Is it Only a Word?

Is how one says something such a big deal? What is it about the word that makes it affect people like it does?

What is the difference between a word and a physical attack? I hope to show you through a parable. There was once a kingdom that was being attacked. The attackers were outside the walls beginning the attack. Boulders were flung, arrows pierced the air, and soldiers were trying to breach the walls. Some of the boulders and arrows hit their targets, but not enough to claim victory. The soldiers’ mission to breach the castle walls failed. The defending kingdom launched counter attacks which were effective, forcing the attackers to retreat to the forest to re-plan. Days passed and walls were repaired and fortified. After a few days the attackers came up with a plan they were sure would succeed, which was to send a spy into the castle to find a way to get the army inside. The spy was sent, and after some time he sent word back that he found a way into the castle. Once the army was able to make their way into the castle the defending kingdom was lost.

This is the difference between a word and a physical attack. If a person is physically hit the wound will heal sooner than being “hit” by a word which penetrates inside a person just like the walls were repaired within a few days while the defending army was defeated once the attacking army made it inside the castle. The spy who found a way into the castle is like the word that reaches into the depths of a person, while the army is the damage caused by the word. It isn’t easy to recover from that because then the person must fight that idea/word which now made its way inside him.

What’s so special about the word? Why is the word so powerful? The word is invisible, yet it can cause a lot of good or bad. Just like a volcano explodes and shoots out lava and rocks, so too the word can cause feelings to “explode and shoot out”. When the volcano is done erupting it becomes peaceful and quiet again, just like when a person is done releasing his pain, anger, etc. he returns to a more peaceful and relaxed state. The point of this is as long as a negative word is imprisoned within a person it can cause no damage, but when it’s released and free who knows what damage and pain will come from it. When a person has a worry, fear, pain, or any other negative feeling only when he tells another about it does it let up. When he has happiness, joy, or any other positive feeling, it isn’t felt or enjoyed as much until it is shared with another person, as it says in Mishlei (12:25) “Worry in a man’s heart should be spoken out, and a good word will make him happy.” Words are the way to express who we are, the doorway to our soul. And in Orchos Tzadikim The Gate of Slander it mentions that what people talk about is what is always on their mind. The word can teach us so much about a person!

In Shmiras HaLoshon Sha’ar Zechira Perek 2 the Chofetz Chaim quotes the Zohar HaKodesh Parshas Shelach “Rebbi Shimon said, ‘On everything Hashem forgives except loshon hora'”. In Perek 3 the Chofetz Chaim mentions what it says in Chovos HaLevavos in the gate of humility chapter 7 which is many people on their day of judgement will see good deeds they didn’t do and will say we didn’t do these. They will be told these were the deeds of people who spoke disgracefully about you. If they are lacking good deeds they will be told they lost them to the person they spoke disgracefully about. Similarly, if they see sins they didn’t do they will be told the sins belonged to the one they spoke disgracefully about. My question is what can we learn from what the Chovos HaLevavos says? If someone hurts you, makes you mad, etc. then it’s beneficial for you not to speak about them unless you meet the necessary conditions from the laws of loshon hora or rechilus. This situation would also be a great opportunity to grow and become a better person. In Perek 4 the Chofetz Chaim quotes a Midrash and Sifree Zuta Parshas Taytzay “Hakadosh Boruch Hu said, ‘From any type of suffering I can save you, but with loshon hora hide yourself and you won’t be caused a loss.'” If you look throughout the Chumash you will see the results caused by loshon hora. The Chofetz Chaim brings down thirty-one mitzvos D’oraisa one could transgress by speaking loshon hora. Each word is a separate transgression and one could transgress a minimum of ten mitzvos D’oraisa per word. In addition to this punishment there are four curses one could transgress. The mitzvos D’rabanan one could transgress are those dealing mostly with avak loshon hora and avak rechilus and not walking away or plugging one’s ears when hearing loshon hora.

