The Roots of Gossip - Hamodia 3.28.2014

It is well known that the main cause of tzaraas (a spiritual malady commonly but erroneously associated with leprosy), the primary focus of Tazria (as well as Metzora), was lashon hara (slanderous speech). Tzaraas manifested in three ways. First, God would flag the wrongdoing by afflicting his house. If this failed to inspire the sinner to mend his ways, then the coloration would appear on his garment. If even that did not inspire repentance, then the sinner’s body would be impacted. If at this point the sinner would be penitent, the condition would disappear. If not, he would have to dwell outside the camp in isolation (see Leviticus 13:46).

While in seclusion, the metzora wore torn clothing, left his hair uncut, and announced to all passersby that he was impure. The basis for these sanctions was the fact that he spoke lashon hara, a corrosive behavior which divides and isolates people. An individual who feels a driving urge to share gossip or slander is by nature a social being. Isolation reminds him of what he stands to lose by acting imprudently and carelessly.

How was it possible for people to actively engage in hurtful talk knowing that they stood to lose so much? Would not the embarrassment from having part of one’s house, if not the entire structure, examined and demolished deter any would-be gossipmonger? Even if that would not suffice, was not the increasingly more invasive step of having tzaraas appear on one’s garment not adequately impress upon a person that he had gone too far? Could we not assume that if the metzora had still not learned his lesson, and was forced to experience tzaraas on his body, that he would be inspired to repent and avert the final stage of humiliation and isolation?

Clearly the answer is no. In fact, the Torah felt it necessary to establish an extensive list of speech-related checks and balances, including many positive and negative commandments, in order to discourage a person from speaking in hurtful manner about others. What is it about lashon hara that necessitates such a lengthy list of deterrents?

It would appear that the answer lies in the number of root causes associated with tale bearing and slander. Some contributing factors are social in nature, such as when we feel the need to fill in a conversational void with gossip, or establish a sense of belonging in a group setting that encourages such conduct.

However, the root cause is much deeper. Our desire to talk about others ultimately emerges from weakness in our personal character.

Revenge is one significant motivator for the gossiper. We are likely to use lashon hara as a means of getting back at people who we perceive as possessing poor behavioral attributes, or exacting vengeance against those who put us down or acted hurtfully towards us.

Deficits in confidence and self-appreciation also contribute to our gossip cravings. A person who is lacking in self-worth is more likely to engage in hurtful gossip than is someone who has a proper self-image. People who are fulfilled and self-efficacious simply do not feel the need to highlight others’ weaknesses. In contrast, someone who lacks in these regards can often spend an inordinate amount of time and energy looking around and doing “comparative shopping.” Why do they have more than we do? Why did their child have more success in school, finding a marriage partner, etc. than ours did? Instead of looking inside for answers we look elsewhere, and seek to try to minimize that person’s success as a way of assuaging our own frustrations and fears. It is far easier to diminish another’s stature through negative rationalization that to attribute their success to positive factors such as talent, effort, time, etc.

There is a well-known consequence associated with lashon hara (see Chovos Halevavos, Shaar Hachniah 7, et al), in which the speaker loses his personal merits to the subject of his chatter, while also absorbing his target’s sins as his own. Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler (Michtav M’Eliyahu, IV, p. 20, quoting Orchas Tzadikim) explains the reasoning behind this unusually harsh consequence as stemming from the fact that most lashon hara is directed at righteous people, for the reasons stated above. Since a person who spreads damaging thoughts about a righteous person is, in essence, insulting God, he is punished accordingly.

On a positive note, we can all gain strength and encouragement from the words of Rabbi Yechezkel Levenstein. He argues (Yad Yechezkel, p. 177) that if we are punished so severely for simple chatter (see Rashi to Leviticus 14:3), we can only imagine how much reward we are due to receive for performing God's commandments earnestly and with great effort. Moreover, if we take the time to properly contemplate the root causes of lashon hara, we can better identify approaches to improving the nature and tenor of our speech, so that we can be counted amongst those who truly “desire life” (Psalms 34:13), both in this world and in the next.