A Dangerous Thread Running Through our Speech
In Pirkei Avot, Ethics of Our Fathers, we come across a curious statement. “…and the one who talks excessively brings on sin.” (Avot 1:17) Commenting on this advice the Rambam says, “The spies spoke bad about the sticks and stones of the Land of Israel and were punished severely. How much more so is the punishment for speaking badly about a person?” The Rambam understands this statement in Pirkey Avot is referring to the sin of “Lashon Ha’rah,” “לשון הרע”. Rashi, in his comments on this week’s Torah portion, Sh’lach Lecha, also brings this same argument. Rashi also mentions the juxtaposition of last week’s portion and the “lashon ha’rah” spoken by Miriam about Moshe to the incident of the spies in this week’s Torah reading, Sh’lach Lecha.
A fundamental question must be asked. What is the basis for making a comparison between speaking poorly about land and speaking negatively about a person? Moreover, the land is an inanimate object. It is not harmed in any way by what someone says or even by what an entire group of people says about it.
In order to understand the connection and extrapolation from comments about the land to comments about a person, we must first know exactly what “lashon ha’rah” is. “Lashon ha’rah” isn’t bad because it is a lie. A lie is falsity, שקר. Telling a lie is a separate violation of the Torah. Regarding a person, such false speech is called מוציא שם רע, “giving a bad name.” Interestingly, to be a violation of “lashon ha’rah,” it must be a truthful statement about the object or person. The defining feature of “lashon ha’rah” is that while it is true, it presents a negative quality about the object or person. What is so bad about “lashon ha’rah” that it is considered worse than speech that “gives a person a bad name”?
“Lashon ha’rah” has a unique process. It isn’t just that you said something true but negative about someone to a third party. But when you do, the third party, the listener, forms an image of the person you are talking about. This speech, “lashon ha’rah” corrupts the entire image of the person you are speaking about. It is an indirect way of displaying aggression against someone, after all, it is true. Usually, the listener does not counter with a list of positive traits that the person possesses.
The spies reported back to Moshe according to what Moshe asked them to find out. According to our Sages, their “lashon ha’rah” occurred when they said אפס, “however.” The Ramban comments that the spies then began to elaborate. They intimated that there was something strange about the land. As proof, they displayed the fruit which was enormous, and told how they saw many people dying there. They created an unsettling mystical aura and sense of hopelessness in the minds of the people. They colored and thereby distorted the image the people had of the land of Canaan. “Lashon ha’rah,” then, is a distortion of reality.
Any distortion of reality is a loss of knowledge. Any loss of knowledge is evil. Now it is one thing to distort the reality of an object. In the case of the spies, as the Ramban explains, the distortion was due to the fear the men had of conquering the land. This powerful emotion thwarted the plan of God.
The 10 spies who strongly advised not to go up and conquer Canaan, however, were not only speaking for themselves. They spoke for the entire male population of fighting age. This collective fear of battle could only be remedied by the death of the entire male population who were 20 years and older at the time of the incident. God pronounced the punishment, a year for every day the spies spent on their mission. Hence there were 40 additional years of the nation living in the desert during which these males passed away. The spies came to an erroneous conclusion about the Promised Land by projecting their fears onto a few unusual traits that they observed on their mission. They were successful in their slanted presentation to the nation because all the men harbored the same fear.
Regarding “lashon ha’rah” concerning a person, it too is a distortion but of a much more serious matter. There is a rule. The closer something is in the hierarchy of existence to the ultimate reality, God, the more harmful is a distortion about that thing. What is so terrible about “lashon ha’rah” regarding people?
“Lashon ha’rah” about a person is a distortion of the צלם ה’,” the image of God,” that every human being possesses. A distortion of this reality is much worse than a distortion of any object created by God, even of the land of Israel. The negative trait, while true, however, is not the only trait of the person. It is not the sum total of what the person is. Yet that corrupt image is the one intentionally painted and conveyed. It is the production of this false image to a person’s צלם ה’ that is so serious a human imperfection. The Rambam writes that a בעל לשון הרע, “a habitual speaker of lashon ha’rah” forfeits his or her life in the world to come. To be constantly engaged in the distortion of reality about other people is a serious defect that winds up destroying the soul of the speaker.
Thus the Torah links these seemingly disparate accounts, Miriam’s speech about Moshe and the spies report about the land of Israel. This connection and comparison teach us an extremely important lesson about our capacity for speech so vital for our personal perfection.
Shabbat Shalom and may Hashem continue His protecting care over Israel, Jews, and God-fearing people the world over.
Rabbi Robert Kaplan