The danger of just talking

It’s out of my mouth before I know I’ve said it. Only right afterward do I recognize the feeling of giving in to the urge to say something I shouldn’t, something that is mean, judgmental or just not mine to tell. When I hear my husband or a friend repeating what I shouldn’t have said, I protest: No, no, I was just talking. I didn’t mean it. 

Torah cautions the children of Israel in Leviticus 19:16 not to be tale-bearers. Talmud considers lashon harah, which means “evil tongue” and refers to gossip or slander, to be as bad as murder, adultery and idol worship combined. Speaking negatively of others — even when what you say is true — or listening to someone else speak negatively without protesting is a sure way to lose your place in the olam habah, the world to come.  

If you don’t have something nice to say, come sit by me” is not what Jewish educators call the Jewish Way. It’s good to be reminded of this as we engage in self-reflection during the High Holy Days. 

Rabbi Gabriel Botnick of Temple Aliyah in Woodland Hills likes to tell the Chasidic tale about a man asking his rabbi how to repair damage caused by malicious gossip. The rabbi tells the man to take a pillow up on the roof, shake out all the feathers and then gather them all in again. Like the feathers, words let loose can’t be called back. (Some rabbis teach that, to be on the safe side, we shouldn’t talk about other people at all.) 

Words are powerful in Jewish thinking. The world itself was created with them. The Targum Jonathan (an Aramaic translation of Torah) calls the very breath that made the first human come alive a “speaking spirit.” We have a holy book and a holy language. Discussion, between study partners or over centuries, is at the heart of our spiritual practice. Vows of silence are rare in Jewish tradition. 

In the ultra-Orthodox world, where children learn to be very careful about lashon harah, this can create confusion about “telling.” Is it OK to report a bully? Someone in power being inappropriate? In more liberal circles, there is a caution about who can use what language. Some words are off-limits for some people. All denominations recognize the power of words and struggle with how to use them for good. 

So how am I supposed to know when I am using them for good? My hunger to be in the know, whether it’s mean, judgmental or just the urge to share a good story, often sweeps right over my urge to be kind, modest or temperate. 

The 19th-century Lithuanian rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, known as the “Chofetz Chaim,” Hebrew for “desires life” — as in the words from Psalm 34: “Who is the person who desires life and loves days that he may see the good? Guard your tongue from evil and your lips from speaking deceit” — made a career of writing about issues of lashon harah. 

What if you are forced to do it? What if you will lose money if you don’t do it? What if you feel really, really certain someone will benefit from hearing what you have to say? 

The answer is, pretty much always, don’t. A person can, carefully and with forethought, speak evil of someone if it will save someone else from harm or, sometimes, if it will help the person herself. 

Botnick says that even though the Talmud likens lashon harah to murder, we understand that it is not exactly like murder. It doesn’t do physical damage. Yet, as anyone who has been subjected to it knows, it is real. The teaching that punishment for speaking evil happens in the spiritual realm indicates to Botnick that the damage it causes is also spiritual. 

To prevent this sort of damage — to others and ourselves — without silencing ourselves, writer and teacher Rabbi Jill Hammer suggests we rely on the “Torah of kindness,” found on the tongue of the woman of valor described in Proverbs 31:26, to help us guard our own impulsive tongues.

Words, in Jewish tradition, are binding as soon as they leave our lips. They commit us to marriage, carry our prayers and create a web of enduring community across centuries. They’re a bridge between people and between worlds.

For me, as a writer, a Jew, and a woman who loves stories and the words they are made of, belief in the potential of speech not just to destroy but also to create is impressively hopeful. 

Now maybe I will remember to be attentive to the gift of words, instead of just talking.

Gossiping — What you can gain if you refrain

“What you don’t see with your eyes, don’t witness with your mouth.”  -Jewish Proverb

Too often, I realize that people preface their sentences with “I heard” or “they say.” Intrigued by the personal details and juicy information that is likely to follow, most of us allow these sentences to continue and build up into paragraphs consisting of nothing other than questionable rumors and gossip.

Gossiping, indeed, gives us all a temporary vicious thrill. But at what cost? Upon this realization, I began to feign disinterest when people would gossip around me. It was difficult initially, but as I made a habit of this, I noticed a significant change in my life. I was no longer actively accumulating personal, unconfirmed information that had nothing to do with me. I was focusing on myself, and I was more open to making and maintaining new friendships.

As an Iranian-Jew, I often see the effect gossiping has on other people’s feelings, opinions, and even worse, relationships in the community to which I belong. Why do we gossip? Is our curiosity so insatiable that we can’t help it? How does gossiping affect us anyway?

