One of the great revolutions within the Torah-observant community in recent years (with ripple effects reaching far beyond into the general Jewish world) has been the campaign to eradicate the sin of loshon ha'ra, slanderous speech and gossip. Building on the work of the great Torah scholar and tzadik, the Chofetz Chayim (1838-1933), many individuals and organizations have assiduously been working to heighten our awareness of the spiritual (and societal) havoc caused by that oh-so-pleasurable, yet pernicious, pastime.
From my own experience in outreach, I have been amazed at how much the phrase, loshon ha'ra, has worked its way into the vocabulary of even Jews quite distant from traditional observance. Moreover, I have seen the great power of the Chofetz Chayim's writings (beautifully adapted and translated into English works, such as Guard Your Tongue, or the more recent A Lesson A Day) to inspire Jews with a sense of the nobility of Jewish Law, leading them to elevate their speech in accordance with its demands. [Everyone should familiarize themselves with the work of the Chofetz Chayim Heritage Foundation, which puts out books and tapes on this, and related, topics.]
Well, I think it's time to give more press to a related transgression (and blight) that is, in many ways, easier to violate than that of loshon ha'ra.
Picture the following. Here's a fellow--call him Yosef (to add to the verisimilitude of this scenario)--who is all fired up to eliminate slanderous speech from his life, hoping that his effort will bring great blessings to the Jewish people and hasten the final redemption. (The Chofetz Chayim, indeed, tells us that those are among the happy consequences of guarding our tongues.) He has committed himself to study a couple of halachos (laws) every day, and to review one with the family each week at the Shabbos table. On this particular manic Monday, his wife--call her, uh, Rivka--has labored to make him the turkey pot pie that he adores, and is calling him to the table so that he will have time to finish before rushing off to synagogue for evening services. "Just a second," he responds, determined to complete the (distressingly) lengthy paragraphs that constitute today's portion before satisfying his appetite. A few minutes go by, and his wife calls him again more urgently, eager that he should come before it gets cold. "I heard you," he answers sharply. "I just have to finish my learning!" "Yosef--!" "PLEASE, for crying out loud, I'm coming."
Now, let's analyze. Although there has been (thank G-d) no domestic violence here, nothing even reaching the level of full-blown "emotional abuse," (though if he had added, as he almost did, "Why do you always do this to me when I'm trying to learn?!" I might reconsider that) a Torah commandment has almost certainly been violated.
In his laudable zeal to eliminate loshon ha'ra from dinnertime, Reb Yosef has run afoul of a companion prohibition that appears in the first of this week's portions (Behar):
ona'as devarim--hurting or aggrieving a fellow Jew (and yes, a spouse qualifies in that regard) with one's words. "Each of you shall not aggrieve his fellow, and you shall fear your G-d; for I am Hashem, your G-d" (25, 17). Speaking harshly or condescendingly to someone, reminding someone of their past action (or way of life) with the intention to vex them, and even building up someone's hope needlessly (as in the case of asking a salesman in a store the price of an item that one has absolutely no intention of buying) are all included in the scope of this prohibition as discussed in the Talmudic sources.
As would be hurting the feelings of a wife trying to make her husband happy with turkey pot pie. Even when he did it l'shem shamayim (for the sake of Heaven), as in this case, striving to become more learned in the details of loshon ha'ra.
While our semi-fictional Yosef has perhaps largely succeeded in overcoming the temptation to indulge in the pleasure of openly denigrating a third party with his speech, he needs to take more care not to speak in a manner that denigrates or aggrieves his present interlocutor (in this case, his wife). "Why do you always do this to me when I'm trying to learn?" tripped right off his tongue without a thought. He needs to broaden his perspective on the awesome power of our speech to injure, even when it's not a question of loshon ha'ra. (The Chofetz Chayim, in his introduction to his work on the laws of slander, lists many other verbal danger areas besides loshon ha'ra--including ona'as devarim.) He needs to be more careful with a beloved's sensitivities.
The Sefer HaChinuch (Book of Education), a classic medieval explication of the Torah's commandments, writes as follows about the prohibition of ona'as devarim:
"Among the laws of the precept there are many admonitions and many exhortations with which our Sages of blessed memory cautioned us about this matter, not to inflict pain on people by any means at all, nor to shame them. They went so far in the matter as to say that a man should not set his eyes on an object offered for purchase at a time when he has no money [Editor's note: Since it would raise false hopes in the merchant and needlessly disappoint him.]
Well, it is proper to be careful that even by an intimation in one's words, no calumny should be heard against any man. For the Torah was exceedingly particular about a wrong inflicted with words, because this is something very hard for the heart of people to bear, and a great many persons care more about this than about [being wronged] in matters of property. As the Sages of blessed memory said: Wronging with words is more serious than wronging with property..." (Volume 3, p. 408; Feldheim edition, Wengrov translation)
The author goes on to write that one should take care even when speaking to young children not to "pain them unduly with words." (They have feelings too, apparently.)
At the same time, though, he reassures us that the Torah does not expect one to be a shmata, to stand mute as someone heaps abuse on him. While urging us to move away from harsh speech of all kind, he leaves no doubt that the Torah allows one to defend oneself against insult and accusation, and to respond (even strongly) to wrongful rebuke or denigration. Had Rivka passionately told Yosef just how hurtful his words were, that kind of strong speech would have been well within her rights. (She, however, should try her best to avoid giving tit for tat, returning fire with her own barrage of denigration about some habitual fault.)
The main point here is not to get caught up in this or that technical violation of Torah law, important as that is. (Or to rake Yosef over the coals for what was, in some sense, a "small" misstep, of which we are all guilty so much of the time.) Rather, let's try to appreciate just how highly the Torah places giving proper respect to a fellow human being's feelings! How much the Torah wants to sensitize us to the potential damage such "small" things can do to a human being, and to interpersonal relations. The soul of a person is sensitive, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch writes (in Horeb)--a delicate instrument designed to "be the holder of the most sacred blessings of the human being, of honor and serenity, respect and love, of every enjoyment that life can pride, of every worth-while feeling of happiness (p. 257). The power of speech was given to us to help nurture those supreme blessings, not to sow discord and bitterness.
It is interesting that the same word, ona'ah, is used in this week's portion both to denote hurtful words (ona'as devarim), and false and misleading business practices that defraud a buyer (or seller) of merchandise (ona'as mamon-wronging with money). I think we can say that to speak hurtfully to someone essentially defrauds him or her of the honor due to a fellow human being, created in the image of G-d. It swindles him or her of the respect we are commanded to pay to the image of G-d implanted in every human being, of the honor we owe to their unique selves--including those pesky little feelings and sensitivities.
May we all work to banish swindling and oppression in business and in speech, to "pay the correct price," whether in dollars and cents or honor and respect. To give the correct value to the noble creations (fellow souls) who inhabit our same world...and our same home! Maybe we can start a gentle revolution in the way we address our friends and neighbors, and especially, our spouses...and work diligently to eliminate ona'as devarim from our midst. GOOD SHABBOS FROM YOSEF (HUSBAND OF RIVKA) EDELSTEIN!
My e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
Rabbi Yosef Edelstein, Savannah Kollel. Phone: 355-0157; fax: 354-9923
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