“Guard Your Tongue” – Weekly Words of Torah from Rabbi Davis – August 9, 2019
I spoke to you last week about sinat chinam. The rabbis famously teach that the Second Temple was destroyed because of baseless hatred. Internal strife between Jewish groups weakened Jewish society so much so that they could not withstand the external threat of the Romans.
Significantly, some commentaries on the Talmud focus less on the emotion of hatred and more on its outward expression. They say what led to the destruction was lashon hara, evil speech and they point to the story of Joseph as a precursor of what was to come.
About Joseph we read, lo yakhlu dabro l’shalom, the brothers couldn’t speak a word of peace to Joseph. (Gen 37:5). This was true on two levels- what they spoke and how they spoke. That is to say, the brothers had things to talk about- running family business, caring for their flocks, the normal, peaceful matters of everyday life. But they never got around to those conversations. They just fought. So, what they spoke about was contentious. And how they spoke to each other was no less problematic. They showed no k’vod, honor or respect in how they addressed one another. They spoke only lashon hara.
In the case of Joseph and his brothers, this total breakdown in communication led to tragedy. Joseph was thrown in a pit and sold to slavery. The family was ripped apart in a way that took decades to repair. And Jacob’s fledgling nation went to Egypt.
That is to say, our entire history of enslavement and exile all began because of lashon hara, because of failure to uphold civil discourse. Writing in 18th C Germany, Rabbi Yonatan Eibschitz taught, “If the brothers and Joseph had spoken with one another, they would have made peace. The main deterrent in every dispute is when there is no communication and one side refuses to listen to the other. If mankind knew how to communicate, they would see there is no basis for dispute.”
What was true in the era of the patriarchs and again in Temple times is true our own day. We too are nearing a total communication breakdown. What was said about Joseph and his brothers applies to us, lo yakhlu dabro l’shlaom. We can’t speak to each other. We speak past each other.
Don’t get me wrong. It’s OK to argue. It’s natural and sometimes necessary to disagree. But if we can’t communicate, if we use disagreement as an excuse to disconnect, we undermine the very foundation of civil society.
The 19th C chafetz chaim drew out the critical implication of this teaching (Shemirat HaLashon, Book I, Epilogue 4:4), “If lashon hara had the power to destroy what was built, it undoubtedly has the power to prevent the rebuilding of what was destroyed, G-d forbid.” That is to say, we will never rebuild our nation, we will never strengthen our community if we don’t learn to speak civilly to one another.
I will leave you with a prayer I carry with me that speaks to this point. It is a verse from the Book of Psalms:
Who is the one who desires life, who desires to see good in the days to come? The one who guards their tongue stems the tide of evil does good and pursues peace.