Cynicism: The Joy of Inexistence, Part I
Chapter 7, Law 3(a)
"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
Last week the Rambam introduced the prohibition of lashon hara -- of
spreading malicious gossip about one's fellow, in particular when the facts
are true. (As last week, we'll use the Hebrew term below.) This week the
Rambam quotes a small selection of rabbinic statements regarding the scope
and severity of lashon hara, painting a clear image precisely how evil the
prohibition is. Below I would like to examine these statements more closely.
Not only are they sobering in their own right, but I believe if we
understand them properly we will gain important insights into the precise
evil of lashon hara.
An important side point which bears mention regards the Rambam's first
statement -- that violators of cardinal sins receive no share in the
hereafter. The commentators make it clear that this is only without
repentance. Certainly man may repent all his sins -- till his last moments
on earth, and by so doing merit a share in the World to Come. The Rambam
himself, in his Laws of Repentance (3:14), after listing categories of
heretics and the like who receive no share in the afterlife, states as follows:
"When is it the case that each of these has no share in the World to Come?
When he dies without repentance. But if he repents his wickedness and [then]
dies in a state of penitence, behold he is among those who receive a share
in the World to Come. For there is nothing which stands in the way of
repentance. Even if he denied G-d his entire life and at the last moment
returns, he has a share, as it states, ''Peace! Peace to the far and the
close!' says G-d, 'and I will heal him'' (Isaiah 57:19)."
The Rambam there continues that even if such people regretted their actions
in the inner recesses of their hearts and at the last moments of their
lives, their repentance is to some extent efficacious. It really is a world
of love. G-d did not create us just to punish us make our lives difficult,
but so that we'd cleave to Him and merit His closeness. No one, no matter
how sinful he has been and regardless of his age and track record is
"doomed". G-d waits till the very last moment for our devotion.
I'd like to now begin by examining the second statement of the Rambam. I
feel it holds the key to understanding the others. The Rambam states
(quoting Talmud Erchin 15b) that speaking lashon hara is akin to denying
G-d. Now this statement seems extreme. We recognize, of course, that great
damage can be done with loose lips, yet how in the world can any action, no
matter how heinous, in any way approximate atheism? We all sin, sometimes
seriously. Yet none of us could imagine in the darkest recesses of our
hearts that G-d does not exist. (The Theory of Evolution? Don't make me
laugh.) If so, how could the Talmud even venture such a comparison?
A straightforward explanation is actually implied by the Rambam himself
elsewhere (Laws of Tumas Tsara'as 16:10). He explains that people who speak
lashon hara do not content themselves with speaking about the lowly. Their
cynicism then turns to the righteous, then to the prophets, in whose words
they cast aspersions. Ultimately, such people will speak ill of G-d Himself,
denying His goodness or justness. Thus, with such sins, one thing leads to
another until the gossiper in some way denies G-d.
I believe, however, a much deeper idea is implied here. The Rambam is
equating lashon hara to some of the most vile sins in existence. I don't
believe his point is merely in how bad things can eventually get. He sees
great evil in the sin itself, not only in what it may lead to. (There is
also a compelling grammatical reason (which I won't get into) why I believe
the Rambam here intends much more.)
Let me offer an important qualification before I go on. All of us are guilty
of lashon hara on occasion. (Pardon me if I just insulted you -- I'd hate to
be guilty of lashon hara while writing this class...) We all from time to
time speak about things which should not be discussed. For the most part,
though, most of us do not do so to crush and malign another human being.
Lashon hara at its worst is the defamation of another person, attempting to
ruin his reputation and perhaps his life. Very rarely do we sin with such
malicious intent. Usually we'll blurt out things which happen to be good
conversation items or which get us a little attention. Sometimes we'll even
speak sympathetically about someone else's personal problems which should
not be unjustly spread. Wrong this certainly is, but we're hardly speaking
of the vicious libeling of another human being -- especially because we're
often speaking about the ones we love most.
Based on this, I would be inclined to comment that when the Sages made such
condemnatory statements about lashon hara, they weren't talking about *us*.
(Criticism is never about *us* of course.) They were referring to lashon
hara at its worst, something the mediocre likes of us rarely transgress.
There may be truth to this, yet at the same time we do not find the Talmud
or later authorities making such distinctions -- between the bad and the
bad. I suspect that the Sages rightly did not want us thinking in terms of
"better" and "worse" gossip. Every act of unbridled speech has a taste of
the most serious type -- and is certainly the sort of speech the victim
would not want spread about him at all. We must treat all lapses in our
speech with absolute vigilance -- as my grandfather OBM used to say, "Think
twice before saying something -- and then don't say it!" A mouth is a tough
thing to control. We must maintain absolute control in how we use it.
All of the above being said, I'd like to return to our question regarding
heresy. Even at its absolute worst, how can lashon hara be equated to the
denial of the Almighty?
Let us now begin to examine the psychology of the gossipmonger. I'm about to
run out of space and will G-d-willing pick this up next week, but I'd like
to establish some of the basic groundwork before we close. As we explained,
at its worst, lashon hara implies the using of one's speech to destroy
another human being -- to ruin his career, his relationships, and his life.
But why would someone have a drive to do such? Of course some of the time
it's because *he* hurt *me* very deeply on some past occasion, and I long
for sweet revenge. But much more often we find people who are just negative
and cynical towards virtually everyone, who never see the good and always
assume the worst. I have no reason to hate him, yet I see nothing but bad in
him and communicate my negative impressions to everyone who will listen. Why
would someone view others so negatively without any real provocation?
The answer provides a profound insight into the workings of the human mind.
I'll save it for next week, :-) but I'll conclude with the following open
thought. Our mission in this world is to develop ourselves spiritually and
improve. G-d created us with great potential for goodness, but it is a
potential we must develop. Now the most powerful opposing force to personal
growth is cynicism -- seeing the worst in mankind -- and somehow concluding
from there that there's really no point trying ourselves. We will develop
this idea further G-d willing next week.
Text Copyright © 2009 by Rabbi Dovid Rosenfeld and Torah.org