The Struggle Against Lashon Ha’ra

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Parashat Tesaveh introduces the Mizbah Ha’ketoret, the incense altar
situated inside the Mishkan. Twice each day, the Kohen would place an
incense offering upon this altar, a special ritual which, as the Gemara
explains in Masechet Arachin (16), atoned for the sin of Lashon Ha’ra –
gossip and negative speech about other people.

If a person speaks negatively about somebody else and
the listener vows never to disclose the information, no harm has been
done. Why, then, does the Torah so harshly condemn Lashon Ha’ra?

The answer perhaps lies in the story that marks the first instance in
human history of misused speech. Adam and Hava lived in Gan Eden until
the snake approached Adam and convinced him that he would not die by
eating the fruit of the forbidden tree. The snake claimed that God
issued this warning only because He was jealous of Adam and saw him as a
rival. Forever more, the snake has been the “emblem” of Lashon Ha’ra,
wrongful speech. It used its faculty of speech to lead Adam and Hava to
sin, and it is therefore seen as the eternal symbol of Lashon Ha’ra.

This incident sheds light on the nature and particular severity of
Lashon Ha’ra. Adam and Hava had everything; they lived an ideal existence
in Gan Eden, enjoying all the material and spiritual delights that a
human being could ever want. Yet, the snake still found a way to “twist”
the situation into a negative one, to find something wrong with life
in Gan Eden. It managed to look beyond the idyllic conditions of the
garden and point to a negative feature.

Herein lies the significance of Lashon Ha’ra. A person who speaks
negatively about somebody else overlooks that individual’s many fine
qualities and unearths the less desirable features. He essentially declares
that he is not interested in focusing his attention on the favorable
aspects of other people, but rather specifically on their negative
attributes. This attitude is particularly dangerous. If a person habitually
emphasizes the negative and overlooks the positive, he will eventually
come to look negatively upon the entire world, and begin questioning
even God’s goodness. Lashon Ha’ra thus affects a person’s entire
outlook on life, and could easily undermine his belief in the inherent
goodness of the world generally, and even of the Almighty Himself.

In order to overcome this tendency, we must train ourselves to do just
the opposite, to find the bright side, the silver lining of every
situation. If Lashon Ha’ra means focusing specifically on the negative
aspects of other people, then the way to stop Lashon Ha’ra is by
emphasizing the positive, admirable qualities of others, and, more generally,
focusing our minds on the positive, cheerful aspects of life, rather than
always complaining about the negative aspects.

The Gemara at the end of Masechet Makot tells the famous story of Rabbi
Akiva and his colleagues who, while walking in Jerusalem, beheld the
site where the Temple had stood and saw jackals scurrying about on the
hallowed site. While Rabbi Akiva’s colleagues wept bitterly over the
desecration of the site of the Bet Ha’mikdash, Rabbi Akiva laughed. He
explained that he drew hope and encouragement from beholding the
fulfillment of the prophecies of the Temple’s destruction. This sight
reassured him that the many other prophecies of the Temple’s rebuilding and
Jerusalem’s return to glory will also, at some point, be fulfilled.

Rather than become despondent and distressed, Rabbi Akiva made a point
of unearthing the hopeful, cheerful aspects of what was otherwise a
dreadful reality. He refused to focus on the catastrophe; he instead
focused upon the positive elements underneath the gloomy surface, and found
hope and joy when others saw only destruction, doom and despair.

Understandably, it was Rabbi Akiva who famously pointed to the command
“You shall love your fellow as yourself” as the “great principle of the
Torah.” He succeeded in loving all people because he was accustomed
to finding the positive aspects in all situations, and he thus naturally
saw the good within all people. It was his nature to overlook the
negative qualities of people and focus only on their admirable virtues,
and this is how he came to love each and every Jew as he loved himself.

This is the way to overcome the natural tendency to speak Lashon Ha’ra:
by following Rabbi Akiva’s example of focusing the spotlight on the
positive, rather than always pointing out the negative.

The Zohar comments that the word “Ketoret” (incense) relates to the
Aramaic root “K.T.R.,” which means “knot.” The Ketoret, which atones for
the sin of Lashon Ha’ra, has the effect of “binding” the Jewish people
with God. So long as there is strife and friction among our people,
God cannot reside in our midst. But once we eliminate the plague of
Lashon Ha’ra, of hostility and hatred among Jews, we will earn God’s
presence in the rebuilt Bet Ha’mikdash, speedily and in our days, Amen.

Rabbi Eli Mansour