Parshat Beha’alotecha: The Contradiction of Lashon Hara

“And Miryam and Aharon spoke about Moshe regarding the beautiful woman he had married – for he had married a beautiful woman.” (BeMidbar 12:1)

One of the most popular Torah topics is lashon hara – speaking negatively about another person. It seems that it is universally recognized that this behavior is prohibited by the Torah in the strongest terms. Yet, recognition of the fact that the behavior is unequivocally prohibited seems to have little impact on the prevalence of the behavior. This suggests that we may need some guidance in dealing with the urge to speak and participate in lashon hara. In this week’s Thoughts we will discuss the nature of the prohibition against lashon hara and hopefully this discussion will provide a useful insight in dealing with this behavior.

The above pasuk tells us that Miryam and Aharon spoke about their brother Moshe. The Torah does not provide many details regarding the specific conversation that took place between Moshe and Aharon. But our Sages provide some details. They explain that Miryam initiated the conversation. Aharon participated by listening. Miryam told Aharon that she understood from Moshe’s wife – Tziporah – that Moshe was not longer intimate with her.[1] Miryam and Aharon found this astounding. They too were prophets. Yet, they had not abandoned intimacy with their spouses.[2] By engaging in this conversation, Miryam and Aharon violated the prohibition of lashon hara – speaking in a derogatory manner about another person.

The Torah explains that as a result of this sin, Miryam was stricken with tzara’at. Tzara’at is a skin disease described in Sefer VaYikra. From the account in Sefer VaYikra it is apparent that tzara’at is a punishment. However, it is not clear from that account what sin precipitates this punishment. Based on this incident in our parasha, it is clear that lashon hara is one of the sins that result in tzara’at.

The connection between tzara’at and lashon hara is also indicated by another set of passages. In Sefer Devarim (Devarim 24:8-9) the Torah tells us to carefully follow the directions of the Kohen in the diagnosis and treatment of tzara’at. Then the Torah admonishes us to remember the incident of Miryam.[3] According to our Sages, the message is that to avoid tzara’at we must refrain from the behavior of Miryam. In other words, one must avoid lashon hara.[4]

All behaviors that are prohibited or required by the Torah are included in one of the 613 mitzvot. What mitzvah prohibits speaking lashon hara? In order to answer this question, we must first define our terms.

Maimonides in his code of Halacha – the Mishne Torah – in Hilchot Dey’ot explains that lashon hara is one type of prohibited speech. It is not the only form or speech about others that is prohibited. There are three types of speech that are prohibited. The first is rechilut. This is gossip. It need not be negative. It is merely the act of discussing someone’s affairs with a third party. Lashon hara is a special case of rechilut. It is negative gossip – speaking in a disparaging manner about someone. However, there is one interesting qualification that must be met. Lashon hara involves imparting disparaging information that is true. Lashon hara does not include making up outright lies. Spreading disparaging, false rumors is motzi shem ra. In short, gossip is rechilut; lashon hara is speaking about someone in a disparaging manner – albeit that the statement is true. Spreading false, disparaging rumors is motzi shem ra.[5]

We can now identify the mitzvah violated by lashon hara. According to Maimonides no mitzvah specifically prohibits lashon hara. Instead, the Torah prohibits rechilut and this includes the special case of lashon hara.

Nachmanides disagrees with Maimonides. He insists that there is a specific mitzvah prohibiting lashon hara. It is derived from our parasha and the Torah’s latter admonition – in Sefer Devarim – to guard ourselves from tzara’at and to remember this experience of Miryam.

Nachmanides argues that our Sages regarded lashon hara as a serious sin. They went so far as to compare lashon hara to the spilling of blood.[6] It is incomprehensible that there is no specific command prohibiting the behavior! He adds that the Torah prescribes a very serious punishment to lashon hara – tzara’at. We would expect that this serious consequence would be in response to the violation of a specific commandment. Based on these considerations, Nachmanides argues that lashon hara is prohibited by a specific commandment. It is either a negative commandment communicated in the admonition to avoid tzara’at or a positive command contained in the admonition to remember the experience of Miryam.[7]

In summary, Maimonides and Nachmanides agree that lashon hara is prohibited. However, according to Maimonides, it is included in the general mitzvah prohibiting gossip. Nachmanides insists that there is a separate mitzvah that specifically prohibits lashon hara.

Let us take a moment to understand the basis of this argument. Each position seems to have its merit. It seems that Nachmanides’ argument is rather compelling. Lashon hara is a serious sin. Does it not make sense that it deserves its own mitzvah? How might Maimonides respond to this issue? However Maimonides’ position is also reasonable. Maimonides maintains that lashon hara is a form of gossip and is included in the general prohibition against gossip. What is so objectionable to including the prohibition against lashon hara in the more general mitzvah prohibiting rechilut?

It is clear that the Nachmanides’ basic premise is that lashon hara must be assessed in view of the damage and hurt that it causes. Our Sages compare the lashon hara to the spilling of blood. Clearly, they are evaluating lashon hara from the perspective of the damage it causes. From this perspective it does not make sense to compare lashon hara to innocent gossip. Gossip is inappropriate. But from the perspective of damage it is a very different activity than lashon hara. Unlike gossip, lashon hara is an explicit attack against a person’s reputation. It is not appropriate to include the damaging behavior of lashon hara in the general mitzvah prohibiting senseless gossip. Therefore, Nachmanides argues that lashon hara deserves its own mitzvah and should not be included in the general prohibition against rechilut.

