How to Stop Lashon Harah
The bulk of this week’s parsha, Metzorah, deals with the various physical afflictions and the process of restoration for anyone who habitually engages in “lashon harah.” In his Mishnah Torah, Laws of Daily Conduct, the Rambam tells us that “lashon harah” is a great sin and it is violated when “…one person speaks disparagingly of another person even though it is true.” He goes on to state that “…lashon harah kills (destroys) three people: the one spoken about, the speaker, and the listener; and the listener is more (destroyed or harmed) than the speaker.” We can understand how the one spoken about and how the speaker of “lashon harah” are destroyed. But what does the Rambam mean when he says “… the listener is destroyed or harmed the most”?!
In the Laws of Repentance, chapter 4, law 5 the Rambam states, “… that it is the nature of lashon harah to be drawn after it, always.” The Rambam is telling us that “lashon harah” has a tremendous pull on our emotional and psychological energy. Through this type of speech, many instincts are satisfied simultaneously. Such speech can even find justification or rationalization. After all, “lashon harah” is true! “Lashon harah” stays very close to the instinctual apparatus of the person preoccupied with it. Since this activity absorbs human energy in a negative way to a very great degree, it must have very harmful affects on the human soul.
The human psyche is complex and so the roots of “lashon harah” are multi-determined. The process of understanding these sources takes time and effort. The internal investigation that one must make to overcome speaking “lashon harah” may also be painful. True self awareness is hard work. There is no quick-fix to the problem. Attempts to curtail “lashon harah” with simplistic remedies, such as not to speak for an hour each day, are invoked by people who don’t know or don’t want to confront the real source of the problem. Causes of “lashon harah” run very deep and reflect an internal systemic defect. But the Torah tells us we can be successful in removing this serious flaw and be טהר , purified or in this case, restored.
So how or in what way, is the listener harmed more by the “lashon harah” than the speaker? “Lashon harah,” while true about the person, is not the sum total or the essence of the person. Yet, it is used purposely to color and distort how others should think about the person being disparaged. The listener enjoys hearing this distortion. Although he was passive, he gets great instinctual gratification directly without any barrier or quilt at all. In this way the “lashon harah” becomes part of the listener’s psyche to a greater degree than even to the speaker’s psyche. The listener is harmed the most. The Rambam tells us the nature of “lashon harah” is “…to be drawn after it, always.” Knowing this one feature of “lashon harah” can itself curative when individually analyzed and then internalized. We have the power to undo this self-inflicted damage and restore our standing with God.
As we are standing on the eve of the Yom Tov of Pesach, may Hashem grant us opportunities to perfect ourselves through knowledge. May we have the strength of character to use this knowledge to refine ourselves and live as the complete beings God intended man to be, bestowing only justice and loving kindness to all mankind. In this way the purpose for our redemption from Egypt will be realized on the highest level.
Rabbi Robert Kaplan