120:3).
First of all, the "yoke of Heaven," (ol shamayim). This phrase denotes the acceptance of the obligation to live in accordance with the Divine will. The image seems to be one of a painful burden and when we read it we might say, "What am I, an ox? What a drag (pun intended)." If you allow the image to play out you might see it as more meaningful and beautiful. One of the reasons an animal carries a yoke is to pull a plow behind it. The plow digs into the earth to make possible the planting of seeds that will ultimately grow into something beneficial. We uphold the Torah because our goal is to turn the fallow fields of earthly life into something that is abundant with life and sustenance.

What about this idea that this is a more serious sin because we don't derive pleasure from it? I don't actually accept the premise. One of the reasons that lashon ha-ra is so easy to do is that it brings immense pleasure to the one who speaks it. Part of the pleasure is taking the person down a notch or too, perhaps satisfying some deep insecurity we have. That we satisfy this insecurity by our worst impulses (dragging someone down) rather than with our best (elevating ourselves) is one of the signals of the harm of lashon ha-ra: we damage ourselves in the process (as the Talmud says in Arachin 15b, "Lashon ha ra kills three people: The one who speaks it, the one who hears it and the one about whom it is spoken").

There is another pleasure in lashon ha-ra, and our desire for it actually stems from holiness: lashon hara creates solidarity between the speaker and the listener. There is a kind of warmth, the comfort of a bond between one person confiding something that is mutually morally repugnant to another person. This desire for connection and sympathy with others is essential to human holiness, but of course this particular expression of that desire is evil.

The Aish Kodesh writes that every thought, desire and deed that we have can be revealed to have at its core a dimension of holiness. Even within an act as ugly as lashon ha ra is the potential for holiness to be revealed. Lashon Ha-ra is an ugly garment covering, as it were, a light of holiness. While the teshuvah (repentance) that we must do begins by refraining from lashon ha-ra and making a good faith effort to undo damage that we have caused, it should also include an examination of the desire for holiness, warped as it may have been, that might have been at its core.


  1. Lashon Ha Ra actually kills more than three people. It kills a community. It kills our ability to trust one another and forms bonds with the community.

    However, I have a question. If you know someone to be dangerous, is it Lashon Ha Ra to speak of it? Where do we draw the line?

  2. Thanks for your comment and question.

    I agree that ultimately lashon ha-ra is destructive of harmony within a community. Interestingly, it is also a result of the existence of community. Lashon Ha-Ra takes place when there are overlapping relationships and when people know something about other people. Here, too, it grows from something holy and seeks to undo the holiness from which it sprouts.

    Regarding your question: Rabbi Israel Meir HaCohen Kagan is known as the Chofetz Chayim (Desirer of Life), after his magnum opus on Lashon HaRa. In summarizing the laws of Lashon HaRa he notes that there are, in fact, cases in which one is required to speak negatively about another person - for example, in order to protect a person from significant harm or to prevent evil from coming to pass (see the last few pages of the chapter on Lashon Hara in Orchot Tzaddikim - the paragraph beginning "But there are some isolated cases..." or ach miut p'amim in Hebrew). However, one should not be permissive with these rare exceptions by any means; it is not to be taken lightly. In addition, one must not cause humiliation to the person involved. As Orchot Tzaddikim puts it - u'fa'amim afilu k'sh'hachotei rasha gamor, In some cases even when the one who transgresses is a completely wicked person, we must not humiliate him in public.


  3. When studying thinking about Lashon Ha-Ra it is interesting; one becomes more cognizant of Lashon Ha-Ra in every day interactions. It seems to be a bond of some sort among people, and especially seems to bring great pleasure in the fact that this is knowledge that others may not have.
    It is difficult at times to know what to do in the instance of being faced with Lashon Ha-Ra, do you walk away, try and change the subject or even try in a way without humiliation to say: I really would prefer not to go there…
    I even have been thinking; is there Lashon Ha-Ra when it comes to animals; case and point safety without standing; one veterinarian saying to another; “Oh yeah, he’s a real headache hates shots…” that preconceived notion that is like a student “labeled” a trouble maker for their next teacher…
    Just a thought…
    Thanks for the wonderful insights: always marvelous to absorb and think about…