I still remember the day that my chavruta (study partner) told me he wanted to learn the laws of Lashon Hara in depth the coming year.
It is not always easy to find a chavruta who is suitable for you, who challenges you to think in a way that is appropriate for your development and speed of thought. And for someone like me who works half time and learns half time and is travelling for work a considerable percentage of the year, it is especially difficult to find someone suitable who can fit into such a haphazard schedule.
I had woken up that summer morning feeling positive. The sun was shining, the birds were chirping in the trees and I was coming to the end of a successful year learning with a chavruta who was perfect for me!
And then, when I got to Yeshiva, he dropped the bombshell. Lashon Hara?! Me! Learn the laws of Lashon Hara?!
I had assumed that we would be learning something like the laws of Shabbat in greater depth, maybe the laws of Kashrut, laws like I had always learnt, laws that didn’t really challenge my ‘frum-from-birth’ lifestyle too much. Yes, when we last learnt Hilchot Shabbat I had had to give up sorting out the silverware when they were all mixed up and bunched together, but this had not had a particularly massive effect on my life (I hadn’t been a big silverware sorter before anyway!)
But this… if I learnt this I would have to change! I felt a tightening in my chest, a panic rising. I wouldn’t say I was ever the biggest gossiper, but my mouth was definitely not the holiest part of me. Being British I have been blessed (/cursed) with an innate cynicism and sarcasm, I have developed a poisonous wit and mastered the one line put-down. And there was always a good juicy story I wanted to share with friends, whether about someone we knew, the latest politics or recent Jewish affairs.
But I was backed into a corner – it was either learn with him what he wanted or I would get dumped and he would find someone else to learn it with. What should I do?
Taking a deep breath, I decided to take control of my runaway emotions, be logical, and write down clearly exactly why I shouldn’t be learning the laws of Lashon Hara. Here they are – unabridged.
Top 10 Reasons Not To Learn The Laws Of Lashon Hara In Depth
1) I Know It Already – I mean, who doesn’t know the laws of Lashon Hara? You can’t say bad things about others, right? What more do I need to know?
2) I Learn It With My Wife Already – Well, sort of. We used to go through the daily lesson from the english book Chafetz Chaim – Lesson A Day most nights when we were first married but it sort of dissipated over time and we hadn’t looked at it at all since our first child was born and life became too hectic (which by the way was 10 years ago!)
3) I Don’t Need To Learn The Halachot, I Care About Other People And Therefore Am Careful Already!
4) I Will Only Be Able To Truly Control My Mouth For A Day Or Two Before I Fail
5) Even If I Do Manage To Carry On Longer I’ll Never Be Able To Keep The Laws Fully
6) I Do Lots Of Other Jewish Learning, I Don’t Need To Learn This
7) I Don’t Want To Change! All This Will Do Is Make Me Feel More Guilty. Better I Don’t Know!
8) I Like Good Humor and Comedy. Will I Ever Be Able To Laugh Again?
9) It’s Not Possible To Have A Normal Social Life, Hang Out With Friends, Have Guests, If You Keep The Laws Of Lashon Hara
10) Every Time I Learn Chafetz Chaim It Just Makes Me Depressed That There Are So Many Things That I Can’t Do
The next morning I presented these reasons to my chavruta. He liked them! But then he proceeded to go through each one and show me why it may not be a good enough reason. Afterall that is what a chavruta is for – to challenge you on your thoughts and beliefs!
Top 10 Reasons Why The Top 10 Reasons May Not Be Good Enough
1) I Know It Already – Do you really? Yes, you may well know the basics, but do you really know what you can and can’t say, do you know when you have to report what you know and what conditions are needed to ensure that you report correctly? And if the answer to all of those was “Yes! Yes, I do know all of that”, then you’ll also know how important it is to do Chazara (regular revision) so that the knowledge doesn’t get lost AND so that the knowledge actually impacts on your behavior!
2) I Learn It With My Wife Already – You sort of answered this one already above! But even if you had kept it up, there is a big difference in going through a daily lesson when you are tired and spending some proper, in depth, time to try and understand the ins and outs of this Mitzva
3) I Don’t Need To Learn The Halachot, I Care About Other People And Therefore Am Careful Already! – Chafetz Chaim himself addresses this point in his introduction to his book Shmirat HaLashon (Guarding The Tongue). He explains that trying to be a good person, reading inspiring words to encourage you to do good, without knowing the laws or Halachot of what being good entails, doesn’t work. If you are inspired not to steal but don’t know what is and isn’t called stealing you will consistently make mistakes. Wanting to speak correctly but not knowing the rules and regulations is a recipe for disaster!
4) I Will Only Be Able To Truly Control My Mouth For A Day Or Two Before I Fail – Ahhh, now we are being a bit more honest with ourselves! But this too is addressed by the Chafetz Chaim in the introduction to Shmirat HaLashon. The Gaon of Vilna (Rabbi Eliyahu of Vilna) quotes a Midrash that says that for every single moment that a person seals their mouth they merit the ‘Hidden Light’, a reward that is beyond the estimation of even angels. Every single moment!
Imagine the following situation (close your eyes if it helps you get into the mood!): You are approaching a deserted sandy beach when suddenly you notice that it appears to be twinkling and sparkling. Curious you rush forward and realise that, to your right and left, as far as the eye can see, the beach is covered with millions of diamonds! You run forward with almost uncontained excitement and start gathering up as many diamonds as you can, stuffing them in pockets, emptying out the bucket and spades from your bag and replacing them with yet more of the precious stones. You are so busy you don’t notice the man standing behind you watching you until he starts laughing. Very soon he is laughing hysterically and pointing at you, barely able to breath. You ask him what’s so funny? He finally calms down enough to explain that you are a fool for collecting these diamonds! There are so many of them, how do you expect to collect all of them? You’ll never ever manage to get them all – so what’s the point? Why are you wasting your time?!
