Maybe you've heard the story about the Yeshivah University rowing team? One year they were asked to compete in the Ivy League Division. Unfortunately, they lost race after race. They practiced every day, for hours, but finished last at every meet. Finally, the team decided to send their captain, Morris, to spy on Harvard, the perennial champ. Morris went up to Cambridge and hid out along the banks of the Charles River. He carefully observed the Harvard team. A week later he returned to New York. "Well, I figured out their secret," he announced. "What? What is it? Tell us!" his teammates shouted.
"Well," he said, "We should have only one guy yelling. The other eight should row!"
Isn't it true that we yell too much?
Isn't it true that we criticize too much?
Isn't it true that we gossip too much?
I teach a unit in Confirmation class about Lashon Harah—Inappropriate Speech. It's about time to talk about it from the pulpit—when a lot of people are listening.
Judaism has a great deal to teach on this subject.
And, when you stop and think about it... foot-in-mouth disease is probably our most common malady.
I'm going to ask you a question that I ask my Confirmation students when I introduce this unit.
How many of us can go a week without saying something we later regret?
How many of us can go a day?
Whether in content or tone, lashon harah, the Hebrew expression for hurtful speech, deceptive speech, unnecessary speech, inappropriate speech, is our number one mistake.
On this Day of Atonement, it's therefore worth a look at the subject.
One needs to look no further than our own High Holiday prayer book to appreciate the dimension of the problem. Minutes ago we recited the al cheyt enumeration of our sins. No less than half of the dozen of the listed mistakes are connected to our misuse of language:
For the sin we have sinned against you by idle talk.
For the sin we have sinned against you by offensive speech.
...by speaking ill of other people.
...by scoffing and mocking.
...by swearing falsely.
I went back to the traditional High Holiday machzor, with the really big list of sins. [Our prayer book carries an abbreviated list]. I counted a dozen sins connected to speech. Here they are, Hebrew and English:
- tipshut peh—thoughtless speech
- motzi shem rah—slander
- bitui s'fatayim—offensive speech
- dibur peh—insincere confession
- sh'vuat shav—swearing falsely
- bitui peh—foolish expressibns
- hilul hashem—blashphemy
- tumat s'fatayim—impure speech
- n'tiyat garon—arrogant speech
The ancient Psalmist wrote, "Mavet v 'haim b 'yad lashon—Life and death are in the power of the tongue" (Proverbs 18:21).
The truth is that sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will also hurt us. They may not break the body, but they break the soul. They injure by slighting, by embarrassing, by branding, by marginalizing, by prejudicing. And as we all know, a slip of the tongue in the heat of the moment can occur as quickly as a slip of the foot on a sliver of ice.
The Psalmist declares, "Mi ha ish—Who is the man that loves life, and desires good fortune? The one who guards [his] tongue from evil, and his lips from deceitful speech" (Psalm 34:13).
Just how quickly and deeply words can wound is evidenced by a dramatic story told by the late, great Isaac Asimov. Asimov recounts that when he was a 15 year old high school student, his writing class teacher, Max N. asked for volunteers to read their essays. Asimov's hand shot up.
"I had read only about a quarter of it," he recalls in his memoir, "when N. stopped me and used an opprobrious barnyard term to describe my writing. I had never heard a teacher use a "dirty word" before and I was shocked. The class wasn't however. They laughed at me uproariously and I took my seat in bitter shame."
Asimov goes on to say that, despite his acute embarrassment, he took the criticism to heart, and greatly improved his next piece. When N. printed it in the school literary journal, Asimov went to thank him, only to be wounded again when his teacher told him that the only reason he had printed it was because he needed a lightweight submission to round out the serious articles.
Isaac Asimov went on to author and edit over 400 books and articles, and is considered one of America's greatest writers and intellects. Yet anyone who reads his memoir feels how fresh the pain of his embarrassment is, even though the account was penned 55 years after the event. Asimov writes at the end, "I wish I has a time machine and could go back to 1934 with some of my books and some of the articles that have been written about me and say to him, "How do you like that, you rotten louse? If you had treated me right, I could have recorded you as my discoverer, instead of branding you a rotten louse."
Asimov's experience illustrates the potent teaching of our tradition that one who shames another in public, it is as if they have shed blood. While we say that words are only words, the humiliation and hurt they may bring when misused have powerful lasting effects, whether we like it or not.
Later this afternoon, I will tell a classic Eastern European Hasidic story at our Yom Kippur Children's Service. My props are a small pillow case, and a bag of colored feathers. A boy, sometimes I call him Mert the Blurt, is sent to the rabbi for calling out bad things about other people. Unable to impress on the youth the error of his ways, the rabbi tells the stubborn kid to take a feather pillow from his home, go to the center of town, cut it open, and watch the feathers scatter to the wind.
The boy does as he is told, returns, and asks the rabbi, "Am I forgiven now?"
"Not quite," replies the rabbi. 'Now I want you to gather up all the feathers."
"But that's impossible," protests the boy. "The wind has scattered them everywhere. "
"Precisely," the rabbi answers. "Your words are like feathers. Once they leave your mouth, they are everywhere. How can you repair the damage you have done?"
