Posts Tagged ‘Lashon Hara’


People become attached to certain words. They—particularly slang words—can help someone display distinctiveness or demonstrate belonging to a group. Many decades have produced cool, dig it, boss, bitchin’, yo, wassup, Bart Simpson’s partee and the now widely accepted— and often-used F-word. For some years, I’ve been partial to grace and dignity. Now, I have a new favorite word—and it isn’t English.

My new fave appears in the Torah’s story of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:1ff). For it, I’m indebted to Cantor David Frommer of San Francisco’s Congregation Sherith Israel and last week’s citing of commentary by Rabbi David Fohrman.

Our story: God becomes angry at the “stiff-necked” Israelites after they compel Aaron to make a young bull of gold to replace Moses, still meeting with God atop Mount Sinai. Knowing of the calf, God says He will destroy the children of Israel and make a great people of Moses’ descendants. Moses’ response: Why? Why be angry at Your people? Why enable Egypt to say You freed Your people only to slaughter them in the wilderness? What will that do for Your reputation?

The Hebrew word used here for why is lamah (rhymes with mama). Yet there’s another word for why in the Torah—madua (ma–doo-ah). Why (madua) lamah?

According to Rabbi Fohrman, “Madua, from the word mada, is the scientific ‘why’. … When Moses looked at the burning bush … [he asked] what is it about this bush that causes it not to burn? It is a question about the past that would explain the present.”

Lamah,” Rabbi Forhman explains, “is a contraction of ‘le mah’, to what, for what, for what purpose. It is a question about the future.”

I’m into lamah. When I get angry or down, when some disappointment induces me to react negatively, I ask myself, lamah? Not why I feel angry, down or disappointed. That’s a madua question. Rather, what purpose will be served by lashing out at someone—or myself?

Lamah constitutes more than a lesson in linguistics. We’re talking real life. Berating others might make us feel better momentarily when we feel questioned or put down. But how will we feel later if we damage or sever a relationship? How many times do we fly off the handle only to regret our words and deeds? Often, we apologize. Maybe the offended person forgives. But does that person forget?

Most of us learned the wisdom behind lamah as children: Think before you speak. If you get angry, count to ten. But in adults, the desire to get in the next word or the last—and do it immediately—often overpowers our learning and judgment.

The rabbis of the Talmud considered gossip—lashon hara—and negative statements sins akin to murder. They kill the soul. Thoughtless words, they advised, resemble arrows. Once released, they can be regretted but not recalled.

If only we, from the humblest citizens to those at the pinnacle of power, could remember daily that lamah can prevent fomenting confusion, resentment, hatred and violence. That words matter. That measuring our responses to others’ words can defuse rather than fuel challenging situations.

If only.

This post marks number 350 since I began since September 2010. It marks a good time for me to take a lengthy break and focus on some other things for a while. The post will resume on April 20.

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Anti-Black comments by Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles’ Clippers, have been heard and rejected far and wide. NBA commissioner Adam Silver defused the anger of players and coaches, the dismay of fans and withdrawals by Clippers sponsors by banning Sterling for life. But let’s consider another issue potentially more frightening than Sterling’s racist comments.

We gain some perspective with this week’s Torah portion, Emor (Speak), in the Book of Leviticus. In addition to key commandments relating to priests in the Temple and the food offerings they consume. Emor relates the story of a “half-Israelite” (Egyptian father), who fights with a full Israelite. The “half-Israelite” then profanes the name of God, although we don’t know what he says. God instructs Moses that the man is to be stoned to death, and the sentence is carried out.

The condemned man does not die for any act he performs. The fight is not an issue. Rather, his words prove offensive to the holiness of God and Israel. The Torah doesn’t reveal how many Israelites hear the condemned man profane God’s name, but he makes his statement publicly. His words could have incited some or even many in the Israelite camp to join him in rejecting God, thus his punishment.

There’s a parallel in Donald Sterling’s voiced rejection of African Americans and the firestorm that hit him. But the circumstances, God aside, also present serious differences. Sterling made his comments, wrong as they are, in private. It seems that only he and his girlfriend, with whom he spoke on the telephone, heard his remarks. It also seems that his girlfriend purposely recorded him, perhaps goaded him as they spoke then released the recording to embarrass him.

Let’s be honest. Sterling’s remarks were never intended to be made public or to sway anyone but his girlfriend. This should lead us to consider two ideas. First, hateful talk, even when private, can come back to haunt us. Second, we no longer enjoy any comprehensive freedom to express ourselves—including our prejudices. Who knows when we’re being recorded and by whom? And the means to air recorded comments abound. If private words are made public, we may be condemned not for what we’ve done but for what we’ve said. Our deepest feelings, misguided as they may be, can be used against us.

Are the thought police now out in force? If so, who has the right to determine which of our private utterances—even those we view as innocent or taken out of context—can be leveraged to take away our jobs and possessions not to mention our reputations?

I make no excuses for Donald Sterling. I also believe that Adam Silver did the right thing for the NBA. But someone recorded a private conversation without Sterling’s permission then used it against him. There’s something wrong about that.

The Rabbis cautioned against lashon hara—bad/evil speech or gossip. Their counsel is even more important today, in part because the Donald Sterling affair takes us towards, if not down, a slippery slope. Should Americans’ private statements condemn them not simply to disapproval or ridicule but also to some form of punishment? We as a nation say we revere free speech. Is this just words?

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