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OF THEE I SPEAK
Part two of three in a series on proper speech

by Mendel Starkman    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

The clock struck midnight. As the world slept, a destructive computer virus was released into the world. Ingeniously designed, the computer code automatically spread and reproduced itself, sending copies over the Internet to countless computers around the world.

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The clock struck midnight. As the world slept, a destructive computer virus was released into the world. Ingeniously designed, the computer code automatically spread and reproduced itself, sending copies over the Internet to countless computers around the world. In the morning, the author of the virus woke up feeling remorseful for his actions, but it was too late. Regardless of how he felt, the virus had been dispersed and thousands of computers had already been infected. There was no way he could repair the damage that he caused. The only preventative would have been to not send out the virus in the first place.

Most of this week's Torah portion deals with the incident of the spies. The Torah describes their departure, travels, return, and negative report, as well as the aftermath of that report. The Talmud (Tractate Arachin 15a) concludes that the spies' sin was that of lashon hara (evil speech and slander). They had spoken slanderously against the land of Israel, and the people accepted what they heard. The entire generation was punished for accepting the negative report by being banned from entering the land of Israel.

Last week's Torah portion closed with Miriam being stricken with the skin disease known as tzaraat. She received this as punishment for speaking what was considered, on her level, to be like lashon hara. The Torah often teaches us lessons by placing one idea or episode after a seemingly unrelated one. In this light, Rashi, the preeminent Torah commentator, asks why the story of the spies follows immediately after the episode of Miriam's tzaraat. He answers that Miriam had been punished for her speech. The spies saw what happened to her, but did not take a lesson from it and spoke lashon hara anyway.

The Chanukas HaTorah, the great Torah leader of 17th century Poland, points out that Rashi intentionally stressed that the spies saw what happened to Miriam. Our sages teach that when afflictions strike in a private setting, they are hardships for the benefit of the victims. For example, by their experiencing this hardship now, they may be able to receive a greater portion in the World to Come. The affliction ultimately benefits the individual. However, when afflictions strike in a public setting, as is the case with tzaraat, they are a reaction to a sin. Had Miriam been stricken with a private form of affliction, there would be no complaint against the spies for not taking note. They might have assumed that her affliction was for her benefit. It is only because they publicly saw what happened to Miriam that there was this complaint against them. Their seeing the affliction should have alerted them that it was caused by the sin of lashon hara, and taken a lesson from that. Yet, they saw and spoke against the land anyway.

The Talmud (Tractate Arachin 15a) adds that from the story of the spies, we can learn a lesson about the severity of lashon hara. The spies spoke lashon hara about trees and stones the land of Israel and we saw what happened to them. How much more severe is it when we maliciously speak lashon hara against other people?

There are four categories of lashon hara. The first of which is actually called lashon hara. These are true degrading, negative statements spoken to others about a person or institution. For example, "Don't invite Bob. He always spoils the fun," in a case where Bob really does spoil the fun. If the degrading, negative statements are false they fall into a more severe category called motzi shem ra (carrying a bad name). An example would be, "Don't invite Bob. He always spoils the fun," in a case where Bob does not spoil the fun. The third category is known as rechilut. This is telling someone what another person had negatively said about or done to them. For example saying that, "Bob, Sam told me that you spoil the fun," is rechilut. Lastly, there is avak lashon hara ("dust" of lashon hara). These are statements which imply negativity. For example, "If you had seen Bob growing up, you would never have thought that he would accomplish what he did." This implies that Bob was not a good person when he was growing up. In addition, believing words of lashon hara that one hears is usually also prohibited. All of these forms of negative speech are commonly referred to as "lashon hara," although, technically, the statement spoken may be one of the other three forms.

Why does the Torah warn us so strongly against speaking lashon hara? One answer, says the Chofetz Chaim, the author of the definitive work on the subject, is that the sin of lashon hara involves almost all interpersonal mitzvot, in addition to many mitzvot between Man and Hashem. In fact, there are 17 negative commandments and 14 positive commandments that can potentially be transgressed through one declaration of lashon hara. This statistic should awaken us to the severity of this sin. There are many sins that we consider severe and would never think of doing. Yet, in terms of how many different sins have been transgressed in a single action, one sentence of lashon hara contains more than many other major sins combined.

Furthermore, if we are not careful about what we say, we will undoubtedly stumble in this severe sin numerous times each day, each time falling prey to many potential transgressions. If we spend our entire lives without considering this grievous sin, we could be transgressing it hundreds and thousands of times. The Chofetz Chaim compares this to silk threads. Each thread is negligible on its own. However, if many of them are coupled together, eventually a thick rope will be formed. Likewise, if a small sin were to be repeated many times, it would eventually form a thick, severe group. When dealing with a sin like lashon hara, which is severe on its own right, there would be no measure to the destruction caused by its constant repetition.

The evil inclination works hard to entice us in this sin. Often, it will try to falsely convince us that what we are speaking is not considered lashon hara. If this does not work, it will take the other extreme. It will try to convince us that everything we have to say about others is considered lashon hara, thereby not allowing us to ever say anything about anyone. While it may seem that this is a form of great piety, it is actually a disguised form of the evil inclination. It is impossible for people to exist in society without ever needing to speak about other people. A person with the approach never to speak about others would become flustered and give up in a short time.

The proper approach is to learn the laws of lashon hara. The Torah gives specific guidelines, and it is imperative for every Jew to know them. If we do not, we risk the possibility of stumbling in these severe transgressions without ever knowing. The general area in which a person is allowed to speak is in a beneficial situation. The examples given are in situations where someone is looking to do business with or get married to a certain institution or person. These are situations where it is important to find out information. However, the existence of any one of these situations does not automatically permit lashon hara. There are laws governing who may inquire and who may speak, as well as certain conditions to determine how much may be said. All of these issues are clearly dealt with, and it is important for everyone to be familiar with them. Only in this way will we be able to avoid the severe sins involved in speaking lashon hara. (A great way to learn and study these laws is through free, daily e-mails. Just log on to http://www.chofetzchaimusa.org and click "Join the Lesson A Day Mailing List" to sign up!)

When the computer hacker felt remorse for releasing the virus, he realized that it was too late to repair the damage. The same holds true for the words that we speak. Once the negative and degrading words of lashon hara escape our lips, there is no way to recall or repair them. They are left to pursue their own destructive course. The only way to prevent this from happening is by weighing our words before they are said. If we learn to filter our words through the guidelines laid down by Jewish law, we will prevent ourselves from feeling remorseful later, while simultaneously earning tremendous eternal reward. Our words will only be productive and beneficial not derogatory and destructive. By doing this, we will prevent the severe sins that are involved whenever lashon hara is spoken.

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This article is the second installment on "Proper Speech" by Mendel Starkman. You may want to read:
     Prophetably speaking  -   First installment on "Proper Speech"

Mendel Starkman , a native Atlantan, is studying at the Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim in New York.

You are invited to read more Parshat Shelach articles.

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