The Mensch Diaries
8 MIN READ

#5 Shut Down Gossip

This week on our quest for “mensch-iness,” we will look at the commandment for avoiding hurtful speech and gossip. Along the way, we will learn some new Hebrew words — the laws of lashon hara, or evil tongue/evil speech — to define these anti-mensch-y transgressions. 

Many of us believe that gossip, nasty words, or negative speech that causes emotional, financial, or physical pain is acceptable if this speech is in fact true. This, however, could not be further from the truth. Gossip is lashon hara even or especially if it is true. 

Only one type of lashon hara reflects telling or spreading lies. Speaking lies or slander is called motzi shem ra, spreading a bad name. It’s easy to imagine how lies and even exaggeration can unfairly damage someone’s reputation. There are two commandments that explicitly prohibit lying: 

  1. Lo tisa shema shav: You shall not utter a false report. 
  2. Midavar sheker tirchak: You shall distance yourself from anything false.

And guess what, my friends? Lashon hara is a transgression of decent, “mensch-y” behavior not only when it’s true, but even when, “Everyone already knows this,” and when, “I would say it right to her face!” and when, “I was only kidding!” In the Torah, which I like to think of as the owner’s manual for living a mensch-y life, we find many references to this prohibition. Let me share a few with you:

Lo telech rachil b’ameicha: Do not go about as a talebearer among your people. This is the basic prohibition against speaking lashon hara.

Lifnei ‘iver lo titen michshol: Do not place a stumbling block before the blind. This means that we don’t set people up to fail when they are already vulnerable. One who speaks lashon hara opens the door for others to violate the prohibitions as well.

Zachor et asher asa H’ Elokeicha l’Miriam: Remember what God did to Miriam. When Miriam spoke negatively against her brother Moses, she was afflicted with tzara’at, a skin condition that was an outer manifestation of an inner problem that could only be healed by “separating from the community.” It makes sense, doesn’t it? When someone gossips not only are they “infected,” but they also infect the person listening and the person being spoken about. Ultimately, a gossip ends up socially ostracized!  

V’ahavta l’rei’echa kamocha: Love your neighbor as yourself, the golden rule that teaches us to speak to and treat others the way we wish to be treated. We learn that it says “as yourself” because when it comes to ourselves, there are a million reasons, rationalizations, and excuses to feel like what we did, said, or thought was of a pure origin. If we can do that for ourselves, whom we love enough to give the benefit of the doubt, then we must do it for our neighbors as well! 

The human being, if you recall from the introduction to this series, is a creature imbued with the capacity for self-control, with free will where it relates to moral choices. And the Almighty is pretty clear that when it comes to the gift of speech, we are meant to choose kindness, care, and consideration. 

Our sages teach us that mankind is called a nefesh chaim, a speaking soul. The world, we learn, was spoken into existence, and the 10 Commandments are more accurately called, “The 10 utterances.” The gift of speech allows us to communicate and create waves of positivity, or trigger tsunamis of destruction. The world is both made and potentially destroyed by words. And we all know that if the pen is mightier than the sword, the tongue is even mightier.

Momentum Founding Director Lori Palatnik wrote an exceptional book about gossip and within it included this list, which I like to think of as the ultimate top 10 list for speaking like a mensch. (For more, see Gossip – Ten Pathways to Eliminate It From Your Life and Transform Your Soul, by Lori Palatnik and Bob Burg).

  1. Speak No Evil: Say only positive statements. Let words of kindness be on your tongue.
  2. Hear No Evil: Refuse to listen to gossip, slander, and other negative forms of speech.
  3. Don’t Rationalize Destructive Speech: Excuses like “But it’s true” or “I’m only joking” or “I can tell my spouse anything” just don’t cut it.
  4. See No Evil: Judge people favorably, the way you would want them to judge you.
  5. Beware of Speaking Evil Without Saying an Evil Word: Body language and even positive speech can bring tremendous destruction.
  6. Be Humble; Avoid Arrogance: These will be your greatest weapons against destructive speech.
  7. Beware of Repeating Information: Loose lips sink ships. Even positive information needs permission before being repeated.
  8. Honesty Really Is the Best Policy – Most of the Time: Be careful to always tell the truth, unless it will hurt others, break your own privacy or publicize your accomplishments.
  9. Learn to Say “I’m Sorry.”: Everyone makes mistakes. If you’ve spoken badly about someone, clear it up immediately.
  10. Forgive: If you have been wronged, let it go.

In our family, we had a little tune that we sang when we thought we heard one of us gossiping. It was more respectful than the outright, “Mom, you’re gossiping!” Because even though I was proud of my children’s desire to adhere to the laws of speech, they could not correct me without doing so respectfully. Hence, the little tune. Often when I was on the phone with a friend, I would hear a little refrain at the doorway and see a little child smirking at me as they sang. 

My children knew that they could tell me anything that happened during their day, providing they did not use names. The purpose of telling me was to process it, not to relish it. Names could only be used if they believed that they or a peer was in danger.

One of the greatest compliments that is often heard, and frequently at funerals, is this: “She never had a bad thing to say about anyone!” That is what we want people to say about us. That is what they say about a mensch!

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