Dear Rachel,

Years ago, when I was in high school, I did something very cruel to my best friend when we were fighting. It spiraled out of control and was far more damaging than I had ever intended. Basically, I spread a rumor which I thought would embarrass her, but in the end, she lost friends because of it and it was something that hurt her for years. She never knew that I was the one that started the rumor. She never knew because I never told her. At the time I rationalized that I didn't exactly lie, I just withheld information. But all these years later it still eats at me. She is still a very close friend of mine, but I feel like this is something that I will never come to peace with. Should I tell her what I did? I don't want to lose my friend but I am not sure if I can keep living with this secret. Help!

New Jersey

Dear L.R.,

The biggest question here is why would you be telling her; would it be to assuage your guilt for having this secret, or would it be for her benefit? If you want to tell her to get it off your chest, then it is selfish and will only cause more pain. If you feel that for some reason it is in her best interest to know, that it is something that will help her heal, will help her find closure, then that is something different. In Jewish law we have a responsibility to ask mechila, forgiveness, from someone we have harmed. However, being that she doesn’t know that you harmed her, you are responsible to tell her and ask her forgiveness only if it will help her feel better.

Are you going to be opening a closed wound or closing an open wound?What is vital is that she is your focus and you do what is best for her. Clearly in the past your actions were done for your best interest: revenge, annoyance, etc., but without any concern for repercussions. Now you must do the exact opposite. She needs to be the focus, and you must think through not only how she will react in the immediate, but also how this knowledge will affect her in the future.

While you are filled with guilt after all these years, do you feel that this is something that is still affecting her? Do you think that she is still bothered by this, that she still thinks about it? Are you in touch with anyone else from high school or is she, that it could be helpful to reveal that the rumor was never true? I think before you tell her anything you have to determine if this will heal an open wound or tear open a closed wound. If her wound is closed, you must close yours. If hers is open, then you should take responsibility to close it.

You should teach the lesson you learned about the power of words to all those that you can. Ensure that you do not participate in conversations where hurtful things are being said about others. Don't allow yourself to listen to rumors about people you know. You know, more than anyone, how devastating they can be. It would probably also help to ask someone objective who can assess what's really best for your friend.

Whether or not you choose to tell her, you have an obligation to ensure that nothing of this sort happens again and to be a true friend to your friends, even when hurt. Hopefully this situation will be a yeridah tzorech aliyah, a descent for the sake of an ascent, for you.

Much luck.