Last year, I had come up against what seemed like an impossible situation. Though I will keep the details of the situation private, I felt like I had truly run out of options.
Amid my growing despair, I thought, why not see if God will help? How do you solicit God’s help? Praying is one way. And I planned to pray. But I wanted to also work on a mitzvah. There’s no better way to get God’s ear to something we’re asking for, than to strengthen our own attention to what He asks of us.
I let my mind juggle ideas for what to work on—kashrut, Shabbat, laws of finances. Nothing seemed to quite fit. And then I landed on it—lashon harah—which roughly translates to avoiding gossip, or evil speech about others–a super-critical mitzvah that is all too easy to ignore.
So, I set up the program: Read one law about how to avoid lashon harah a day, recite the prayer to avoid speaking lashon harah, give charity, recite psalms, and, of course, actually avoid evil speech. I wrote a list of the forms of evil speech that I thought I was most susceptible to. And I set the timeline at 40 days.
Because I was so desperate, I really worked on avoiding evil speech, perhaps more than I ever have before in my life. And as time passed, I was mystified by the result.
Every time I felt the inclination to say something critical about anyone, I checked myself. But I found that I was stopping more than just the speech from happening. In my mind, I kept rationalizing the choice not to say what I was thinking. You know, I’d think, that same quality you’re about to criticize has a positive side as well. Or, maybe the person had other reasons you weren’t thinking of for doing that.
Again and again, these reversals of judgment streamed through my mind, and I found myself experiencing something I had never felt before. I was living with a perspective of non-judgment, which became an experience of unity and acceptance for all the ways that we drift to one extreme or another, make mistakes and fix them, injure and then repair. Gosh, I found myself thinking, not speaking lashon harah is really a path to enlightenment.
Beyond this unexpected benefit, I realized something else. They say that the more we protect our lips from evil speech, the more we protect our ability to use our speech for the positive. Somehow, by silencing my own inner accuser toward other people, I sensed that the external accusers toward me would be silenced as well. I felt like I had a leg to stand on when asking God to provide for my needs. My lips, as an instrument, were unsullied. It made it easier to pray.
Indeed, the situation that I was praying for was resolved. And my forty days came to an end. I stopped making the same effort and slipped back into old habits. I had never considered myself a person who needed to work on lashon harah all that much, to be honest. I already tried to be careful what I said. And yet the difference was still dramatic.
So when Elul came around this year, I found myself returning to the need to work on lashon harah. I had come to believe that indeed – Who is the man who desires life? Who desires years of good fortune? Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from deceitful speech. (psalms 34:13-14) If I can only work on one thing, it has to be this.
On Rosh Hashanah, we ask for life. We wonder what to do to be worthy of it. And yet King David has already given us the answer.
How can we show that we desire life? When we protect our mouths from speaking evil, we change our mindset as well – to one that truly appreciates and accepts the many-colored nature of life, rather than splitting things into narrow divisions of right and wrong. We give God His rightful place as the Dan yechidi, singular Judge, and step back and humbly accept the limitations of our own understanding. What better way to show God our worthiness and usher in the new year?