So, why does Maimonides include lashon hara within the mitzvah prohibiting rechilut? It is important to note that Maimonides includes the laws of rechilut in the Hilchot Dayot section of the Mishne Torah. What is the subject matter of Hilchot Dayot? In this section of the Mishne Torah, Maimonides outlines the perimeters of general emotional and physical health. The inclusion of the mitzvah prohibiting rechilut in this section implies that engaging in gossip represents a personally destructive behavior. The person that engages in gossip is undermining his or her own emotional well being. From this perspective it is appropriate to include lashon hara within the mitzvah prohibiting all forms of gossip. All of these forms of gossip cause harm to one’s own emotional well being.

We can now understand the dispute between Nachmanides and Maimonides. According to Nachmanides, the essential aspect of lashon hara is the harm caused to others. Therefore, lashon hara cannot be included in the general mitzvah prohibiting gossip. Maimonides maintains that essential component of lashon hara is the harm caused to oneself. From this perspective it is appropriate to include lashon hara in the general mitzvah prohibiting rechilut.

However, it must be noted that Maimonides does acknowledge that lashon hara is a special case of rechilut. This acknowledgement implies that the harm caused by lashon hara to one’s personal well being is somewhat different from the harm associated with general rechilut. However, it is not clear from Maimonides’ comments exactly wherein the difference lies.

If we pursue this issue we may discover that Maimonides’ position provides an essential insight into the behavior of lashon hara. We notice that despite the widespread desire to curtail our engagement in lashon hara, this determination does not easily translate into an actual change in behavior. Why is this behavior so difficult to modify and correct? Part of the answer may lie in the traditional method used to address the problem. We notice that the most common method for addressing the problem of lashon hara is to read more about the gravity of the sin. Books about lashon hara are Judaic best sellers. But it seems that in the long-run learning more about the specific laws of lashon hara and the gravity of the sin has limited impact on the behavior.

In fact this outcome is not surprising. If a person wants to change ones eating habits does one seriously think that reading diet books will foster this change? One who wishes to be less of a couch potato will probably not meet this challenge simply by reading about exercise. This reading may provide temporary inspiration. But in the long run this approach does not usually lead to permanent results.

Instead one must identify and address the root source of the behavior. In the case of eating one must discover why one overeats. What is the attraction? What function is food serving in the person’s life?

It makes sense that the same is required to effectively approach to problem of lashon hara. What causes us to engage in this behavior? Our Sages provide an amazing insight into this issue. They tell us the when we depreciate others we are really reflecting upon our own inadequacies.[8] In other words, we speak about others in order to deflect our attention – or the attention of others – from our own insecurities, failing and faults.

Let us consider this assertion more closely. We can all acknowledge that one of the greatest challenges we face in achieving personal growth is the need to critically evaluate our own attitudes and behaviors. The more deep-set and behavior or attitude, the more difficult it is to recognize and acknowledge. But this does not mean that we are not in some sense aware or our personal faults. We are frustrated with these imperfections and yet, we are unwilling to completely acknowledge them and confront them. How do we deal with this frustration? Our Sages are suggesting that we self-medicate. We escape our frustration by transferring our attention to the shortcoming of others. Rather than focus on ourselves, we change the focus of our attention to the other person. We evaluate that person and dissect the person’s behaviors and attitudes with the precision that we should direct towards the more painful and difficult task of introspection.

This is the reason the Maimonides regards rechilut as a behavior that undermines our own personal health. We are diverting our attention from ourselves and attaching it to another person. Lashon hara is an extreme manifestation of this mechanism. Gossip is a simple diversion. In speaking lashon hara we are actually aware – at some level – of a personal deficiency. But rather than acknowledging our personal shortcoming, we focus our attention on this failing as manifested in someone else. In this manner, we actually engage in denial of our own faults.

This insight of our Sages suggests an approach to dealing with the urge to speak and participate in lashon hara and rechilut. The urge is apparently, motivated by the presence of an awareness of some personal failing. But this awareness is evokes an unhealthy response. We transfer our focus from ourselves to the other person. If this is correct, then each time we feel the urge to participate in lashon hara or rechilut, we need to respond with a question. What is bothering me about myself? What and I trying to avoid considering? Rather than allowing our attention to be diverted, we need to sharpen our focus on ourselves and allow for a moment of introspection.

This is not an easy solution to apply. But it seems to respond to the fundamental motivations behind lashon hara and rechilut. Perhaps, if we keep our Sages insight in mind, we will be better able to overcome the urge to participate in lashon hara and rechilut.

 

[1] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 12:1.

[2] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer BeMidbar 12:2.

[3] Sefer Devarim 24:8-9.

[4] Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 24:9.

[5] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Maimon (Rambam / Maimonides) Mishne Torah, Hilchot Dey’ot 7:1-2.

[6] Mesechet Erechim 15b.

[7] Rabbaynu Moshe ben Nachman (Ramban / Nachmanides), Commentary on Sefer Devarim 24:9.

[8] Mesechet Kedushin 70b.