for the Days of Awe
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Today's Elul Chai-Ku:
I'll take sticks and stones.
Cruel words, harsh tones, lies, gossip
wounds that never heal...
4 Elul—More Soul Searching: Acknowledging Our Evil Tongue
Our soul searching last focused on immediate family members. For today we expand the circle outward,considering extended family and friends. The people we live with usually see our most authentic selves. They know the raw part of us, our darker moods, our unpleasant knee-jerk reactions. However, as we head out of our homes, most of us have an outside persona that is more civilized and "put on."
Leshon Hara is basically any negative speech about
someone, even if it is true! Essentially, it’s the kind of nasty talk that caused our parents and teachers to say: “Mind your own business,” and “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all.” Gossip is speech that is not intended for the purpose of improving a situation. Rather the intent is to cast the subject in a negative light. However, some even consider sharing the good news of others to be questionable as well. The great news of others is not ours to share. Usually the motive is to elevate our own status and power as the "source" of the information. Judaism teaches us a lot about the intention behind our words.
Jewish tradition also teaches us that Leshon Hara is one of the most serious of all sins. Perhaps this is because once negative speech has poured forth, the ripple effect is immeasurable. The words travel seamlessly from person, to person, to person. We cannot control whether the harsh words we speak about someone become distorted, exaggerated, or even erroneous as they move onward, through the grapevine. Gossip is an invisible, but very powerful weapon.
All of us, regardless of age, maturity, spiritual development etc. engage in Leshon Hara. Actually as we get older, we become more sophisticated at veiling our gossip as something else: “I’m just trying to be helpful,” "I'm just speaking my truth," or “I just need to vent!” It’s as if humans are hard wired for this insidious little habit. The key is to become more and more aware of the habit and work towards decreasing the offense.
Today’s Elul Tool: For a few minutes, think about the Leshon Hara (gossip) you have engaged in over the past year. Are there particular people you tend to gossip more about? Why? Think about the negative ripple of energy you unleashed into the cosmic pool. Though the subjects of your gossip may be unaware, you and God and the ears of the universe know all about it. And once those words have emerged from your lips, they are no longer yours. You no longer have control over what happens to them. When you speak harsh words, you cannot unspeak them. Surely just as you spoke them, they will tumble again and again from the mouths of others. As uncomfortable as it is, consider your part in creating this spiritual disturbance. But try to meditate on this with as little judgment as possible. No human on the planet is able to completely escape the sticky web of Leshon Hara. Our aim is to create less of it over time, to stop the chain of disrespectful speech.
It is customary to read Psalm 27 twice daily during Elul.
Here is an online version of Psalm 27 for easy access.
Here is an online version of Psalm 27 for easy access.
For Families and Kids!
Junior Tool Box: Depending upon the age of your child, it is not too early to introduce the concept of Leshon Hara (gossip). Right and positive speech is an important concept to discuss anytime, but particularly as we approach the High Holidays. You can define gossip as “words that hurt” or “mean things we say about people when they aren’t around.”
There is a particularly powerful Hassidic tale you can share that brings the concept vividly to life. There are many versions of this story, including a hardbound, illustrated children’s book by Madonna called Mr. Peabody’s Apples. A condensed version of the tale taken from Minyan: Ten Principles for Living a Life of Integrity by Rabbi Rami Shapiro is as follows:
“THERE is a Hasidic story about a town gossip. This fellow thoughtlessly told and retold stories about others that brought them shame. The town’s rabbi met with the man and confronted him with his words. The man was stunned. He had no idea he was spreading such hurt. He broke into tears and begged the rabbi for help. ‘There must be something I can do to atone for the wickedness I have done.’
“The rabbi instructed the man to take four pillows out into a field. Once there he was to slice open each pillow with a knife and shake its feathers into the wind. The man thanked the rabbi and rushed off to do as he was told. He purchased four fine feather pillows and cut them open in the field, watching as the feathers scattered in every direction.
“He returned to the rabbi to let him know he had completed his penance.’Not quite,’ said the rabbi. ‘Now go back to the field and retrieve the feathers.’
“ ‘But that is impossible,’ said the man. ‘The winds have taken them everywhere.’
“ ‘It is the same with your words,’ the rabbi said gravely. ‘Just as you cannot retrieve the feathers once spilled, so you cannot withdraw words once spoken. No matter how sincerely you desire to undo what you have done, the harm caused by thoughtless speech cannot be rectified.’ “
To Practice: Monitor your words so that they do not set in motion harmful things. And when they do, ask for forgiveness.