Every kind of trafficking in evil report or rumors—whether true or not—by carrying them from one person to another, or by relating unpleasant or harmful facts about another, is forbidden.
–The Encyclopedia of Jewish Religion
Words with Friends
A few months ago, I was having a conversation with Ilene, one of my closest friends, about some issues that persistently tear my family down. One of the things I love about Ilene is that she comes from a family that is truly Jewish—she knows way more than most American Jews about their history, culture, religion, philosophies and many things both Yiddish and Hebrew. I come from a staunchly Christian family. I know a hundred hymns by heart and I can quote Scripture at the drop of a hat. Over the years I have learned many different perspectives from Ilene, and I can talk faith and family freely without recourse (or remorse). So, I told her about the spirit of negativity that hangs over us and influences our speech.
Invariably, when our family gets together, one or two of us finds ourselves at odds with another, and walks away hurt and damaged. What’s the deal? Why can’t we lift each other up and focus on the good things God has done for us? Why do we expect each other to agree all the time and get twisted when someone has a different viewpoint? We are all adults between the ages of 58 and 89; why do we dig our heels in and insist on being right? What happened to the compassion and tolerance we crow about and the love of God we say we have? It all seems to turn into a great big soapbox when we’re at odds with each other. We’ll pray together then say things that are hurtful and only vaguely accurate afterward.
As I spilled a heavy heart into the phone, Ilene just listened. After a while she broke in and said, “You know, we Jews have a term for that, we call it lashon hara, and maybe it’s something you and your family need to learn.”
Bless her heart!
Of all the axioms about wagging tongues, I dislike this one the most: If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. To say the least, it’s way off-base. For starters, sometimes we need to tell the truth even when it’s unpleasant. Second, what is “nice” anyway? In my mind, it’s insincere or trite at best: “He’s a nice Christian boy,” when all we know is that his parents go to church, or “she runs a nice 50-metre dash,” when she came in next to last in yesterday’s heat, or “I picked up some nice apples at the market today,” as if there was a choice between nice apples and rude ones. I don’t think “nice” is a real word unless you’re talking about giving someone a lift home.
My brother and sister-in-law have a way of making fun of meaningless words. When someone says something is “nice”, it means absolutely nothing, so they respond with an innocuous term of their own: “bless her heart!” It’s an acknowledgment of empty words with none the wiser. I love it.
The words of a whisperer are like delicious morsels; they go down into the inner parts of the body.
Insincerity has a way of blurring communication and “making nice” can be more confounding than comforting. It’s actually condescending the way most of us do it. But even that’s trivial compared to other things we say to each other—or worse, to a third party—even when we mean it in a “nice” way. We pass on comments and stories without giving a second thought to whom we are speaking or to the potential consequences. Often, we are fully aware of what comes out of our mouths while other times we’re just so used to wagging and putting up defences that we give no regard to our words or their effect on another person.
Jews have this one nailed, and it’s a world away from simply not speaking nice. Lashon hara is straight up damaging speech—regardless of intention.
I didn’t want to hurt your feelings
In my family, rather than tell someone there’s snot on their nose, we look away or say dad’s getting tired, it’s time to leave. We’re the kind of family that throws the soup away, tell each other how awful it was, then tell the culprit how much we enjoyed it. We call that “not wanting to hurt their feelings”. But I’d rather be told the truth than be disparaged at the dinner table, because now I’ve made that damn soup again and I can read faces—there’s something going on and I’m the only one who’s not in on it.
A dishonest man spreads strife, and a whisperer separates close friends.
