The Gates of Repentance
We turn to the last of the "four types" and draw close to the end of the
third of the four "Gates of Repentance". We'll spend some time now and in the
classes to follow addressing "slanderers".
In truth, the term "slanderer" won't always work for the sort of person we'll
be referring to in these next classes. For while the Hebrew term used here
alludes to "slanderers", it also hearkens to individuals who utter
profanities or criticize others sharply, as we'll discover later on. So, at
bottom what we'll be discussing are people guilty of doing verbal harm.
We slander when we speak against each other-- even when what we say is
utterly true! The Jewish Tradition is straightforward about that, with very
little exception. We're expected to be as considerate of others' feelings and
sense-of-self as we are of our own. And to go out of our way to avoid saying
things against them. (The actual details of all this are rather complex, and
beyond the scope of our work here; so the reader is advised to study the
books of the holy Chofetz Chaim, many of which are in English translation.)
It's important--albeit discouraging-- to point out just how very widespread
slander is in our day and age. And how minor a character flaw it's considered
to be today, when it’s anything but that from a spiritual and ethical
It should also be noted, sad to say, that whole *lives* and *careers* are
rooted in slander, profanity, and sharp criticism. Anyone in search of
spiritual excellence would certainly want to sensitize him- or herself to the
great hurt and harm these traits do, and avoid them at all costs.
We'll touch first on slander per se. As Rabbeinu Yonah points out, our sages
say that slanderers are like non-believers-- which is such a strong
statement. But it’s true for a couple of reasons.
First, because anyone who’d do as much physical, emotional, and spiritual
harm as slanderers often do to the people they speak against, and who’d get
nothing in return other than a vague sense of "one-ups-manship" and power, cou
ld only have come to that point by casting his faith to the wind.
And second, because slanderers mistakenly believe that they can say whatever
they care to, just as long as they don't actually *do* anything harmful. But
while it's certainly true that "sticks and stones may break my bones"-- it’s
utterly false to think that "words will never harm me". Since some of the
greatest harm done to others has been instigated by slanderous remarks about
them. And only a non-believer would think G-d doesn't consider a person's
thoughts and words when He assesses his or her being.
Of course this flies in the face of our notion of the inviolable freedom of
speech. But while that freedom is certainly meaningful when it comes to
fighting evil and injustice, it can do terrible harm to others who don't
deserve that, and it's often used as a rank excuse to slander, demean, and
defame others unjustly.
There are several other sorrowful things to be said about slanderers,
according to Rabbeinu Yonah. They tend to slander again and again, day after
day, one person after another; it’s hard for them to do teshuva (to return to
G-d) for what they've said and done, since they've gotten into a habit that’s
very hard to break because it overtakes a person's personality like an
intoxicant; even if they do manage to do teshuva, their teshuva couldn't
possibly be all-encompassing, for no one could ever fully undo the magnitude
and reach of such sins (after all, slanderous words seem to take on long and
far-reaching lives of their own, and can never be taken back); they might
just move from verbal abuse to physical abuse (after all, cruelty is cruelty;
and like a cancer, it might manifest itself in any organ at any time); and,
anyone who’d flippantly demean others unjustifiably as slanderers do could
easily come to demean G-d Himself, Heaven forbid, and sink into rank heresy.
And lastly, slanderers go on and on about the very real human failings we all
suffer from rather than concentrate upon uplifting, edifying things. As
Rabbeinu Yonah puts it, the only hope for such individuals would be to "not
talk about nonsensical things, but to speak instead about Torah, wisdom, and
ethics; about peace between people; about the best of others; about the value
of good, and the loathesomeness of evil" and "to use their power of speech in
the fervent search for truth."
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