Monday, June 8, 2009

Knowing What to Say

A prominent psycho-therapist once revealed his secret for knowing exactly what to say in a counselling session. He said "whenever I feel I should make a certain intervention...I say exactly the opposite".

This week we have again a story of lashon hara, speaking badly of another. Last week Miriam engaged Aaron and together they spoke evil of their brother Moshe. This week the meraglim, the spies Moshe sent to explore the land of Canaan prior to the conquest, speak evil of the land.
Rashi asks, "why are the two stories juxtaposed in the text next to each other?". He answers, "because the wicked spies should have learned the consequences of lashon hara from Miriam and they did not".

We might wonder about Rashi's answer. Surely lashon hara was common. Many committed this sin. And with the laws of the leper in place in the Torah we could assume everyone knew the consequences. What exactly should the meraglim have learned from the story of Miriam that they did not already know.

I surmise the answer is that of course the spies knew the laws and consequences of lashon hara.
What they were not in touch with is how subtle the inclination to speak evil can be. Little doubt the spies brought back the negative report on the land thinking they were saving the people they loved from destruction and tragedy. They believed what they said about the land was not only not evil talk but a mitzva to be shared . Through their efforts no one would die in a battle sure to be lost. Through their efforts the people would not settle a land that would ultimately consume them. No doubt they justified their actions as heroic.

What they did not realize is the negiyut, the personal stake they had in the people continuing to live in the midbar. After all in the wilderness these leaders would retain their role...surely a role to be compromised in the new settlement.They were not cognizant of how their own interests influenced their behaviors and caused them to see that which was clearly lashon hara as speech both kosher and laudatory.

It is this that the story of Miriam should have taught them. They should have learned from her that even the greatest of the righteous can be seduced into saying something that is sinful of another.
No one loved anyone more that Miriam loved Moshe. If that was not enough, she protected him and saved his life as a baby. She had every right to believe she was entitled to say something about his conduct, and certainly to Moshe's brother who loved him so and shared with him the burden of leadership.

Yet Miriam erred. The spies erred. And I dare say all of us can err in what we say of another. We are surely no better than they and in truth far less as people. If their justifications were hollow and untrue how can we feel so confident and often self-righteous when we speak evil of another.

I often hear people say "well its really not lashon hara because I really love him/her". Or its really o'kay to say some-thItalicing bad about another because "I am protecting someone else from harm". Miriam said the first and the spies said the latter. Both were huge errors. Miriam's love did not make it kosher to say bad of Moshe, even to a brother who also loved him. And as to the spies, no matter what they saw, the land was Israel's destiny, not her demise.

I, like you, am forever tempted to speak loshon hara. And my guess is that any, and I mean any, justification to say bad of another is suspect. No matter the justification I make, I need to seriously question whether it is self serving in some way and I am simply deceiving myself.
On a personal level, I want to say that I have been severely hurt by people who said loshon hara believing they were doing someone a great favor. Like the the story of the meraglim, their rationale I am sure seemed to them impeccable. But sadly it was wrong. Just because I am sure I am right does not make it right. Such is the story of evil speech everywhere.

Perhaps the test we should apply before we say something bad of another is the one the psycho-therapist gave himself. What is my impulse to say? What do I feel I want to say? If I feel some pleasure or satisfaction in saying something bad of another, even if I have justification, I better hold off. Likely my speech is sin.

Only if it hurts me to say bad of another...only if I feel I have no choice but to say that which I do not want to...and even then limit my words to the necessary...can I perhaps believe my justifications to speak badly of another.

The spies are condemned because they did not learn from Miriam...We have two parshiyot back to back, read each year, to teach us so we not be condemned as well. The sins are grave, the consequences lasting.

As King Solomon in his wisdom wrote "life and death are in the hand of the tongue." Not only the life and death of whom we speak, but our own. We can not be too cautious!

Shabbat Shalom

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