Gossip. Slander. We love it, it’s so delicious.
Even when we’re trying to stay in a higher state of being, it’s so tempting to bring up the auxiliary elements of the name of a person brought up; of a reference to a time or place with, “Oh, don’t go with her – youknow what she’s like;” or “oh him! Haha he’s so great, remember when…” We use our tales and anecdotes as ways to subliminally colour the pictures we paint of the perceptions of others to one another; and so the reality distorts. Is she really a horrible person, or is it just that one story I heard that one time that made me think of her that way forever more? Is he really inherent a problematic person, or just someone who was in a lot of pain one day and hurt you, and now you’re hurting me in return?
"Some people do crossword puzzles. We judge." - Stanford to Carrie, Sex and the City.
We all drag gallons of garbage into our existence from our interactions with people before and after; and we don’t just carry it – we dump it on the heads of others, sometimes with a sprinkle, sometimes with a complete upending.
The Torah laws of “Protecting our speech” are one of the least-honored, most-struggled with traditions because everybody does it. Everybody gossips, everyone talks about someone else, everybody feels the need to utter a name or a word to just add that tiny touch of color to a story, even if there’s nothing inherently wrong with it. And unlike a more physical ritual that we can use to anchor ourselves in an uplifting, spiritual way, there’s nothing uplifting about swallowing that extra piece of news.
But as we tell the tales and spin the yarns of Lashon Hara, or “Evil Speech” in Hebrew, we color not just our own perceptions of others but start to foster the preconceived notions of others with our own paintbrush. It’s like the classic tale of a woman who arrives at her teacher, contrite about all the evil tales she’d spun over her lifetime. The sage looked at her, shook his head and asked her to go to the marketplace and bring with her a down pillow, filled with feathers, and empty it out in the mind.
On her return, he asked her to collect the feathers, to which she threw her head back and laughed. “Collect the feathers thrown in the wind? They’re gone now.. disappeared forever. You can’t collect even one of them let alone them all!”
They’re lightweight, they travel fast, and they disintegrate into tiny pieces as they go.
And as with feathers, so are our tales, spinning with the force of the stories we tell as they involve one other then another then spin into a massive web of confusion and miscommunication. It’s only by avoiding even mentioning the name of another in conversation, by recognizing the manifestations that occur when we speak the name of another, that you can keep your judgements apart from those of others and create true, meaningful bonds with people.
In the Torah portion of this week, Parshat Tazria, we learn that the ancient punishment for Lashon Hara was a physical affliction – translated as leprosy, actually – but in reality, a far more challenging malady. It was something that began as a small spot, a malady of the skin or home or belongings, which would creep up like mold and fester. The punishment was leaving the camp of the people and spending time alone.
For it’s only alone and in silence that we can truly recognize the power of the words we create, and how they change the entire nature of our relationships with others.
And as with Tzara’at, there are plenty of false alarms. How often do we look at someone and see a legion, a wound, a boil, and assume it means they are afflicted with something horrible? We take our perceptions of another person’s shortcomings and turn that into a judgement on that person. But the laws of “Tzara’at”, this skin disease which represents spiritual maladies in a physical form, indicate that not every lesion is an impure wound, not every apparent scar is a dark mark. Not every patch of blemished skin signifies a major shortcoming, and it’s only by looking at the mark after a period of time, and examining it with a priestly eye, can we determine whether someone truly needs to go through extensive purification or not.
After all, who are we to judge?
On this day, as we greet the New Moon that brings us into the month of Nissan, signifiying springtime, blossoming and moving outward from the confinement of self-imposed boundaries into freedom and springtime, that we learn to leave behind our little white lies on our shoulder that like to gossip and tell tales; and even those pure intentioned speech bubblesthat just like to tell stories of others – and let it rest. Let the speech be of ideas, not people. Let the thoughts be of action, not conversations. Let the action be of unity, not differentiation.
As the New Moon brings newness and leaves behind the trials and triumphs of the last moon, so may this new moon leave behind the ramifications and repercussions of impure speech and let us start again with one another, as new, renewing our connections with people without judgement, without miscommunication, without any speech other than that which is pure, loving and true.
Let us win the war with our speech, and so it will be won in action.