Cynicism: The Joy of Inexistence, Part II
Chapter 7, Law 3(b)
"The Sages said: '[For] three sins a person is punished (lit., 'it is
collected from a person') in this world, and he has no share in the World to
Come: idolatry, incest / adultery, and murder. And the spreading of evil
gossip (lashon hara) is equivalent to all three.' The Sages said further:
'Anyone who speaks lashon hara, it is as if he has denied G-d, as it is
stated, '[...those] who said, 'Because of our tongues we will overpower, our
lips are with us, who is master over us?'' (Psalms 12:5). And the Sages said
further, 'Three does lashon hara kill: the one who says it, the one who
accepts it, and the one who is spoken about. And the accepter more so than
In this law the Rambam quotes a short selection of rabbinic statements
regarding the severity of lashon hara, of gossiping. We began discussing
them last week. Looking at the Rambam's second quote -- equating lashon hara
to denying G-d, we asked how the Sages could have possibly made so sweeping
a statement. True, gossiping is terrible and can destroy lives, but how
could any sin be compared to the denial of G-d Himself?
The answer provides us a very basic understanding of the workings of the
human mind. Last week we posed further: Why in fact *do* people speak lashon
hara? At times of course it's because *he* hurt *me* very badly on some past
occasion and so I yearn for sweet revenge. But as we know, some people are
just chronic speakers of lashon hara. They always see bad in others -- in
other individuals, in other ethnic groups, in other types of Jews
(especially ones more religious than they), seemingly for no provocation.
Now what kind of pleasure do such people get in being so cynical? Why assume
the worst? Why do some people have such a drive to see ugliness and failings
in others? What do they gain from it?
As an interesting aside, the Talmud (Ta'anis 8a) states that in the End of
Days, all the animals will approach the snake and ask it why it bites
without eating, seemingly for no personal benefit of its own. (I recently
heard that snakes -- unlike all other creatures on this earth -- bite humans
for no provocation whatsoever, even when they have no intention of eating
them. And that has been their nature ever since Genesis (3:15) when G-d
decreed enmity between serpent and man.) The serpent will respond, "Well,
why does the gossipmonger speak lashon hara with no benefit to him?"
Thus in truth there *is* no real benefit to speaking lashon hara. *I* gain
nothing from putting down another human being -- not in a physical nor in an
emotional sense. Yet we need not look far to see that character
assassination is quite popular. People derive a sick joy from putting others
down, from catching their flaws and broadcasting them far and wide. What is
this sick pleasure and what is the psychology behind it?
Let us back up somewhat. What is man's purpose in this world? (Far enough
back? :-) In a word, we're here to improve ourselves: to perfect ourselves
and -- in our own small way -- perfect the entire universe, giving glory to
How is this done? In a simple sense through avoiding the bad and cleaving to
the good. Do the positive commandments of the Torah and refrain from the
negatives. But it really goes beyond this. The game plan is not simply, "Do
this and don't do that." Yes, that's a rough outline for all of us, but it
really goes much deeper. G-d made each of us different. We each have a
unique mission and role to fulfill. Our job -- our personalized,
individualized job -- is to look into ourselves and discover our unique
talents and abilities, and to use them towards perfecting the world. And
likewise we must recognize our particular weaknesses which we must take
special effort to overcome. (Or even better: to recognize how to sublimate
those "weaknesses" towards G-d's cause. Anger, passion, guilt, stubbornness:
they are all powerful forces if they would only be channeled towards the good.)
Thus, more profoundly, our purpose in this world is to find out just who we
are, and to recognize and harness all our talents towards sanctifying G-d's
Name. It's a tall order. If we're lucky we'll have gone a fraction of the
way by the end of our lives.
And even more tragically, so many of us don't even reach that critical first
step. Most of us really do not know who we are. We either never ask
ourselves what is special about us, we spend our entire lives trying to
pretend we're something else (for reasons of popularity and the like), or we
subconsciously (or semi-consciously) deny our talents for fear that
admitting our greatness would obligate us to actually become great.
Thus, the one most basic and critical mindset we must have to face life is a
readiness to see the greatness and potential within ourselves. Every one of
us has phenomenal abilities. We could achieve mightily before G-d. We could
change the world. But we must be prepared to recognize those abilities
within ourselves. And we must be prepared to act.
And this is where cynicism enters, in all its destructiveness. It is the
most anti-life attitude imaginable. Look down on yourself; look down on
others. Don't see potential for greatness. See the worst -- and assume it if
you don't see it. One of the greatest positive forces in this world is
competition. If I see others who are greater than I and who have achieved
more, I can either use that as a goad to improve myself, or I can somehow
see them in an abysmally bad light. Those ultra-Orthodox, they're not really
any good. They're too extreme, they don't really live in this world, their
piety is only on the outside, they go around thinking they're better than
us, etc. etc. See the bad -- or invent it out of thin air if you don't
actually see it.
And such an attitude fails on the most basic and crucial first step of our
humanity. Rather than looking up to others and realizing how much I too
could achieve, I put them down. Not only have I lost some very wonderful
role models, but this colors my view of mankind as a whole. No one has
really gotten it right. They're all deep down evil and corrupt. And so,
what's the point even trying myself? Man is not great, not formed in the
image of G-d. He cannot achieve. And last (but not least), I'm so busy
looking at the faults of others, I never take the time to look inwards
towards myself and see what might be wrong with me.
So as the serpent rightly noted, no natural pleasure comes from being a
gossipmonger. Such a world-view does not make my life any more pleasurable.
In fact it makes life terribly dreary and depressing -- seeing only
wickedness where I might have seen good. But it allows me to wallow in a
very different sort of pleasure: the joy of inexistence. I'd rather take it
easy on myself and never own up to my humanity. I see a hopeless and evil
world in which there is nothing to strive for. I want to tear down and
destroy rather than see G-d's world for all its beauty and potential for
greatness. I want to live in a world without G-d.
We have thus far explained how the Sages can equate lashon hara to the
denial of G-d, as it flies in the face of the entire purpose G-d has for
this world. This is a big topic and there's much more to say, yet for this
week I'll just close with one further inference and save the rest G-d
willing for next week.
In the statement we've been discussing, the language the Rabbis employed was
actually very peculiar. When the Talmud said that lashon hara is tantamount
to denying G-d, it didn't actually mention G-d by name. Literally
translated, it stated that it is as if one has denied "the Primary [One]."
Clearly, the intention was G-d. But why the unusual expression?
I believe the idea is along the lines we explained above. As we wrote, our
purpose in this world is to recognize our talents and use them towards
making the world a better place. In a deeper sense, however, the true idea
is that we recognize the G-dliness within ourselves -- that we are beings in
G-d's image. Our talents and abilities were handed to us by G-d, and as a
result we must turn around and devote them to Him. This implies a
G-d-centered world, in which all we are and all we were granted we direct
back towards the G-d (the "Primary One") who granted them. The speaker of
lashon hara, however, refuses to do this. He refuses to see the good of
mankind and admit there are talents we must direct G-dward. He makes himself
and his own pleasures the center of his existence. Not only his mouth, but
his entire life-focus is tragically misdirected. And as the Talmud states, a
person such as he will never merit the Divine Presence (Sotah 42a).
Anyway, as we can see, the ideas here get ever more profound. One more class
and I hope we will have mastered this topic -- and perhaps we'll learn to
watch our mouths in the process!
Much of the basic approach presented above is based on the teachings of my
teacher R. Yochanan Zweig (www.talmudicu.edu &
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org