My family also doesn’t like to stand on their own two feet–we prefer to stand on someone else’s feet and toss around phrases like, “I’m not the only one who thinks that way, your brothers and sister say the same thing.” Or my personal favourite, “Everyone knows you have mental health issues; you don’t realize how mixed up and forgetful you get,”—as if it isn’t human to get confused once in a while or forget something that I never was clear on from the start, or worse, have a change of mind. But if everyone knows, I guess it’s true. Sometimes, rather than bringing in the whole supporting cast, we’ll wait until the unsuspecting person is defenceless and pounce. Like working an extra hour and showing up at one o’clock instead of noon to go to the grocery store that’s open until midnight—that earns an earful months later when a whole different issue is at hand. I may be filing an insurance renewal a month in advance because I’m “likely to forget over the next four weeks,” when out of the blue the conversation shifts: “Three months ago I waited for you to take me to the store but you forgot and sauntered in an hour late like it didn’t even matter!” Gulp. Coming from someone 25 years older who actually does have memory issues, that not only hurts, it’s impossible to defend.
I admit, I had some challenges about four years ago and went to see a psychiatrist to help me get my life back. I’ve been taking medication daily ever since because it has helped me become more balanced and, quite frankly, I’m too scared to ever go back to that dreadful, clinically depressed life. At the time, my family thought it was a good idea, too—asking for help takes courage and shows a desire to get better, they said (wrong—it would have taken more courage not to get help, to continue in a bottomless spiral until the lights faded on their own). Somehow, that encouragement and support turned into an Achilles Heel. Now the go-to phrases are, “You know, she has problems,” and “Don’t say anything in front of her because she’s on medication and gets mixed up.” And best of all, without fail, if I harbour a sense of melancholy, my thoughts are not totally present, or I’m feeling stressed about deadlines, I get: “Are you taking your meds? You’ve been ‘off’ lately.” Well, yeah, a dear friend died this week and I’m feeling terribly sad. But somehow, I’ve lost the right to express, in words or demeanor, a range of basic human emotions other than happiness and gratitude. No doubt these things are said with the best intentions—no one actually wants to hurt someone else’s feelings . . . do they? See, in my family, we’re not too proud to be condescending or dismissive when it suits us.
Those kinds of comments, spoken directly or to a third party, spread stories that are hurtful. Even the personal jibes about taking meds is deeply condescending; they should have no place in our lives, much less our speech.
We’re a Christian family!
I know, every family has issues. Some families are so disconnected that they rarely even see each other, if ever. They live countries apart, and if it weren’t for Facebook or WhatsApp, they’d forget they even have family back in Jersey. Some parents and siblings actually detest each other—they’d rather eat poison than attend a reunion—showing up for weddings is painful enough. And by the time they get around to coming home to see mom and dad, mom’s got Alzheimer’s and doesn’t recognize anyone and dad’s in hospice. Even their own kids have grown up and have kids of their own. And that family back in Jersey? They’re all pretty much strangers. I know these people, they’re my friends.
But my family isn’t like that. Sometimes a few of us will go to church together if it’s a special occasion and we’re feeling up to it, and we do make an effort to spend Easter and Boxing Day together, as well as try to share Sunday dinners whenever possible. But it’s not unusual to end our little gatherings with someone getting upset and walking out. That is, except for my oldest brother who always stays calm—he’s a real ostrich. He lives with my parents, so he just goes to his room and takes a nap while the rest of us struggle to be civil to each other and figure out how to care for aging parents without them hating us.
There’s no doubt that we are a family that truly loves each other and sometimes that’s the problem. We fight because we want to fix things—we want to fix each other. Seeing any one of us struggle is hard, we can’t leave them alone to work things out for themselves—we have to jump in wholesale because we alone have the proper insight. And what makes our relationships even more volatile is that “light conversation” for us is deeply philosophical—we don’t discuss starlets and fashion, we talk about issues that require an deep interest and extensive understanding of social issues, politics, and religion—a profound and deadly trio. It’s not that we’re intentionally meddling, but it may be the lack of families (in particular, children) of our own that steers our conversations from pleasantries to passion-tries. We’re a family of adults with difficult and complex childhoods—we have adult-sized ideas and giant-sized confrontations. We’re not so good at walking a tight-rope, but we never stop trying. As my sister says, our family thrives on insanity—we keep doing the same things over and over, hoping for different results.
But I’ve gotten off-track. That happens when I start digging into the mire of family dynamics. It’s just so damn deep.
