What's wrong with a little harmless gossip?
Before you say "nothing," consider if gossip is really so harmless? If people heard even the true things that others gossiped about them, it would at the very least hurt their feelings. And at times the gossip said about a person could even cause him big problems in his life.
This week's Torah portion speaks about the skin disease of tzaraat that could afflict a person who spoke negatively (lashon hara in Hebrew) about someone else. It also tells what the gossiper could do in order to undo some of the damage he or she had done.
Even today when people no longer get this skin disease, the Torah wants us to take the consequences of gossip very seriously.
God wants us to be peaceful and loving with one another. And not gossiping about each other (even when what we are saying is true) is a big step toward bringing us closer to that goal.
In our story, a girl learns from her friend that sometimes even true things are better left unsaid.
"NO NEWS IS GOOD NEWS"
"I think if I find one more bargain, I won't know where to put it," laughed Debby, her arms loaded with shopping bags.
She and her friend Fran were winding down from a successful day of shopping at the Windgate Mall.
"Hey Fran," she said, as they walked past a sidewalk cafe, "how about sitting down to a cold drink to recharge us for the next round?"
Fran rolled her eyes. "I'm all for the drink, Deb," she said, "but I'm pretty shopped out."
"No such thing!" winked Debby as the girls sat down at one of the round tables. A few moments later a group of kids walked by that the girls recognized from their school. Fran and Debby gave them a little wave as they walked past.
After the group had moved out of earshot Debby leaned over toward her friend and said with a wry voice, "Did you see that girl Cathy?"
"I happen to know," Debby continued, "that she failed algebra class this term. And the girl walking next to her, did you notice her green dress?"
"Yeah, nice color, so?" responded Fran.
"I'll bet you didn't know she bought it second hand at the..."
With a wave of her hand, Fran cut Debby off. "Deb, let's change the subject," she said.
Debby sat back, surprised. "Why?" she asked.
Fran nervously fingered her can of diet Pepsi. "You know, I just don't like to gossip about people. It's not nice."
"Oh, is that what's bothering you?" Debby responded, relieved. "Then you can relax, I'm not gossiping. Everything I said was 100% true. I was the one who handed in Mrs. Stewart's algebra classes' final grade sheets to the office and I saw Cathy's failing grade in black and white. And for the other girl's dress, I saw her buy it myself last week when I was dropping off a couple of bags of used clothing that my mom wanted to donate to the second-hand clothing shop."
Fran shook her head. "It doesn't make any difference," she said. "Even if it is true, it's still called gossip, and I'd rather we talked about something else."
Just then the waitress came by, breaking the tension. "Anything else girls?" she asked brightly.
The friends looked at each other. "Er, no thanks," said Debby. The waitress smiled and walked away. "But if something's true, I have every right to say it," protested Debby.
"But is that really right?" answered her friend. "Think about it, would you like it if someone was going around telling people unflattering, embarrassing, yet absolutely true things about you or your family? Maybe that's why gossip is one of the Torah's prohibitions."
Debby didn't respond.
Fran went on. "Would you feel like it was okay for them to be saying these things just because they were true?"
Debby threw up her hand in a gesture of concession. "Fran I admit it," she said. "I would wish that they were talking about anything else - but that. I guess I really should start trying to keep all my 'news' to myself, huh?"
Fran smiled as she reached into her purse and pulled out a bill to pay for the drinks. "This one's on me," she said. "I don't mind hearing the news as long as you cut out the gossip column first!"
Q. Is it okay to say bad things about other people as long as you know that what you're saying is true?
A. No. Even when it's true we shouldn't speak badly about others.
Q. How would you feel if you knew that somebody was saying not nice things about you behind your back?
A. I would wish that they would stop. Even if the things they were saying were true I wouldn't want them to be talking about me like that. We should all try to only speak well of others.
Q. Do you think there is anything wrong with just listening to somebody else gossip, while not saying anything negative yourself? Why or why not?
A. It might seem that listening (or reading gossip for that matter) would be all right -- after all, we're not actually saying anything. However, when we listen to gossip, especially when we believe what we're hearing, we are also involved in damaging somebody's reputation. Besides, being willing to listen to negative speech encourages others to speak it, and also makes us less sensitive to not speaking it in the future.
Q. Besides not speaking gossip (lashon hara), what are some other ways we can be careful not to communicate negatively about another person?
A. People express themselves in many ways besides speaking. Our tone of voice, or the look on our face when we talk about someone often says more than our actual words. We should be careful that these don't give a negative message either. Of course, we should be just as careful with whatever we write down about others as we would be with anything we would say. The general rule is to keep it sincerely positive.
Ages 10 and Up
Q. The Sages teach us that life and death are in the power of the tongue. How do you understand this statement?
A. Even though we can't see them, words are very powerful forces. The gift of highly developed speech is a uniquely human trait and has tremendous potential both to heal and to hurt. A good word said to, or about, somebody has the power to brighten his day or lift his esteem in the eyes of his peers. But when negativity is expressed it can destroy a person's reputation and even have severe consequences on his life. As we become more spiritually aware, we grow increasingly careful how we use the awesome power of speech.
Q. In your opinion, does a person have the responsibility to always speak the truth even when he or she is saying negative things about others? Why or why not?
A. Certainly truth is an important value which shouldn't be taken lightly. However, just because something is true, it does not always have to be said, and certainly truth should never be used as an excuse to damage others. In general, when it would hurt others, many things are best left unsaid. Expressions of negativity even when true usually do more harm than good. Besides this, we would be surprised to find out how many times negative things we perceive in others are really illusions based upon misunderstandings.
Q. Why do you think people like to gossip so much?