The power of speech.
There is an old Jewish folktale, and it goes something like this...
In a small town somewhere in Eastern Europe lived a nice man with a nasty problem: he talked too much about other people. He could not help himself. Whenever he heard a story about somebody he knew, and sometimes about somebody he did not know, he just had to tell it to his friends. Since he was in business, he heard a lot of rumors and stories. He loved the attention, and was delighted when they laughed because of the way he told his “anecdotes,” which he sometimes embellished with little details he invented to make them funnier and juicier. Other than that, he was really a pleasant, good hearted man. He kind of knew it was wrong, but . . . it was too tempting, and in any case, most of what he told had really happened, didn’t it? Many of his stories were just innocent and entertaining, weren’t they? One day he found out something really weird (but true) about another businessman in town. Of course he felt compelled to share what he knew with his colleagues, who told it to their friends, who told it to people they knew, who told it to their wives, who spoke with their friends and their neighbors. It went around town until the unhappy businessman who was the main character in the story heard it. He ran to the rabbi of the town, and wailed and complained that he was ruined! Nobody would want to deal with him after this. His good name and his reputation were destroyed. Now this rabbi knew his customers…so to speak, and he decided to summon the man who loved to tell stories. If he was not the one who started them, he might at least know who did. When the nice man with the nasty problem heard from the rabbi how devastated his colleague was, he felt truly sorry. He honestly had not considered it such a big deal to tell this story, because it was true; the rabbi could check it out if he wanted. The rabbi sighed. “True, not true, that really makes no difference! You just cannot tell stories about people. This is all lashon hara, slander, and it’s like murder—you kill a person’s reputation.” He said a lot more, and the man who started the rumor now felt really bad and sorry. “What can I do to fix this?” he sobbed. “I will do anything you say!”
The rabbi looked at him and asked, “Do you have any feather pillows in your house?”
“Rabbi, I am not poor; I have a whole bunch of them. But what do you want me to do, sell them?” “No, just bring me one.” The man was mystified, but he returned a bit later to the rabbi’s study with a nice fluffy pillow under his arm. The rabbi opened the window and handed him a knife. “Cut it open!” “But Rabbi, here in your study? It will make a mess!” “Do as I say!” So the man cut the pillow and a cloud of feathers came out. They landed on the chairs and on the bookcase, on the clock. They floated over the table and into the teacups, on the rabbi and on the man, and many of them flew out of the window and were swept away with the wind. The rabbi waited ten minutes. Then he ordered the man: “Now bring me back all the feathers, and stuff them back in your pillow. All of them, mind you. Not one may be missing!” The man stared at the rabbi in disbelief. “That is impossible, Rabbi.
The ones here is the room, I might get most of them, but the ones that flew out of the window are gone. Rabbi, I can’t do that, you know it!” “Yes,” said the rabbi and nodded gravely, “that is how it is: once a rumor, a gossipy story, a ‘secret,’ leaves your mouth, you do not know where it will end up. It flies on the wings of the wind, and you can never get it back!” He ordered the man to deeply apologize to the person about whom he had spread the rumor; that is difficult and painful, but it was the least he could do. He ordered him to apologize to the people to whom he had told the story, making them accomplices in the nasty lashon hara game, and he ordered him to diligently study the laws concerning lashon hara every day for a year. That is what the man did. And not only did he study about lashon hara, he talked about the importance of guarding your tongue to all his friends and colleagues. And in the end he became a nice man who overcame a nasty problem.
In this tale, the man in this story learned a very important lesson about the power of speech. Today the power of speech has become even more complicated. With technology, our words can spread across the world in a matter of seconds. Take the current president of the United States for example… like him or not, he has chosen to say and tweet many of his thoughts and opinions about people.
One of the most notable, and disappointing things he said was in 2015 about Senator John McCain, Zichrona Livracha, where he suggested that Senator McCain was not “not a war hero.” Many politicians, journalists and ordinary citizens thought that this comment would be the end of the presidents newly forming political career, but as we know today, it was not.
Journalist Kay Steiger worte:
“Trump and McCain had plenty of policy disagreements — largely but not exclusively on immigration and foreign policy — and McCain famously became the deciding vote to kill legislation designed to repeal Obamacare, one of Trump’s campaign promises. As the Washington Post’s Anne Gearan and Josh Dawsey reported, resentment from Trump lasted through the final days of McCain’s life. Trump continued to tweet criticism of McCain even after the senator was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer months ago.”
When McCain lost his battle with cancer just a few weeks ago, President Trump tweeted:
“My deepest sympathies and respect go out to the family of Senator John McCain. Our hearts and prayers are with you!”
Even after his life was over, the president didn’t have anything more to offer than general sympathies. And as we know, he was specifically not invited to attend the funeral service where former presidents, both republican and democrat were invited to eulogize McCain.
While this example of lashon hara is a very public because the of nature of its subjects political standing, it teaches a very real lesson that we should all take note of. Once something is said publicly, once something is posted on the internet, we can not take it back. We can try to walk back what was said by attempting to explain it away, but we can’t remove it from history.
Our words tell people who we are, what we think, and what we believe. They speak to our character. They follow us through good and bad. So this new year, be sure that you choose your words carefully. Before you tell a story that is not yours to tell, consider the effect of the feather pillow. Think about weather or not you are ready to be the beginning of the spread of gossip. Before you share your first reactions to something on social media, think about how you will feel when it pops up in your “memories” five years from now. Will you be proud of what you typed for the whole world to see, or will you be disappointed in yourself, embarrassed.
If what you have to say is not fair or constructive, try not saying anything at all.
**Yom Kippur Morning 2018/5779