When Yaacov died, his sons came to Yosef their brother and the concept of lashon hora surfaces as one of the lights of this week’s Sedra.1 As lashon hora is one of the most seductive of temptations it is important to both know the structure and size of the beast to struggle against and also that this is the week to concentrate on it.

If Shimon has never beaten his wife, and Reuven says to his friend Chaim, “Do you know that Shimon beats his wife?” Reuven commits the transgression of moitzi shem ra. What if Shimon in fact does beat his wife, making the statement true? Know that repeating this too is a horrific transgression, known as lashon hora. The key to this transgression is that the statements made are true — and negatively critical.

This is not a book on Halachah (law) but it is as well to note there are exceptions to this.2 If the information is required for a reference, the statement is legitimized.

The negative statement is forbidden even if indirect.3 For example, if when our Shimon is struggling to open a jar and Reuven says smilingly to Chaim, “Good right arm eh,…… plenty of training”. Reuven is guilty of lashon hora. Unless there is a real need for the statement by way of some sort of reference, then whether direct or indirect, serious or as a joke, whether by speech, wink or nod, such statements even though true, are absolutely forbidden.

The difficulty with avoiding lashon hora is that it is so sweet. One’s yetzer hora licks at the delicate taste, savoring each word or gesture. No wine is as aromatic, no meat as luscious. At the very hint of lashon hora one stiffens, all distraction swept aside, quivering in anticipation of witnessing fangs dripping with honey.

Can lashon hora then be avoided? If so compelling, can one totally remove oneself from the transgression? The answer is, as with all forbidden pleasures, of course. There are communities who work specifically on this mitzvah.

The Chofetz Chaim said that if a person learns the laws of lashon hora everyday the yetzer hora to speak lashon hora will leave him. Not everyone will do so however, and for them, the purpose of this whole introduction, is to try and introduce the concept of the enormity of the wrong of lashon hora.

The Gemara says that lashon hora kills three persons, the inventor of the slander, the one who relates it and the listener.4 This is difficult at first to understand. Reuven is killed for telling, Chaim is killed for listening, but what about innocent Shimon?

Now, we will learn an astonishing thing together; a Jew has a power to give a berachah and a power to curse. Verbalizing the positive actualizes the outcome.5 So too with the negative. The higher the soul, the more power there is in the berachah (or the curse). In general of course it is not possible to judge the relative worth of a Jew’s soul. Yet, there are some guidelines. People go to a Rebbe for a berachah because they assume him to have a higher neshamah. A Rebbe with a track record of his brochas coming true, clearly has a stronger power than a normal person. Logically, however, there is no reason not to approach any other Jew, since every Jew has the power to give a berachah.6 What does this mean? What is this power? The power is a power to interfere with nature, in the sense that there is a potential which is about to develop naturally, which is altered. The outcome actualized is that which is pronounced verbally.

The Rebbe, for example, when giving out dollars on the now famous Sunday sessions, would verbalize “Berachah VeHatzlochah”, (“blessing and success”). This was not, G‑d forbid, just some mumbo jumbo vain formula. The Rebbe’s articulation creates a spiritual change. The recipient benefits irrespective of his level. The tzaddik gives the berachah from a higher voltage; the recipient does not need to be of correspondingly higher voltage. This power to bless is a derivative of the power of speech, which is in itself one of the spiritual drivers in the world.

Let us look at an example more mundane than berachos and curses.

You live at home with your partner and say to her/him:

“You always forget my dry cleaning; you have a memory like a sieve; you are absolutely hopeless as a wife/husband. You can’t look after the children, you never help in the house…..”

These criticisms themselves are destructive at various levels. Psychiatrists will tell you that they are destructive at a personal relationship level, and this is certainly true. But, at a deeper level, we learn that there is a reality being created by the verbalizing of that speech! Until the verbalization by the spouse, the reality simply did not exist in the same way as it does once vocalized. In truth therefore, there is no way back from this. Apologizing, offering to take back the words won’t work. “I was wrong dear”, or “I was drunk”, or “I was stressed from the office” may be reasons soliciting forgiveness, but the reality has been created forever, because there is a power in the words that is actually, spiritually destructive.

When people speak badly about a third person this is the very process which is set in motion. This process is fueled by a power of destruction which is very effective, the current running smoothly from teller to listener to the third person. If Reuven lies, telling you that Shimon is HIV positive or has concealed three chopped-up bodies in the back of his garden, for the rest of your life you will remember and believe this as truth at some level. No matter what you may subsequently learn when digging up his garden finding no bodies, you are never really sure.

I share with the reader that in the early days of our marriage my then 7 year old relative calmly announced at the dinner table, that her school friend’s recently deceased mother had been murdered by her husband. This scandalized news was obviously refuted by my astonished family. The child’s source was another equally qualified detective in the second grade. To this day, I am absolutely certain the story was nonsense. Since having subsequently met the father concerned, I sigh to tell you that on each occasion I meet him, I still see before me an unexposed wife-killer. Try as I might, there is just no eliminating the residue of that mental reality. Such is the power of negative speech.

Conversely, we have a power in speech to build up, to actually create growth and strength.

Modern psychologists and educators have now discovered as wonderful and new, information known to religious Jews for thousands of years; namely that positive reinforcement is the best way to teach children. Instead of saying “Moishe you clumsy idiot, how could you spill that on the floor”, you say, “Moishe, aren’t you clever in knowing that you have to clean up your mess”, or “Moishe you are usually so good at not spilling on the floor”. Earnest educators believe they have discovered something wonderfully new in avoiding critical labeling. In fact, no religious family with a solid grounding in Torah would consider fault finding and negatively labeling their children. In order to bring up a child up to be a person of high self-esteem, of value to himself and to Am Yisrael, it is vital that his education be by way of positive reinforcement as the psychologists call it. For three and a half thousand years Jews have been bringing up their children like this because they know the power of positive speech. A child who has thrown eggs all over the kitchen wall, requires telling off and perhaps punishment. A parent who understands this aspect of Torah will sit down with the child and explain that this behavior does not become a fine child like her/him. There is no question of allowing the action to pass; but the child is not made to clean up because he/she is an idiot, or dirty, or irresponsible; he/she is made to clean up because this behavior does not become him/her. Far from being torn down and belittled, the child is built up in stature at that moment.

There are four categories in creation, Domeim (inert matter), Tzomeach (growing things), Chai (animals) and Medaber (those that can speak). We do not believe as a matter of Torah that the line is blurred between any of these categories; a stone does not become a tree, a tree a monkey or a monkey a human being. Irrespective of billions of permutations and combinations and “accidents” the four categories remain separate. The distinction between animals and people lies in the fact that people can speak. Speech is not only a gift which differentiates humanity from the species, it is as we have seen, a creative force for good and evil.

When a Jew uses his speech to give a berachah, reality is rearranged to conform to that blessing. When a Jew uses his speech for lashon hora , he kills as surely as with a knife. Understanding this little known generator in the creative process, enables a Jew to use his speech to elevate himself and his environment. Discipline in avoiding lashon hora makes him worthy of the awesome responsibility the gift of speech bestows.

This is the week of the light of lashon hora becoming evident. The risk of falling is greater as the opportunity will be greater. Know however, that equally in focus will be the opportunity not to transgress; to walk away from lashon hora and, conversely, to speak instead words which build, strengthen and positively motivate each other and the world around us.