Let's Listen To Some Lashon Hara

By: rabbi jay kelman |

“Rav Yehuda said in the name of Rav: the majority [of people sin] regarding theft, a minority regarding adultery, and all with lashon hara” (Bava Batra 165a).  

Not surprisingly, these three sins make up a significant portion of the al chets we recite on Yom Kippur. And if one wonders what areas one might focus on in seeking to do better, any of the above would be a good place to start. 

When we think of the sin of lashon hara we tend to focus on the sin of inappropriate speech, on putting others down, of questioning the motives of others, or just plain gossip and the like. And it is easy to understand why we do so. As we tend to judge ourselves relative to others, putting others down has the advantage of elevating ourselves without actually putting in the hard work necessary to improve our character. It is so much easier to put others down than to try to raise ourselves up.

However, there is a flip side to lashon hara, one that our Sages viewed with great, perhaps even equal, severity. “Rava said: This lashon hara, even though we need not believe it, we do need to fear [that it is true]” (Niddah 61a). Fascinatingly, it is this side of lashon hara that our Sages wanted us to focus on as we transition from Rosh Hashanah to Yom Kippur. 

In the year 586 BCE, the Babylonians destroyed the Temple. Nebuchadnezar, King of Bavel, appointed Gedaliah ben Achikam as governor in Judea to tend to those Jews who remained in Israel. Gedaliah urged the people to be loyal citizens to their foreign rulers, assuring them that “things will go well” (Yirmiyahu 40:9). And so they did, so much so that “the Judeans who were in Moab, Ammon, and Edom, or who were in other lands, heard that the king of Babylon had let a remnant stay in Judah, and that he had put Gedaliah son of Achikam, son of Shaphan in charge of them. All the Judeans returned from all the places to which they had scattered. They came to the land of Judah, to Gedaliah at Mizpah, and they gathered large quantities of wine and figs” (Yirmiyahu 40:10-11). The Temple was no longer, but Jewish life was thriving in the land of Israel. 

Yet not all were happy with this turn of events. That the King of Amon, seeking to expand his power, would be happy to see Gedaliah removed is not surprising. That he would plot his assassination is not shocking. That such would be carried out by a Jew, Yishmael ben Netania, is beyond tragic[1]. Compounding the tragedy is the fact that Gedaliah was warned of this exact plot. “But Gedaliah son of Achikam would not believe them[2]” (Yirmiyahu 40:13).

Tragically, the righteousness of Gedaliah in refusing to believe lashon hara cost him his life, and led to the complete exile of the Jewish people from the land of Israel. This was a heartbreaking mistake on his part. Or so I would have thought. Our Sages, however, had a less charitable view of Gedaliah.

“'Now the pit wherein Yishmael cast all the dead bodies of the men whom he had slain by the hand of Gedaliah' (Yirmiyahu 41:9). Was it Gedaliah who killed them [the others who were assassinated with him]? Was it not in fact Yishmael who killed them? Since he should have feared the advice of Yochanan the son of Kareach and did not do so, Scripture regards him as though he had killed them” (Nidah 61a).

This sounds almost cruel. Why blame the victim not only for his death, but for the deaths of so many? Why not praise his aversion to lashon hara

Our Sages fully understood that Gedaliah meant well. But the best of intentions mean little in the real world. Sadly, he was—to borrow a rabbinic phrase—“a righteous fool”. 

Yet more than criticizing Gedaliah, our Sages were warning others to learn from his tragic mistake. Thus, in reviewing the lessons of the destruction of the second Temple, our rabbis had extremely harsh words for Rav Zecharia ben Avkulus. He, too, was warned that Bar-Kamtza was plotting against the people. Not only did he do nothing to stop him, he found “religious justification” for doing nothing. He compounded the errors of Gedaliah. No wonder our Sages state that, “The humility of Rabbi Zecharia ben Avkulus destroyed our Temple, burned our Sanctuary, and exiled us from our land” (Gittin 56a).

As our Sages well recognized, save for those on the level of the Chafetz Chaim i.e., pretty much nobody, we all talk too much lashon hara. And even when not speaking it, we all too often listen to it. Even if we think it is true, we are—most of the time—better off to “disbelieve” it. Does believing such make us better people? Does it help foster communal harmony? And in reality, rare are the occasions when it is the whole truth and nothing but the truth. 

Yet, at the same time, we must be cognizant that there may be some important truths to be acted upon, even if we do not fully believe the lashon hara. And we forget this at our own peril. While such is true for all of us, it is especially true of leaders, who must find the proper balance between dreaming of what can be while recognizing what is. 

Balancing these two contradictory approaches takes great effort. And it is during the aseret yemi hateshuva that we must make the greatest of efforts. Failure to do so can have catastrophic consequences. 


 

[1] We are not told why he agreed to do such. However, we are told he was of royal pedigree, implying that he felt he should have been the leader of the people. Jealousy can kill.  

 

[2] The warning was issued by Yochanan ben קרח. Our tradition pronounces the name as Kareach, which translates as a tear, as he tried to prevent the nation from being torn apart and torn from its land. But קרח can be read as Korach. As we noted in our Rosh Hashanah message, it is the sons of Korach who epitomize teshuva, turning away from the dissension of their father to one of unity of the people. Thus, it is a psalm to the sons of Korach that we recite seven times before we blow the shofar, the shofar being the call to unity. Here, too, we have a son of Korach trying to avoid a terrible attack on the leader of the Jewish nation.