When you exchange gossip, you suffer the consequence of wasted time. You know what it’s like. So we know a few more details about someone that may or—get this—may not be true. How will this information benefit you? How will you move forward with your life, with your career, with your family, because of information that more likely than not, has nothing to do with you? I asked myself these questions and came up with the following.

Nicole Behnam

By listening to gossip, you are masking your vision by looking through a distorted lens and, unintentionally, judging someone. Let’s say you have a friend named Danielle. Friend A says this about Danielle. Friend B says that. Friend C says something else. Now your perception of Danielle has been distorted by three different people. Could this be right? Judging a person does not define who they are, it defines who YOU are.

It’s beautiful and comforting to know that you are a different human being to everyone you meet. We have all had our share of joys and sorrows, of successes and defeat, of experiences that define us and make us unique and different from one another. But to listen to a rumor about someone and mask our vision with a story about them is inhumane.

A rumor, after all, is just a story. But if it does not involve us, what reason do we have to sit there and listen, to formulate an opinion, to judge, to agree, to disagree, or to repeat any of it? After I realized this, I not only began to express genuine disinterest, but I began to vocalize that the repetition of gossip made me uncomfortable.

“Lo telech rachil b’ameicha,” Rabbi Wolpe quoted the Torah in his sermon last year at Sinai Temple. “Do not go being a talebearer among your people (Lev. 19:16).” He went on to note that “Of the 43 sins we are about to confess on Yom Kippur, over a quarter of them are sins of speech, because we hurt more people with our words than we do with anything else, and the single most dangerous action that you can take in the world today is hitting the send button.”

He is right; it is too easy to hit the send button.  It is too easy to sit idly by and listen. It is too easy to take pleasure in being the person who knows something. Because you get to say “guess what I heard?” at the expense of somebody else’s reputation, and even worse, their feelings.

“You can spread a rumor today that will hurt someone in Israel tomorrow,” said Wolpe. “All you have to do is repeat it.”

Before you are about to pass on a rumor, he advises us to ask: Is it true? Is it fair? And is it necessary? Whether we heard it from someone reliable is irrelevant. Whether it improves on the silence is beside the point. More often than not, you will notice the power of your silence, the honor in not being a talebearer.

Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project observed that although gossip “unifies people who play by the rules” and “exposes the misbehavior of those who cheat on their spouses, don’t return phone calls, or take credit for other’s work,” she felt significantly happier after dismissing these types of poisonous conversations.

So before repeating a rumor this year and from now on, before even listening to the gossip in the first place, let’s opt out. “You can create a world with words, and you can destroy someone’s world with words,” said Wolpe. If nothing else, let’s use our words this year more wisely, more kindly, more effectively, and more productively.

I’ve Got a Secret

I thought I had struck social gossip gold when my friend Paula let slip a delicious bit of intelligence straight into my eager ears. Paula and I were participating in a
real-time, interactive social dialogue — meaning, we were on the phone — trying to schedule a lunch date. This was no easy task, as we are modern women who live modern, chronically busy lives that become grist for oodles of “how-to-simplify-your-life” type of books and articles that we, being so busy, have no time to read. Paula consulted her PDA and ticked off the days she was not available.

“Monday I can’t take a lunch break, Tuesday I’ve got a doctor’s appointment, Wednesday I’ve got a business lunch, and Thursday’s out since I promised to shop with Barbara for a wedding dress.”

“Barbara?” I asked. “Barbara’s engaged?”

“Omigod,” Paula said. “I cannot believe I said that. And I was sworn to secrecy!”

“You know you can trust me,” I said, immensely satisfied at suddenly finding myself “in the know.” Inexplicably, Barbara had remained one of our social set’s most eligible singles for a long time. News that she was about to don the lace veil was the most exciting information I had heard since I learned that our very nasty neighbor’s pipes had burst. It was hard to decide which news was more delightful.

“You can’t tell anybody,” Paula said. “But the engagement is going to be announced in synagogue this Saturday. Boy, are people going to be surprised!”
“I’ll make sure to be there, and don’t worry. CIA agents couldn’t drag it out of me, unless of course they threatened to yell at me or drag me to some European detention center,” I said.

Although Paula and I failed to locate a single day anytime in the following six months when we were both available for a midday sandwich, the conversation was still a rousing success by my standards. I walked a little taller — a novel feeling, as my kids are now so big that in my entire household I am only taller than the dog — just knowing a juicy news tip that almost nobody else in the world knew.

An hour later, the phone rang.

“Make sure to come to synagogue on Saturday,” Mimi said. “There’s going to be a big announcement.”

Her I’ve-got-a-secret tone irritated me. I thought I was the only one, other than Paula, the bride and the groom, to know about the hitching. I had kept my end of the bargain and kept my trap shut. But I had suddenly tumbled from the social gossip elite, and I didn’t like it.

