By Rabbi Eliyahu Safran
If you don’t have something nice to say…
How often our silence resonates more profoundly than our words! In music, it is the balance of notes and rests which create the beauty of the melody. If a song is comprised of nothing but unrelenting notes it is little more than noise. So too, a man of only words and not silences expresses, at best, noise and, at worst, damaging evil.
Speech and silence. A meaningful life demands both. Without silence, we are noise. Yet, without speech, without language, only our most basic needs can be communicated. With speech, we can create and glory in art, in poetry, in worship and prayer. Speech is that which epitomizes the Divine gift inherent in each of us.
“… And He breathed into his nostrils the breath of life…”
The Targum translates, l’ruach memamela, “to a communicative, speaking being.” That is, our ability to communicate through speech best characterizes the living soul within us. Speech is power. And with power comes danger. It should come as no surprise then that of all possible human transgressions; the one punishable with tz’aras is the sin of lashon ha’rah – evil speech.
Resh Lakish does not mince words. Referring to the law of metzora he says, “This shall be the law of he who spreads evil talk” (motzi shem ra). One who is guilty of lashon ha’ra forfeits the mantle of spirituality from his being. What is he left with? Just his afflicted and “diseased” physical existence.
Abraham Lincoln sought to find the appropriate balance between our speaking self and our silent self when he said, “Better to remain silent and be thought of a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”
Foolishness is flaw enough. It is evil that the speaking self too often reveals! This has always been true but the seeming demand that we speak seems to define our cultural moment. We live at a time when it seems everyone is enamored by the sound of his own voice; as if the world would be somehow bereft without each one adding his “two cents.”
The Internet, with its illusion of anonymity (for who is truly anonymous before God?), seems to invite the cruelest of this empty and vicious “talk”. Follow any “thread” in a comment section and you will find that reasoned discourse is an early victim to ugly, personal attacks.
To use speech for good is a great blessing. Our noblest expression of spirituality is found in our daily need to pray. To pray wholly is to transcend the physical self; to climb above the work of our hands and to surpass the product of our minds. Prayer is “an act of self-purification, quarantine for the soul. It gives us the opportunity to be honest, to say what we believe, and to stand for what we say.”
“The acceptance of the spirit is prayer.”
Our prayer is made possible by our ability to speak. Yet, even in prayer, the blessing and danger of speech is evident. As we enter into prayer, we cry to G-d, “O Lord, open my lips, and my mouth shall declare Your praise.”
We are raised by our prayer. Made more whole. And yet, even after we have uttered our prayer we must guard against the possibility that our words were false, self-serving, and insincere. And so we conclude every prayer with a simple request, “Guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guile.”
Would that those words were forever in our hearts and at our lips!
Sadly, they are not. Not only do we speak evil, but it is as if we seek out opportunities to speak ill, to bring the sin of lashon hara down upon ourselves! Few moments make this so blisteringly obvious as how too, too many people reacted to the recent Sassoon tragedy, a tragedy that weighs so heavily on every decent person among us.
How could it not?
A family lost, the result of a fire that began with a faulty electrical connection. A horrible, horrible thing. Seven children lost! And a father, away at a Shabbaton, devastated to learn of his grievous loss when Shabbat went out, only his wife and an older daughter surviving but in critical condition.
Could anyone with even a modicum of human decency not feel for this man and his family?
* * *
In the beginning of Metzora, we learn that the only way to achieve atonement for sin is by purging oneself of the moral flaw that brought about one’s misdeeds and errors. Our Sages made clear that they held haughtiness and arrogance as the root causes of slander and gossip, the very sins that are punished by tzaraas. It is one thing to be haughty or arrogant in speaking about any aspect of another’s life but to show that same arrogance in the face of genuine human tragedy?
Yet that is exactly how many reacted to the horrific Sassoon tragedy! Not to reach out with genuine thoughtfulness or sympathy, but with judgment and condemnation and even, dare I suggest it, a wicked sense of glee, of justification that an observant family would suffer such a horror as a result of observing the Sabbath!
Because it was the hot plate that ignited the spark, there were those who took the opportunity to openly criticize Orthodox observance for its modern adherence to “archaic law and customs”, placing the blame for the fire on this “ancient tradition of Sabbath observance”, and even going so far as to claim that “the fire may not have started if they had not observed the Sabbath!”
Even that was not arrogant enough for “Jonathan T” who felt it appropriate to use the tragedy to condemn Orthodox practices in general! From his judgment seat, he weighed in on “the curious practices used to circumvent the limitations by the Ultra-Orthodox, including elevators that require all riders to avoid the need to push a button. Other practices are more serious including dangerous practices associated with circumcision …”
Such venomous lashon hara was being uttered even as Gavriel Sassoon sat Shiva for his sheva (seven) irreplaceable losses.
Even some rabbis could not help but weight in. One misguided attempt was an article purporting to address why God permitted these children to die in a Brooklyn fire – as if the author could know all of God’s ways, which Moses only yearned to know! He presumptuously asks: “If He could split the Red Sea than He can safeguard against faulty electrical wiring… And if He could revive the dead with Elisha then He could preserve the lives of these small children.” This rabbi apparently did not take note of Gavriel Sassoon’s own words, “In the end it is for their benefit and for our benefit, but we cannot understand the master plan.”
That this man, this father, in the face of his loss could utter these words at that darkest moment, means that he is no less a person than Aharon HaKohen, whose silence – Vayidom Aharon (and Aharon was silent) – is at the core of all our laws of mourning.
* * *
And then there were the multitudes, the countless thousands who expressed the goodness of their hearts, who mourned with Reb Gavriel in New York and Jerusalem. They did not come to lecture about smoke detectors, or UL approved hot plates; they did not come to criticize a father for being away on Shabbat to engage in Torah study or to denigrate the constant process of engaging the Eternal truths of our faith in the context of our times, or to mock the tragedy of pure hearts and souls; they came to offer genuine condolence.
So many did so much. But is there more that we can do? Of course there is. We must all focus more on loving our fellow Jews, even (perhaps, especially!) those who are not just like us; don’t dress like us, don’t speak like us, don’t share the same rabbis and rebbes, don’t look like us, don’t wear the same kipah or hat; we must engage the fullness of our Jewish community at all times, not just when tragedies occur.
We are to mourn with those who mourn, yes, but also celebrate with the bride and groom. We must share together in the highs and lows in our Jewish community. The test of a genuine Jewish life is not whether we can respond to another’s crushing pain but whether we can engage with them when life is “just” an everyday affair.
We have mourned with Gavriel Sassoon during his time of mourning but what about before this tragedy? Were we interested in or aware of his Syrian Jewish community’s rich history, heritage, customs, and nusach and extra ordinary levels of Tzedakah? Or were we satisfied to simply refer to them as “SY’s” ?
When the Chabad Shluchim were viciously murdered in Mumbai, India – Klal Yisrael mourned as one. But what about the week before the terrorist onslaught? Were we one people then? Did we acknowledge and applaud the unique Chabad presence all over the world, then? This past summer, we cried as one for the tens of our finest young people, who were lost defending our home, our land. Just weeks earlier, we had mourned as one for our three boys, kidnapped and brutally murdered. But what about before those tragic losses? Did we consistently laud and applaud our chayalim and regularly pray for their safety? Or did we create borders and barriers between our unity? Did we fracture the “oneness” of our community?
Lashon hara is the tip of the cold, deadly iceberg of arrogance and haughtiness. Only by finding a way to appreciate, to engage, to respect the fullness of our community will we ever be truly “one” when it really counts – every single day.