When you are angry with someone, or disappointed or annoyed, what is your first course of action? Do you speak to the person directly and try to sort out the problem? Sometimes when we approach a person with the respect we all deserve and say, “I am upset about something…Can we talk about it?” (Notice the use of “I” statements here. This is because “you” statements such a “You said…” or “You made me mad” or “You probably…” leave a person feeling attacked. This solves nothing, but is like pouring gas on an open flame.)
When we address the problem directly, we find out that the person did not say or do what we think they did or that they didn’t realize our discomfort. How often it is that an off-handed remark can lead to a rift in a friendship. And the tactic we use instead only causes the problem to worsen. That is to complain about it, or more often the person in general, to people who can do absolutely nothing to solve our dispute. Herein lies the problem. Not only do we continue to have negative feelings, but we have started a course of action that we may quickly lose control of. (And it grows, sometimes like a snowball rolled down hill, other times like an avalanche, in proportion to our anger- as in “You know what else bothers me about him!”) Who knows how many times this story or stories will be repeated even after we are finished being mad or find out our assumption was not even true!
The Talmud (Yevamot, 62B) reminds us of the dangers of treating each other with less than the respect we all deserve. “…Rabbi Akiva had twelve thousand pairs of students…and they all died in one short period of time, because they did not have proper respect for each other.” The period of death finally ended on the thirty-third day of the Omar (Lag BaOmer). How can it be that the students of a brilliant and renowned Rabbi, who taught that the essence of the Torah is, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” could lose all of his students in this manner? One theory is that like Moses who tried to shoulder the responsibility for the golden calf, the student took on the responsibility for people not having the proper respect for each other. What a burden that must be!
One of the problems with this approach to ‘problem solving’ is that it assumes mal intent on behalf of the person we are annoyed with. To a degree we assume they knew we were annoyed; that they did it on purpose; that they are ‘out to get us’. (It would be a little funny to see ourselves in this light, if it were not so very sad.)
And the second half is that the problem never gets solved, so our negative feeling grow and fester. Add to that equation speaking Lashon Hara and we have the perfect storm.
Even listening to Lashon Hara is a problem. For one thing we endanger ourselves because we might begin to believe it and we endanger those around us by listening because our mere presence supports and endangers others to believing the rumors are true.
I’m sure you are aware, the Teshuva for speaking Lashon Hara involves: regret, praying to G-d, and a commitment not to repeat the behaviors in the future. In addition, one is required to find all the people who hear the Lashon Hara and tell them that he or she was incorrect. (This is no easy feat, and explains a great deal about why a story reported on the front page of the newspaper will be retracted somewhere near page 6 section C.) One is also required to ask the person harmed to forgive them, but they are not supposed to upset the person by confronting them with a rumor about themselves or cause them distress, so it is permissible to be vague. We don’t want to embarrass or humiliate the person further.
Committing NOT to repeat or believe Lashon Hara, anything that damages the reputation of another, is more demanding that it sounds, but what better time to consider and correct these behaviors than the High Holidays. We have an opportunity to deliberate and reflect on our behaviors, this is our task during the ten days of awe, and atone for them on Yom Kippur.