“Yes, I’ve heard,” I said, in a studied, nonchalant tone.

“How?” Mimi demanded. “Nobody is supposed to know.”

“Well, you know, and I know also. Why are you calling people if it’s supposed to be such a secret?”

“I don’t want to deprive people of the chance to be there when the news breaks,” she said. “This is BIG.”

“Have you also alerted CNN and the Los Angeles Times?” I asked.

“No need. The Men’s Club president already works for one of the wire services,” Mimi said.

The same day, I got an e-mail from Barbara herself.

“I know that Paula spilled the beans,” the bride noted. “But please don’t tell anyone else. I really want this to be a surprise.”

“Don’t worry,” I replied. “I wouldn’t tell anyone even if I was promised the jumbo jackpot of the California lottery, unless it has gone over $23 million. After all, everyone has her price.”

I kept mum. But the next day in the market, I bumped into one of the synagogue staff.

“You didn’t hear this from me,” he said sotto voce near the tomatoes, “but there’s going to be a big announcement in services on Saturday. Only thing is, I can’t tell you exactly what it is. Wish I could,” he said, clearly relishing the presumption that he knew something that I didn’t.

“Somebody already beat you to the punch,” I said. “I learned about this three days ago,” I said.

“Three days ago? That’s impossible. This news is supposed to be hot.” He sounded hurt.

I shrugged. “What can I tell you? As Ben Franklin said, ‘Two can keep a secret, if one of them is dead.'”

Over the next few days, I received no fewer than four phone calls, three e-mails and two unsubtle hints accompanied by winks about the big scoop that was supposed to have remained a bigger secret than the Manhattan Project but had leaked like a New Orleans levee.

Barbara e-mailed me again: “I’m not accusing you of anything, but news of my engagement has somehow already traveled round and round. I only accidentally told 12 people, and they each promised not to breathe a word of it. Only two days left till the announcement, so please don’t tell anybody else.”

At that moment, the king-sized down duvet that I planned to get for Barbara as a wedding gift shrunk to a three-speed blender. I may be a writer, but I’m no leaker.

On Saturday I arrived at services early. The place was standing-room-only, with people spilling out into the halls. This never happened, not even on Yom Kippur. It was as if God Himself had been announced as the guest speaker.

When the prayers were over, we waited for the expected broadcast. The women were all on the edges of their seats. Two even slid off.

The air in the room was electric, as the rabbi dropped hint after hint about the identity of the bride and the groom. Finally, to great fanfare, he announced Barbara’s engagement to a man whom most of us did not know. Not that it mattered. Two more singles had been rescued from the cauldron of singles events, blind dates, wretched dates, wretched blind dates and Internet dating services. We sang and danced as if we had just discovered and trademarked the recipe for world peace, or least the recipe for a good nonfat cheesecake.

It was probably the worst-kept secret in the history of Western Civilization, yet for all that, the broadcast lost none of its thrilling quality when it became officially public. Ben Franklin would have had a great laugh.

Kids Page

You know that harmless-looking body part inside your mouth? The tongue? It sure looks nice enough, but it gets a lot of Israelites into trouble in this week’s parsha. Do you remember getting a present and then complaining it wasn’t enough? Not the right video game; not the kind of scooter you wanted. Often, your parents end up giving you what you want, but they might get pretty mad in the process. Well this time, the Israelites complain about the manna. “We want meat! We want more!” they shout.

God gives them what they want, but gets pretty mad at them. Was it worth it? Miriam and Aaron get into trouble, too, when they use their tongues to spread gossip about Moses’ wife, Zipporah. So, think about that tongue of yours. It’s more powerful than you realize.

Special Friends

Over the next few weeks, we will be publishing essays and poems by children who won the San Fernando Valley fifth-grade writing contest. The theme of the contest was: My Special Friend. Awards were given out by the California Writers’ Club on May 25, at the Encino Community Center. Meirav Fishman Cafri, 12, of Northridge, wrote the first-place essay. She is finishing up at Napa Elementary School in Northridge. She is the youngest of four children and is one of a set of triplets.

My Special Friend

My special friend is God. The reason God is my special friend is because He is the ruler of the Earth and has created me. He has dealt kindly with me throughout my 12 years. He is always there for me when I am going through good and bad times. He is even there for me when I need him most. No matter where I go He will always be watching over me. God has helped me through school and is still helping me through school. He is always where I need him most. He is keeping me alive and strong. I love him with all my heart. He always helps me through my injuries no matter how bad they are. Even when I behave badly, he does not or never will give up on me and that’s a fact.