How to Combat Lashon Hara: The Power of Words and Kindness
I’d like to talk a little bit about the power of words and kindness.
We’ve all heard, and probably said, as children, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” How untrue! We all have seen the emotional harm that abusive speech can do to an individual. We’ve also seen the harm that hate speech can do to a group, that victims can experience negative emotional, mental and physical consequences. In its use of stereotypes and disinformation, hate speech can be used to normalize discrimination. And of course, hate speech can lead to hate crimes such as the one we in Pittsburgh witnessed in our own region at the Tree of Life Synagogue in 2018.
Getting a little nearer to home, a close relative of hate speech, or abusive speech, is gossip, lashon hara, in Hebrew. I’m not throwing stones here because, unfortunately, I live in that glass house. I’ve gossiped and still occasionally do, in spite of my best efforts. The sages considered lashon hara as bad as the three cardinal sins, murder, idolatry and incest. In the Torah, the punishment God inflicted on people who engaged in lashon hara was what today we would call leprosy – a pretty extreme punishment!
So why is lashon hara so bad? It not only harms the subject of the gossip but also the person who gossips and the person who hears it. Gossiping about someone is like emptying a feather pillow into the wind: once it’s done, there’s no way to take it back. It acquires a life of its own and lives on, sometimes in a distorted form, as it passes from person to person.
How do we combat lashon hara? What is its positive counterparts? I believe they are kindness and praise. Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, former Chief Rabbi of the UK, z”l, wrote a beautiful essay about the power of praise. In it, he quotes a speech therapist whose technique for curing stammering involved altering family dynamics by requiring each family member to observe and praise an act of kindness done by other family members during the day. The praise had to be daily, specific and sincere. The family had to learn to both give and receive praise, and this, said Rabbi Sacks, created an environment of “mutual self-respect and continuous positive reinforcement.”
How easy this seems to do and what huge benefits result!
Pirkei Avot (The Ethics of the Fathers), a compilation of ethical teachings and stories from the Rabbinic Jewish tradition, teaches us that the world stands on three things: Torah, the service of God, and acts of loving kindness. My daughter and son-in-law have a dinnertime ritual that involves asking my grandchildren, “What have you done today that was kind?” I’d like to suggest that we, in our Hadassah family, ask ourselves the same thing. In our dealings with each other every day, let us ask ourselves, “Have we done something kind? Have we praised someone for a kindness that person did?”
I’d like to close with a quote from the prayer for peace in the Conservative prayer book, Siddur Sim Shalom.: “[W]e have not come into being to hate or to destroy, we have come into being to praise, to labor and to love.”