We can all see how absurd this guy is! It doesn’t matter that you won’t be able to collect all the diamonds! Each and every one that you do collect, by itself, is worth thousands of dollars! I am not going to stop myself getting as much as I can just because I won’t be able to get them all. Similarly, you may only manage to control your mouth for a day or two (or possibly only an hour or 5 minutes) before you fail, but in that time, how many moments will you have managed to control yourself and how many spiritual diamonds will you have collected?!
5) Even If I Do Manage To Carry On Longer I’ll Never Be Able To Keep The Laws Fully – The Chafetz Chaim has an answer for you on this one too! You are rushing to an important business meeting, briefcase in your hand, when suddenly up pops that man again, laughing at you. You really don’t have time, you are going to be late, but your curiosity is piqued. What is he finding so funny this time?! He explains to you that you are so foolish to be rushing. Do you really think you will ever be the richest, businessman there is? Do you really think that you will ever become the best in your field? Come on – it’s never going to happen and because you’ll never be perfect, what’s the point?!
This is a fascinating argument and it actually is an internal psychological argument that a lot of people battle with, an argument that stops them achieving anything because, what’s the point, it’ll never be perfect. But in truth it is a completely twisted argument. I don’t have to be the best at everything I do, I just need to be trying to be the best I can be. And yes, I will make mistakes and it won’t be perfect, but that imperfect structure that I have built will be considerably better than no structure at all.
6) I Do Lots Of Other Jewish Learning, I Don’t Need To Learn This – There are three, short, but important answers to this:
a) You may well learn a lot and you should be commended for that. But most of your learning and praying is done with your mouth. Imagine being wheeled into an operating theatre pre-anaesthetic, meeting the surgeon and seeing his hands covered in muck. You ask him if he intends to wash his hands before the surgery and he says, No, it normally is fine just to wipe them on the back of my pants! Every time you use your mouth for a negative purpose it dirties it. Do you really want the instrument that you use for all the wonderful things you do speak to be sullied and dirtied?
b) Whereas other areas of Jewish Law are important, we have the capability of transgressing hundreds and thousands of times with our mouths within a short period of time, without even thinking about it.
c) Chafetz Chaim explains that all of the other Jewish Laws of interpersonal relationships are based on speech and communication.
7) I Don’t Want To Change! All This Will Do Is Make Me Feel More Guilty. Better I Don’t Know! – This is a really great point. Who wants to change? Aren’t we all really comfortable as we are? And the Chafetz Chaim understands this and therefore he makes an extremely important point. If you open the Gemara and the Midrash you will see a plethora of references to how terrible the speaker of Lashon Hara is – he receives some really severe punishments, he is as bad as someone who has murdered, had forbidden intimate relationships and worshipped idols/denied G-d’s existence. However the commentaries explain that these harsh epithets only apply to someone who is a ‘Baal Lashon Hara’, someone who speaks Lashon Hara so regularly without even thinking about it, it defines who they are, they ‘own it’ (Baal means to own something). However, when a person learns the laws of Lashon Hara, even if they don’t change that much, what it does is it puts it on their agenda. It is something that they will be paying attention to and that, by itself, takes them out of this category. So, even if you don’t want to actively change, you should still learn it because the learning itself will make a small, possibly undetectable, but indelible change to who you are.
8) I Like Good Humor and Comedy. Will I Ever Be Able To Laugh Again? – There are many different types of humor and comedy. There is so much to laugh about in this world, why does it have to be at someone else’s expense. Don’t laugh at people, laugh with them – at least that way you’ll have company!
9) It’s Not Possible To Have A Normal Social Life, Hang Out With Friends, Have Guests, If You Keep The Laws Of Lashon Hara – Even as I said this statement I knew it wasn’t true. One of my closest friends is very careful about what he says and listens to. I love spending time with him and there is never a shortage of things to talk about. In fact, he is one of the most loved people I know, everyone feels secure with him because they know he really cares about them and would never, ever, share something personal about them with anyone else!
And finally: Number 10
10) Every Time I Learn Chafetz Chaim It Just Makes Me Depressed That There Are So Many Things That I Can’t Do – My chavruta understood and empathized with the emotion I was feeling. The reality is that keeping certain mitzvot does require one to give up on certain things. We can’t eat what we want, we can’t do whatever we want to certain people or on certain days. But we understand that there are deeper things in life than just ‘what I want’ on a surface level. We want to aim for deeper things in life, we want to be Big, we want to connect to reality in a more spiritual way. We don’t want to spend our life without meaning, being carried wherever the next wave takes us. Do we want to achieve something real, create a legacy, be a great human being who leaves their footprint on the world? Well we understand that just like a top athlete who wants to achieve greatness will have to give up on certain things to achieve their aim, so it is in the realm of spirituality. And when the athlete doesn’t eat the super greasy breakfast they are not upset, because they understand it within the wider concept of what they are trying to achieve.
My chavruta turned around to me and hit me with his best attack: Here too! Do you want to be someone big, someone who reaches a level where he truly cares about another human being to the extent that he wouldn’t want to talk negatively about them? Someone who wants to reach heights that aren’t dirtied by speaking badly about someone else. Don’t you want to be so dignified that such things are beneath you? Don’t you want people to gravitate towards you and hang out with you, not because you have a good story to tell about someone else, but because they know that you really care about them, always judge them favourably and you would never share their secrets or stories with anyone else?
Isn’t that the type of human being that you really want to be?
I wiped a tear from my eyes and sat down next to him to start learning!
לע’נ יונה חממה בת שלמה