Gossiping might seem like a small and harmless way to have fun, but the Torah teaches us it is just the opposite. Gossiping and speaking negatively about others is one of the most serious causes of pain and unhappiness in the world. A long time ago in Israel it used to be that a person could see the negative results of his gossip, as it caused a type of disease called tzaraat. Nowadays the negative effects are more hidden, but putting down people and spreading 'the news' is still bad news.
In our story some gossiping kids get more than they bargained for.
Ben Green folded the small note in two and without anyone seeing, especially the teacher, he slipped it behind his back into his buddy Randy's waiting hand. English may have been somebody's favorite class, but it certainly wasn't theirs. To pass the time, the kids had come up with a kind of 'English literature' of their own - passing secret notes around.
The notes would be about a lot of things - sports, music, silly jokes - but the most fun and interesting ones were those like the one they were passing around now, the gossipy ones that spread the latest rumors and witty put-down of some less-popular classmate or other.
Randy made sure no one was looking and unfolded the note, which read: 'Bill's new haircut is disgusting, don't you think?' Smiling to himself, the kid took out his pen and answered back, 'Yeah, but he was already the funniest looking kid in the school even before the haircut!' and sent it back.
The teacher said something about Shakespeare that the kids briefly pretended to pay attention to.
Ben took back the note, quickly drew some lines on it and wrote: 'Let's take a vote. ALL WHO AGREE THAT BILL W. IS OFFICIALLY FUNNY LOOKING, SIGN BELOW.' He signed his name on the top line and slipped it back to Randy, who signed second and passed it on to the kid behind him who barely held in a burst of laughter.
One by one the note went around to everyone in the class - except for Bill, of course - and the laughs grew louder as the list of signers, who added not nice comments of their own, grew bigger.
The teacher began another point, but nobody noticed. They were all too busy with something they found much more interesting - making fun of Bill.
'Hey, it's unanimous.' wrote Randy, as he got the piece of paper back and handed to Ben.
'Not quite, the new kid in class didn't sign it yet.' Ben wrote back and signaled with his eyes for Randy to pass it to Robert, the kid in the corner.
The note arrived on Robert's desk. He looked it over and smiled. He had only come into the school a couple of week's ago and didn't know the name of all his classmates yet. He wasn't even sure who this 'Bill' was, but if all these kids who signed thought he was ugly, why not sign it too? Anyway, he thought, at least they weren't writing it about him!
He signed the list, smiled back at Randy and figured the boy wanted him to pass it on. He tapped the kid in front of him on the shoulder and not noticing Randy's frantic hand signals or the other kids' gasps, he handed the note directly - to Bill!
The boy opened the note and as he read it his face first turned white as a sheet, then red as a beet. Although the class wasn't over, he got up from his chair and ran out the door. The only people who didn't know why were the teacher and Robert who had unwittingly handed him the note.
It was more than a week before the humiliated boy returned to school, and even then he could hardly look at them. As each day passed the kids all realized that gossiping was a terribly hurtful thing - whether they got caught or not. And although everyone apologized, there was nothing they could do to take back all the pain they caused Bill.
Q. How did the kids feel about passing around put-down notes at first?
A. They thought it was a harmless, fun way to pass the time.
Q. How did they feel in the end?
A. They saw, because of the accident that happened, how bad gossiping and put-downs really was.
Q. What life-lesson did Ben and his friends discover from what happened?
A. They had never stopped to think how gossiping and put-downs are very serious and hurtful. Because of what happened they saw with their own eyes all the damage it can do.
Q. Do you think if they hadn't mentioned Bill's name in the note and only hinted, it would have been okay?
A. Put-downs, gossip and negative speech are harmful and wrong no matter how you slice or spice it.
Ages 10 and Up
Q. Our sages teach that the negative use of one's power of speech is one of the most destructive and anti-spiritual acts that there is. How do you understand this?
A. Our most powerful and uniquely human ability is our power of speech. A fist can only harm someone within reach. A gun or even a bomb has limited range. But words, either spoken or written, can travel anywhere and leave a permanent impact either for good or for bad.
Q. Do you think one should be free to say whatever he wants, no matter how negative, in the name of free speech? Why or why not?
A. Free speech means that the individual is free to apply his own values to determine whether or not something is appropriate to say. It doesn't mean that he is ethically free to say harmful and destructive words.