Thursday, January 20, 2011

Pirkei Avot and Evil Speak

In Pirkei Avot (1.15) Rabbi Shammai enjoins us: “Say little, but do much.” Is this ever an enjoinder we need! The air around us is dense with words. While some words do inspire and goad us to good deeds, most of the words we hear do not. So many of the words we hear are not words of inspiration or instruction, but words designed to denigrate and de-legitimize. We are not careful with our words, and the world around us is worse of for it.

Our tradition lays out very specific and detailed laws for controlling our tongues. For example, we are forbidden to speak negatively of others; this is called lashon hara (evil speak). And this even applies (in most cases) to information that is true! But isn’t it important to inform others about negative truths regarding others? In a word, no. If we’re honest, most of the time when we make negative statements about others, we do so with no particularly good end in mind. We do so in order to show ourselves as having some exclusive knowledge, to cast aspersions, or to make someone else look better, truer, cleverer.

We’re permitted to give negative information about others only in specific circumstances. For example, in order to save a life, or to prevent serious harm to somebody. For example, if a friend is about to hire a babysitter, where you have absolutely true information that he has a history of making bad decisions that would endanger a child, or even (G-d forbid) child molestation. Or when giving testimony in a criminal trial.

Therefore, unless the negative information you have meets one of these limited criteria, hold your tongue and keep it to yourself. This prevents the besmirching of someone’s good reputation. This is tantamount to stealing, but worse; a person’s property can be reinstated, but their good reputation cannot be given back once taken away.

And the corollary of holding your tongue, is doing much. If the energy that we waste in speaking negatively of others were channeled into good deeds, imagine how much better this world would be.

One can’t change the world single-handedly, but one can bring significant goodness into the world by changing one’s own behavior. If all of us practiced these simple words of Shammai, imagine the good result possible!

All the best…

Rabbi Don Levy