A weapon is a device which can be used to harm another individual. The form of this device can be one of many, and can be used in various types of situations.
A weapon is a device which can be used to harm another individual. The form of this device can be one of many, and can be used in various types of situations. For example, one can use a gun to kill, a knife to injure, or a nuclear warhead to create a barren wasteland. A person's body itself is equipped with several forms of weapons. A hand can hit, a foot can kick, and if used, each of these can be a formidable opponent. However, how many of us would guess that the most dangerous of all weapons is located within the body and can unleash all its terror without any training whatsoever?
The day after Moses killed an Egyptian for beating a Jew, Moses saw two Jews involved in a heated debate, almost at the verge of a physical exchange. Moses, in rebuke, asked them how two brothers like themselves could raise their hands to fight each other. Not taking well to this rebuke, one of them countered by asking, "Who appointed you as a dignitary, a ruler, and a judge over us? Do you propose to murder me, as you murdered the Egyptian?" (Exodus 2:14). Upon hearing his reply, Moses, frightened and shaken up, made a very profound statement: "Indeed, the matter is known" (ibid.). To which matter is Moses referring?
In explanation of this passage, Rabbeinu Bachya, a 14th century Torah commentator, tells us that until that point, Moses could not understand why, out of all the nations of the world, it was the Jewish people who were forced into backbreaking labor. But now the matter became known to Moses and he understood: It was the sin of gossip and slanderous speech that had made them undeserving of redemption.
This sin is known as lashon hara, and it wasn't only in Egypt that it caused the exile of our people. The combination of lashon hara and baseless hatred also caused the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem, the impact of which we still have not recovered fro m. Even more than that, writes the Chofetz Chaim, the saintly Torah scholar and leader at the turn of this century, amongst the many sins in which we are involved that prevent the coming of Mashiach (the Messiah) and our redemption, number one on that list is lashon hara. So not only did lashon hara cause the extension of the Egyptian bondage, but it also caused the destruction of the second Temple and a prolonged exile from which we have not yet returned.
What is it about lashon hara that makes it such a serious transgression? There are actually many reasons, encompassing the spiritual, intellectual, and mystical realms, several of which will be discussed in this article. A uniqueness that adds to the severity of lashon hara is the fact that there is no real physical desire for it, and speaking lashon hara does not satisfy any real hunger. For example, with a sin such as theft, there is a desire to possess a certain object. However, no physical gain or pleasure is involved in speaking lashon hara. Therefore, being that sins which are driven by desire are severe enough in and of themselves, lashon hara is even worse because there is nothing strongly pushing a person to do it in the first place. Yet, in an almost rebellious way, he still goes and does it! This may be part of the reason why lashon hara, in the words of our sages, "awakens the great prosecution against the Jewish people." For now, not only does the heavenly prosecutor have a regular sin with which to prosecute, he even has our rebellious attitude to hold against us as well.
Another reason why lashon hara is so evil is because it taints one's mouth and weakens one's words of holiness. This is because one is utilizing a vehicle which has the potential to be used for so many positive things, but instead defiles it by speaking with it words of filth. It is like a person who takes an ornate wine glass, designed to hold the finest wines, and instead fills it with mud. Even though he may then fill the goblet with the tastiest wines, that taste will be tainted by the revolting flavor of the mud. So too will our holy words of Torah and prayer be tainted by the filth of lashon hara which was spoken by the very same mouth.
Another reason why lashon hara is such a severe transgression is that it inevitably harms three parties: the speaker, the listener, and the subject. The Chofetz Chaim writes that the speaker and the listener, aside from transgressing the sin of lashon hara itself, can also transgress up to seventeen different negative commandments, fourteen positive commandments, and fall under four curses, all for just speaking a few words. As for the subject, what is said could cause him pain, both physically and emotionally, and could destroy his business, his friendships, and his marriage.
Part of the reason why lashon hara may be so rampant is because people are unaware of exactly what is classified as lashon ara. Many people are under the misconception that only statements which are false are considered lashon hara. (The truth is that false statements are not even technically called lashon hara. They fall under an even worse category called motzi shem rah.) Often we speak under the assumption that the restrictions simply don't apply to the person being spoken about.
However, writes the Chofetz Chaim, in attempting to overcome this grievous sin, one should not fall to the extreme where he decides to never speak about other people at all. Practically, a person cannot live in society by taking that approach. Since there are many times when it is, in fact, permissible to speak about others, forcing oneself to always remain silent will cause the person to be overwhelmed and he will quickly return to his old ways.
Rather, the best way to learn where, when, and how one may speak about others is by studying the appropriate laws that deal with lashon hara. A high ly-acclaimed system to become proficient in these laws is by following a daily calendar, taking just a few minutes of study each day. Aside from learning what is and isn't lashon hara, being involved in study causes one to become more aware of what he says, and that alone will prevent much forbidden speech. To put this system into operation, there is a book in English published recently by Artscroll Publications which is broken down into a daily schedule. The name of the book is Chofetz Chaim: A Lesson a Day. It details the laws of lashon hara as well as giving relevant examples, applications, and stories. It is probably one of the best ways to learn about lashon hara and tune in to what comes out of our mouths.
Now we can understand that the most dangerous weapon we possess is the tongue, for it has the power to destroy, be it a relationship, a business, or even the holy Temple. But if, instead of utilizing our tongues to destroy, we use them to build - by speaking words of Torah, wisdom, character improvement, making peace between people, inspiring others, praising good, striving for truth, and the like - we can turn this weapon into the ultimate aid in spiritual growth and in attaining heavenly reward. May we all be granted heavenly assistance in guarding our tongue from evil and utilizing it only for good. Through this, may we merit the rebuilding of the holy Temple, speedily in our days.
Mendel Starkman, is attending the Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim in Jerusalem.
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