The Roots of Gossip
The Talmud tell us that the various items of clothing of the Kohen Gadol (High Priest) served as atonements for the sins of the Jewish people. The meil (robe) atoned for lashon hara (negative speech). One of the striking features of the meil was that it was fully techeilet, the color that resembles the Throne of Glory.(1) What is the connection between the techeilet of the meil with atonement for lashon hara? The Chofetz Chaim explains by quoting a Tana d'bei Eliyahu that says that lashon hara rises up to the Throne of Glory. This means that a person who speaks lashon hara will have to face judgment in front of the Throne of Glory. The techeilet on the meil of the Kohen Gadol would serve as a reminder that our words have great spiritual power.(2)
Thanks to the drive against lashon hara there is far more awareness as to the laws and ideas of guarding one's speech. Nonetheless, lashon hara remains as being one of the most difficult sins to avoid - there are a number of reasons for this, including the fact that we speak so much and that there is strong social pressure that makes it very hard to avoid negative speech.
However, perhaps there is a deeper cause that lies at the root of much of the lashon hara spoken. Jewish law recognizes that people derive pleasure from speaking negatively about others - we see this in the laws of constructive speech: There are times when it is permissible and even required to speak lashon hara in order to prevent damage, however even this is forbidden if the speaker is pleased in his heart to cast the perpetrator in a bad light. This pleasure from speaking lashon hara is difficult to understand - there are many sins for which there is an obvious desire, such as immoral behavior, however there is no obvious physical pleasure derived by speaking lashon hara. Why is there such a drive to speak negatively about other people?
It seems that the root cause of the pleasure of speaking lashon hara is that it provides an artificial boost to a person's self-worth: If one feels a lack of self-worth there are two ways in which we can boost it - one is to get involved in constructive activities and improve our character. In this way he feels more fulfilled and positive about himself. However, there is another, easier option; people often tend to value ourselves in relation to others, consequently one's self-image is often dependent upon how he compares to those around him. By criticizing them he knocks them down, thereby he now sees himself in a more favorable light in comparison. For example, if a person feels lacking in a trait such as intelligence, by criticizing someone else in that exact same area can help him feel better about his own level of intelligence.
This would seem to the explanation of the Rabbis' observation that a person only criticizes others about a flaw that they themselves possess. The Rabbis understood the psychological needs of people to feel good about themselves and that a prime way of trying to do so is by knocking down others in their very own areas of weakness.
Of course the rise in self-worth derived from speaking lashon hara is artificial and very short-lived. After a short while the speaker's true sense of inadequacy returns and he feels the need to criticize more in order to boost himself. Any person who has tried to refrain from lashon hara can testify that on the occasions when they held themselves they did not feel any lacking - on the contrary they felt better about themselves for doing the right thing.
There are two important lessons that can be derived from this understanding of lashon hara. Firstly we must be highly vigilant of our intentions when we speak negatively for a constructive purpose. This is especially true in the delicate area of criticizing other groups or ideologies within Judaism. Indeed the Manchester Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Yehuda Zev Segal said that only great men can speak critically of other groups and know that they have pure intentions when doing so. One reason for this may be that righteous people are secure in themselves and have no psychological need to criticize people. However, everyone else is prone to feelings of lack of self-worth and we may express righteous condemnation of those that we disapprove of for reasons that are not leshem Shamayim (for the Sake of Heaven). This constitutes clear lashon hara and it is surely wise to heed the words of Rav Segal and to never risk transgressing such a serious sin.
The second lesson is that if we see in ourselves the desire to disparage others then we must do a cheshbon hanefesh (self-accounting) to discover its source. Very often, it may arise because of a lack of self-worth. But instead of putting down others, we can feel better about ourselves by improving our character traits and striving to be active and productive members of society. May we all be merit to purify our speech and learn the lesson of the meil.
1. Arachin, 16a.
2. Chofetz Chaim Al HaTorah, Parshas Tetzaveh.