Lashon hara—it’s not just talking about someone behind their back and It’s not simply saying things that aren’t nice about someone, even though it’s a downright fact and that “someone” is part of the conversation. It isn’t about telling the truth or telling lies, either. Lashon hara is any talk that can have a negative effect on another person. Period.
So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire!
The rabbis of late antiquity would say of one who indulges in lashon hara that he denies the existence of God, and that the Almighty declares “I and he cannot live in the same world” (Babylonian Talmud Arakhin 15b). Now, for those who only understand the King James version of the Bible, Leviticus 19:16 says, “You shall not go up and down as a tale-bearer among your people, and you shall not stand up against the life of your neighbour:” That sounds pretty much like a commandment to me, and it says absolutely nothing about truth or lies, because they do not come to bear on the fundamental issue of telling stories, gossiping, dropping names, etc. Truth and untruth can be equally damaging, regardless of intent, and neither one limits the scope of lashon hara. “Your brothers and sister say the same thing.” Do they? Whether they do or not, you say so, and that’s what matters; bringing others into the conversation damages relationships that aren’t even peripheral to the situation.
When a spirit of negativity besets a home, it leaves a trail of crumbs. Maybe it leads all the way back to family beginnings, or a series of events over time, or even a singular traumatic event. In my family, it started as far back as I can remember. Our churches seemed to take pride in pointing fingers, speaking lashon hara against each other and society at large. It was the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s; the Bahamas was exclusive in its collective thinking and our elders and deacons led the charge. They whispered shame on families, they shouted damnation from pulpits. They carried their noses high and harboured ill-will toward others. They opined and condemned.
But back at home we were renegades, throwing open our doors and resources to the very people being publicly humiliated. One day my dad “rescued” a German prostitute who “worked” at the casino on Paradise Island. She was found in tremendous despair (and tremendously high), attempting to end her life. The hotel called my dad because everyone knew he would give her sanctuary, not sermons. I wasn’t particularly pleased about giving up my room and some of my favourite clothes, especially when, two days later, she split, taking a few pieces of my mother’s jewelry and some tuna sandwiches with her. But we weren’t deterred–we went against the holy grain—and soon we were the ones being talked about and admonished, the subjects of secrets and stories. You’d think we might have learned from the pain and coldness we suffered as the targets of lashon hara, yet we remained a part of that big, messy community—a destructive culture that fit snugly into Bible Club lessons, Easter conferences and Sunday sermons. Telling stories was justified as cautionary tales, as if God approved them himself. Although we knew the destructiveness of lashon hara, we never really applied its principles, which could have saved us from years of self-inflicted wounds. Instead, as we grew, so did our wagging tongues—we embraced that small island culture. And even as it poisoned us, we nurtured it.
For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.
Evil tongues hurt everyone, and as we pass lashon hara down through the generations, we pass down its consequences—shame and destruction. We wear the scars of it under our skin while we watch it wreak havoc on others, its spoils strewn about needlessly as strained relationships, broken hearts, chronic sadness and irreparable damage. But we are not indebted to our past. We can change ourselves and our family dynamics, no matter how old the family unit is. God pursued the Israelites for thousands of years because he loved them so much—opportunity after opportunity he gave them to have a change of heart and return to him. That God would wait so long for the transformation of his people is proof enough to me that generations of wrongs can still be made right.
A gentle tongue is a tree of life, but perverseness in it breaks the spirit.
