Diane Gensler
Hadassah Educators Council

The Sins That Come Out of Our Mouths (Figuratively, Of Course)

Artwork supplied by the author.
Artwork supplied by the author.

It is past the High Holy Days and Sukkot. But I am still thinking about the prayers we recited during Yom Kippur. As Rhoda Smolow, National President of Hadassah, wrote in September 2021, this is ….”the point in the Jewish calendar when we celebrate new beginnings, take stock, reflect, and atone – and set our intentions for the New Year.” I’m thinking about the Yom Kippur prayers because every year I make a “New Year’s Resolution.” And every year I always make the same one because I never seem to achieve it the entire year.

This year our rabbi addressed my “resolution” before we recited the Al Chet prayer. He said the majority of sins mentioned in this prayer are ones that come out of our mouths. So, once again, I promise myself that I will not say anything negative about anyone. There are other wrongdoings that one can commit using speech, but this is the one I focus on. How long was I able to keep my resolution this year? Oh maybe a day. But I’m still trying….

Here are the lines from the Al Chet prayer I find particularly relevant:

And for the sin which we have committed before You with an utterance of the lips.
And for the sin which we have committed before You through speech.
For the sin which we have committed before You by impurity of speech.
And for the sin which we have committed before You by foolish talk.
And for the sin which we have committed before You by tale-bearing.

And I must include the chorus of this prayer:
For all these, God of pardon, pardon us, forgive us, atone for us. 

The sin I am focusing on is slander. Well, maybe not slander exactly. I don’t utter false statements about people. But I do talk about people. So, I suppose I’m referring to gossip. I’m also talking about “lashon hara,” speaking about another person’s mistakes, shortcomings, indiscretions, etc. You get the idea. It’s about spreading negativity and damaging a person’s reputation.

I don’t think anyone should be talking about anyone else unless it’s praising or complimenting them or perhaps relaying something that happened to them that is already public knowledge.

Even more difficult than trying to stifle my own tongue is to impress the importance of this to our three teenagers. Oh, how the teenage drama can fly. And today the teens are on social media and all sorts of apps, and it is so easy to type, send or post something without thinking about the consequences. This can be an entire separate article if we want to get into that. But let’s just suffice it to say that, in my opinion, these wrongdoings seem far easier to commit today.

When I utter the lines from Al Chet I cited above, I can recall the terrible things I’ve said about people, and I immediately feel remorse. Well, I usually feel remorse shortly after I said what I said. The sad part is that once you utter the words, you can’t take them back. There’s no fixing it. Your audience will most likely remember what you said and view that person differently as a result of your speech. You can’t “unring that bell.” You must move forward and try to be better.

So, if I can improve in this area, the problem becomes what to do when I hear it from others. I’m not talking about strangers either. I’m talking about my friends and family!! What do I do when I hear them talking badly about other people? This happened to me during the holiday! I don’t believe the speakers had malicious intent. I feel that it is a matter of not knowing better or realizing the mistake.

According to the Talmud, it is forbidden to listen to “lashon hara.” I didn’t even realize that. I only know that it makes me feel uncomfortable.

Sometimes I see this happening between my friends! One friend is talking about how she disagrees with what another friend did or is speaking negatively about the other’s personal affairs or misbehavior by the friend’s children or something else. Oy vey! Sometimes there is no need for non-Jewish people to say dreadful things about us. We are doing it to ourselves!

Sometimes we commit this transgression within our own families. I admit that there have been times when I’ve spoken badly about one of my children with another child present. Or, even worse, I’ve said something negative about my husband with my children in the room! Forgive me, pardon me, grant me atonement. What was I thinking?

So, what do I do when someone else is spewing negativity about someone else? In the past, I’ve sat and said nothing. That doesn’t solve the problem. At the time, I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t know how to deflect the conversation. If a close member of my family is committing this sin, I will point it out. I will say that I am trying to be a better person. I will ask if we can change the subject. Or I may ask if we can talk about the person in a more positive light.

If it is one of our children, I might ask if they’d want those things said about them. I might remind them of likely consequences if the negative comments get repeated or even related back to the person. If the children are discussing something they don’t like about a person, I may ask them if they think that person can change. “How can change be brought about?” I may ask. After all, isn’t that the whole point – for us to change and become better people?

We even must be careful about giving a compliment, because sometimes a compliment can be double-sided. Do you deliberately say something positive about a person to highlight the negative? For example, might you say that So-and-So’s child is so good at (insert sport, talent, skill, hobby, activity, etc.) even though his/her/their mother/father/brother/sister, etc. is not? That is not a compliment either.

Once I was criticized at my job because of my delay in answering a question. I believe that in business, people see this as a weakness. The reason for my pause? Because I carefully consider what I’m going to say before I say it. The question asked of me was about a coworker.

Perhaps if we could all take a moment and think before we speak, better things may come out of our mouths. I don’t think most people want to possess an “evil tongue” (the direct translation of “lashon hara”). Let’s try to be more thoughtful of others, especially upon this new Jewish year.

G’mar Chatimah Tovah

About the Author
Diane Gensler is a Life Member of Hadassah Baltimore, a member of the Hadassah Educators Council and the Hadassah Writers' Circle, and a lay leader in her synagogue. She is the author of Forgive Us Our Trespasses: A Memoir of a Jewish Teacher in a Catholic School (Apprentice House Press, 2020) and occasionally writes articles for organizations of which she is a member, such as the Jewish Genealogy Society of Maryland. She is a certified English and special education teacher. In addition to teaching in public and private schools, she developed educational software, tutored online and wrote and managed online curriculum. She is a Maryland Writing Project Teacher Consultant and a mentor. A native Baltimorean and mother of three, she leads the Baltimore Jewish Writers Guild and holds volunteer positions in her children’s schools and activities.
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