I sat in on my religious school’s 7th grade class this past Sunday; they were having a rousing conversation about Koach Hadibur – the power of words. The teacher asked a particularly mindful question: “What excuses do we make for speaking lashon hara (speaking ill of someone)? When might someone think it’s okay?” The kids came up with excellent answers:

  • I already said this to their face, so I can say it now to everyone.
  • They’ll never find out we’re talking about them, so no harm, no foul.
  • I’m just letting off some steam and venting. It’s harmless.
  • They deserve it. After all, they really hurt my feelings.
  • We’re just processing and talking it out. It’s not mean.

We can use logic to justify just about anything, even gossiping. I get it – it’s hard to be always mindful of our language, especially when we’re around friends and just want to connect. But lashon hara is more harmful than many people realize. “Idle gossip” is anything but idle. Many people don’t realize that lashon hara can have serious consequences. One comment overheard by a manager can result in someone not being hired or even losing their job. What we think was a harmless joke could plant seeds of mistrust between people and end a friendship.

I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I would be lying if I said I never speak lashon hara. It starts out as just some harmless venting between friends, but before I know it, I’m disparaging someone. Even worse, I know when I’ve crossed a line, but I can’t seem to stop myself! Why do I do this?

This week’s double Torah portion, Tazria-M’tzora, is about a serious skin disease called tzara’at. We learn from the Talmud that tzara’at could be contracted by speaking lashon hara : “Reish Lakish says: What is that which is written: ‘This shall be the law of the leper (metzora)?’ This means that this shall be the law of a defamer (motzi shem ra).'” (Arachin 15b.)

One of the laws of tzara’at is that the ill person should be placed under quarantine. The Talmud explains that because the offender’s words have separated people, the offender must now physically feel that same separation.

What causes people to commit lashon hara? For me, it comes from resentment. Sometimes, I don’t have the wherewithal to have a necessary conversation with someone who has distressed me, so I go to a friend. It can also come from a lack of understanding. If I really took the time to consider this person’s hurt and struggles, perhaps I would find myself expressing compassion instead. I’ll be the first to admit I have work to do, as do most of us.

When we’re not feeling physically well, we go to the doctor for a checkup, right? It would stand to reason that people who spread lashon hara need a spiritual check-up. When the Temple existed, those who had tzara’at would go to the priest and undergo an exam.

Today, there are a myriad of different people who can help you deal with your own spiritual unwellness, such as cantors, rabbis, and spiritual directors. When members of my synagogue come to speak with me, I ask them questions that I hope can lead to some meaningful reflections:

  • What is a spiritual experience?
  • Have you ever had a spiritual experience or spiritual moment? If so, when and what were you doing?
  • What brings you happiness?
  • What are you grateful for?
  • When was the last time you felt a deep connection with someone?
  • Metaphorically, are you where you want to be in life? If not, what’s preventing that? What can you do to move in that direction, even in a very small way?
  • In Leviticus 19, it says, “v‘ahavta l’rey’echa kamokha,” meaning “love your neighbor as yourself.” Have you loved your neighbor as yourself?
  • Do you meditate? If traditional meditation isn’t your thing, what is your personal way to meditate?

Having these deep conversations with a spiritual professional could encourage some powerful actions. When I’m feeling spiritually depleted, it’s usually because I haven’t done service work for too long. Volunteering at a food bank, for instance, is my go-to for a spiritual recharge. After all, Shimon the Righteous would say, “On three things the world stands: Torah, prayer/worship, and on acts of lovingkindness.” (Pirkei Avot 1:2) I also have a gratitude practice. Every night my partner and I ask each other, “What are you grateful for today?” I also love to open my Tanach to a random page and see if anything speaks to me.

While I was sitting in that 7th grade class, I realized that watching our language is a spiritual practice that takes work. Does anyone consider you to be a gossiper? I invite you to look at who you are today and, without judgement, ask yourself, “Am I the person I want to be?” I asked myself that, just now. My answer: “I’m working on it.”