To make matters worse, the sad and harsh truth is that we tend to most often hurt the people closest to us.
Maybe it's because they are around the most. We interact with them more than anyone else. Improper language, exploitative language, abusive language... we use it all... and it hurts the people we love the most. Which is why all of us come to Yom Kippur with something to confess....
And so, in the final analysis, what can we do about our motor-mouths and loose tongues? How do we repent of the sins of our speech? After all, don't we want to address our most common mistakes in order to repair our most precious relationships?
They say "prevention is the best medicine" and here therefore are the three most important lessons I've learned wrestling with the subject over the years:
First: Think twice before speaking. I know it seems obvious. But if we only paused for a nanosecond before blurting out much of what we say; if we just paused and asked ourselves, "Do I really need to say that?" or "Do I really need to say it in that tone of voice?" think of how many screw-ups, never mind unintentional sins we could avoid.
Second: Be careful with the truth. Judaism teaches that a statement that is true, but derogatory, is still lashon harah, inappropriate speech. Conveying a negative or embarrassing image of someone, even if that description is factually correct (and maybe even deserved) is still wrong. It harms another person. The harm may end up being physical, financial, or emotional. Short of slander it may be legal, but that does not make lashon harah right.
Be careful about the truth for another reason. The truth can be slippery. A seemingly innocuous statement can be easily exaggerated or taken out of context. When in doubt, do without. If you have any apprehension that something you say may be misconstrued, misinterpreted, quoted out of context, or blown out of context... don't say it!
And third: Avoid gossip. I know you're saying, "how original!" But it's so true... and so hard. The Jewish teaching here is that we should not only avoid gossiping ourselves, but we should also avoid repeating it, or supporting it. We relate less than flattering images of other people to our spouses, family and friends. We repeat questionable things we've heard with the excuse that its common knowledge. We talk behind one another's back. We embarrass in jest. Gossip has its ways.
- Think twice before speaking.
- Be careful with the truth.
- Avoid gossip.
And now let me conclude on a completely different note. Well, actually, on the flip side of what I have been talking about. Lashon harah is all about inappropriate speech. But consider, and maybe this is my fourth lesson, not just decreasing lashon harah, but increasing lashon hatov—kind and generous speech.
- We need less criticism, and more compliments.
- We need less reproach and more praise.
- We need less gossip and more tribute.
A classic story from the late, great Art Buchwald:
I was in New York the other day and rode with a friend in a taxi. When we got out, my friend said to the driver, "Thank you for the ride. You did a superb job of driving."
The taxi driver was stunned for a second. Then he said, "Are you a wise guy or something?"
"No, my dear man, and I'm not putting you on. I admire the way you keep cool in heavy traffic."
"Yeah," the driver said and drove off.
"What was that all about?" I asked.
I am trying to bring love back to New York," he said. "I believe it's the only thing that can save the city."
"How can one man save New York?"
"It's not one man. I believe I have made that taxi driver's day. Suppose he has 20 fares. He's going to be nice to those 20 fares because someone was nice to him. Those fares in turn will be kinder to their employees or shopkeepers or waiters or even their own families. Eventually the goodwill could spread to at least 1,000 people. Now that isn't bad, is it?"
"But you're depending on that taxi driver to pass your goodwill to others."
"I'm not depending on it," my friend said. "I'm aware that the system isn't foolproof so I might deal with ten different people today. If out of ten I can make three happy, then eventually I can indirectly influence the attitudes of 3,000 more."
"It sounds good on paper," I admitted, "but I'm not sure it words in practice."
"Nothing is lost if it doesn't. It didn't take any of my time to tell that man he was doing a good job. He neither received a larger tip nor a smaller tip. If it fell on deaf ears, so what? Tomorrow there will be another taxi driver I can try to make happy."
"You're some kind of a nut," I said.
"That shows how cynical you have become. I have made a study of this. The thing that seems to be lacking, besides money of course, for our postal employees, is that no one tells people who work for the post office what a good job they're doing."
"But they're not doing a good job."
"They're not doing a good job because they feel no one cares if they do or not. Why shouldn't someone say a kind word to them?"
We were walking past a structure in the process of being built and passed five workmen eating their lunch. My friend stopped. "That's a magnificent job you men have done. It must be difficult and dangerous work."
The workmen eyed my friend suspiciously.
"When will it be finished?"
"June, a man grunted.
"Ah. That really is impressive. You must all be very proud."
We walked away. I said to him, "I haven't seen anyone like you since The Man From LaMancha."
"When those men digest my words, they will feel better for it. Somehow the city will benefit from their happiness."
"But you can't do this all alone!" I protested. "You're just one man."
"The most important thing is not to get discouraged. Making people in the city become kind again is not an easy job, but if I can enlist other people in my campaign..."
You just winked at a very plain-looking woman," I said.
"Yes, I know," he replied. "And if she's a schoolteacher, her class will be in for a fantastic day."
You're a wonderful congregation.
You've done a superb job listening to me.
Have a fantastic new year!