To be honest, my parents are in their 80s and struggle with health issues and dementia. My mother was always the keeper of the keys, chasing down five children, working outside the home, maintaining peace and structure inside the home, and somehow mastering the art of being a pastor’s wife in the sweltering Bahamian sun, which was probably the most challenging of all. Neuroses likely stuck its first tentacles into her psyche (and maybe the rest of us, too) when my oldest brother went off to boarding school and my sister morphed into a beautiful and rebellious teenager. Naturally, as my mother ages, she becomes less able to manage all the things she once did—it’s a sad and helpless feeling when having control of your own life ebbs away. She has become indecisive and forgetful, but doesn’t want to travel that dark road alone—so, being the primary caregiver, she takes me along as a target of her mental mis-steps. Always a strong decision-maker and organizer, she still expects things to get done on her timetable. Me? I’ll wait until the last minute to do something, and that causes her great anxiety. But she can’t comprehend all the things I have on my plate—for her, my dad, their house, my work, my house, my church, my dog and myself. Loss of control has created resentment, and a critical spirit has woven its way into her thought processes. No doubt dementia is to blame for some of the things she says and the stories she tells, but they are still hurtful and damaging, although we’re working on improving ourselves. Regardless of the circumstances, it’s still lashon hara—and we are competent enough to recognize it and not be participants and accomplices.
My dad, always kindhearted and compassionate, is 89 and in poor health. He suffers from a number of ailments, the worst of which is extreme anxiety and progressive dementia. After sixty-five years of marriage, he’s learned not to challenge his bride—it keeps the peace but it leaves me standing in harm’s way. Often, his dementia makes him fearful, and that never elicits positive reactions. When it feels like the world is crashing down on you, the darkest experiences come to light. The stories are never good.
But the challenges of caregiving are a whole other story. The effects of lashon hara in an aging home are unique and complex, piling dejection over already damaged bodies and minds.
Yet, difficult as it is, we must try to focus our thoughts on using words and telling stories that heal instead of hurt. We must work together as a family to end the generational perpetration of destructive speech—it will take a strong, long-term commitment, but it will also take pain and humiliation away, making room for sincerity and compassion—things that are worth spreading.
Feathers: a parable
The Chassidic Jews of Eastern Europe loved to tell simple folk tales about their rebbes that contained profound spiritual, allegorical and philosophical truths. Feathers teaches the perils of lasha hara.
In a small town somewhere in the Polish woodlands lived a very nice man named Herman with a not-so-nice habit: he talked a lot about other people. Whenever Herman heard a story about somebody, even if he didn’t know them, he had to tell it to others. Herman owned his own business so he heard lots of stories from his customers. He loved the attention when he re-told the stories and made people laugh. Sometimes he even added small details of his own to make them funnier. He kind of felt it was wrong, but the stories really did happen, so they were just innocent and entertaining, right? After all, Herman was really a pleasant, goodhearted man.
One day, Herman found out something odd but true about another businessman. Naturally, he felt compelled to share it with his friends and customers, who told it to their friends, who told it to their friends. And so it went, until his colleague heard it himself. Crushed, he ran to his rabbi crying that he was ruined. His good reputation had gone up in smoke!
Well, the rabbi asked Herman to come by his office to speak with him, and when Herman heard how devastated his colleague was, he felt truly sorry. He honestly never thought it was such a big deal to tell the story because it was true. The rabbi sighed. “True, not true, it makes no difference! You just cannot tell stories about people. This is all lashon hara and it’s like murder—you kill a person’s reputation and his spirit.” Now Herman, who spread the story, felt deeply sorry. “What can I do?” he asked. “I will do anything to make this right.”
The rabbi looked at him. “Do you have a feather pillow at home?” “Yes, rabbi, I have many of them,” he answered. “Just bring me one,” the rabbi told him. An hour later Herman returned with a feather pillow. The rabbi opened the window and handed him a knife, “Cut it open.” As Herman cut the pillow, a cloud of feathers came puffing out. There were feathers on the chairs, the desk, the bookcase, the floor, on him and the rabbi, and many more swirled out of the window. When the feathers had settled, the rabbi ordered Herman to gather all of them up and stuff them back into the pillowcase—every single one. “That’s impossible, rabbi, some have landed who knows where!” “Yes,” said the rabbi, “that’s how it is: once words leave your mouth, true or not, you can never get them back. The damage is done.” The rabbi told Herman to apologize to his colleague and the people he told the story to, because he had made them accomplices in lashon hara.
Herman began to study the laws of lashon hara. Eventually, his heart was transformed and he told new stories of what he’d learned about the importance of guarding one’s tongue.