How many times is it possible for a person to transgress the sin of loshon hora/rechilus (speaking, communicating, accepting. or listening to)? Every time he wants to warn you that someone is a thief. Every time he wants to tell you what someone said about you or did to you. Every time he wants to tell you how someone hurt him. Every time he wants to tell you how much it hurts him that someone doesn’t learn Torah or properly observe the commandments. Every time he wants to tell you about his day when other Jews are involved. Every time he makes a joke about someone. Every time one sibling wants to tell on another. Every time another person is included in the conversation or type of communication. The reason why it is possible for someone to transgress loshon hora/rechilus is these cases or any other case loshon hora/rechilus could be spoken is because the necessary conditions, to permit them to speak, were not met. Hundreds of words of loshon hora could be spoken, communicated, accepted, or listened to in minutes. Imagine all the commandments from the Torah one could transgress in that short amount of time. Let’s say you want to build a house You buy all of the supplies needed. You work hard every single day. You make tremendous sacrifices to build that house. Finally after completing the house you look at it with pride, joy, and a great feeling of accomplishment. At the same time Ploni is building his house right across the street from yours. The difference between your house and Ploni’s is his house isn’t safe for anyone to live in. Yehuda walks by and you tell him something negative about Ploni. Imagine all of a sudden your house switches places with Ploni’s house. Now this unsafe house belongs to you while Ploni has a beautiful house to live in. What would you think? How would you feel? Ploni’s house is equal to his sins and your house is equal to your mitzvos. The mitzvos you sometimes make sacrifices to do could be lost to the subject if you speak loshon hora/rechilus about him.

One of the most beautiful things about speech is it can create and build. It can create a good self-image, hope, peace, etc. With words a person can be strengthened, learn, teach, etc. Words can build hopes and dreams. Words can let someone know they are cared for.

Unfortunately, the word can also be used to cause pain. With words two nations could be at war, a child’s self-esteem destroyed, a person can give up, hopes and dreams could be shattered, jobs could be lost, shidduchim destroyed, etc. When words ar used negatively, purposely or no, lives can be drastically changed or destroyed. Families can become poor and respect can be lost.

Interestingly enough we could be making sacrifices to give tzedakah to a person, family, or institution needing money due to someone’s loshon hora or rumors. If we work on guarding hour tongues, maybe that will mean one more person gets to keep his job and his dignity minimally.

Imagine if one word or fact was changed as loshon hora or a rumor gets spread, like usually happens when the game telephone is played. Now imagine if that change would make the subject look bad, when without it he would look good or at the very least not as bad. If that loshon hora becomes accepted and passed around, then that person is suffering unnecessarily. Imagine you are the subject, how would you feel? Imagine feeling powerless to change this loshon hora or rumor. Try stopping a rock after it has been thrown, an arrow after it has been shot, a bullet, or a missile. The more people believe loshon hora or a rumor the stronger it becomes and the harder it is to stop, even if it’s false. Would you throw a rock into a busy street? Most people would say no and the reason why is because they don’t want to take chance at hurting or killing someone or causing damage to someone’s property. We should look at speech in the same way. Just because we don’t see, feel, hear about the damage done, whether immediate or not, doesn’t mean it won’t or can’t happen.

We, as a nation, know what it is like to be the subject of lies and rumors. We, as a nation, know what evil destruction can come from words like false accusations of how we murdered non-Jewish children for Pesach. We, as a nation, have seen the difference one word or fact can have which can change a story from truth to lies. We, as a nation, know how a story can change by adding or stressing certain words or ideas.

Put aside the laws, rewards, and punishments for a moment and just contemplate the power we hold. We truly hold an unbelievable power as it says in Mishlei (18:21) “Death and life are in the power of the tongue”.

I would like to end with a law I feel shows how careful we have to be with the laws of loshon hora. In hilchos rechilus klal 6 se’ef 3 the Chofetz Chaim talks about accepting rechilus and he brings down two examples to explain this law. I will tell you about one of the examples he mentions. Shimon is renting land from a non-Jew and one day the non-Jew tells him he can no longer rent the land. Shimon doesn’t know if a Jew informed on him or if the non-Jew chose to do this on his own. Shimon is forbidden to suspect a Jew of informing on him, unless he has devorim hanicorim on this Jew (the laws of devorim hanicorim are discussed elsewhere), because we have to judge others favorably. When Shimon asks this non-Jew why he is being kicked off his property, the non-Jew blames it on another Jew. The Chofetz Chaim tells us that in our many sins what happens is Shimon believes the non-Jew, bears a grudge against the Jew, and then purposely informs on this Jew. Even if Shimon hears that this other Jew did cause him the damage, he is still forbidden to believe the story. What Shimon can do is act cautiously (these laws are also dealt with elsewhere), but Shimon is still forbidden to believe this story. Even if Shimon hears people arguing with this other Jew, saying what he did was extremely wrong and this other Jew is silent, Shimon is still forbidden to believe that story.