Monday, February 7, 2011


Chazal tell us that the various items of clothing of the Kohen Gadol served as atonements for the sins of Klal Yisroel. The meil atoned for lashon hara. One of the striking features of the meil was that it was fully techeiles, the color that resembles the Kisay HaKavod. What is the connection between the techeiles of the meil with atonement for lashon hara? The Chofetz Chaim zt”l explains by quoting a Tana d’bey Eliyahu that says that lashon hara rises up to the Kisay HaKavod. This means that a person who speaks lashon hara will have to face judgement in front of the Kisay HaKavod. The techeiles on the meil of the Kohen Gadol would serve as a reminder that our words have great spiritual power .

Thanks to the drive against lashon hara there is far more awareness as to the halachos and hashkafo of shemiras halashon. Nonetheless, lashon hara remains as being one of the most difficult aveiros to avoid - there are a number of reasons for this, including the fact that we speak so much and that there is strong social pressure that makes it very hard to avoid negative speech.

However, perhaps there is a deeper cause to lashon hara that lies at the root of much of the lashon hara spoken. Halacho acknowledges that we derive pleasure from speaking negatively about others - we see this in the laws of constructive speech: There are times when it is permissible and even required to speak lashon hara in order to prevent damage, however even this is forbidden if the speaker is pleased in his heart to cast the perpetrator in a bad light. This is difficult to understand - there are many aveiros for which there is an obvious taiva, such as arayos, however there is no obvious physical pleasure derived by speaking lashon hara. Why is there such a drive to speak negatively about other people?

It seems that the root cause of the pleasure of speaking lashon hara is that it provides an artificial boost to our self-worth: If we feel a lack of self-worth there are two ways in which we can boost it - one is to get involved in constructive activities and improve our character. In this way we feel more fulfilled and positive about ourselves. However, there is another, easier option; We often tend to value ourselves in relation to others, consequently our self-image is often dependent upon how we compare to those around us. By criticizing them we knock them down, thereby we now see ourselves in a more favorable light in comparison. For example, if we feel lacking in a mida such as intelligence, by criticizing someone else in that exact same area can help us feel better about our own level of intelligence.

This would seem to the explanation of Chazal’s statement that a person only criticizes others about a flaw that they themselves possess. Chazal understood the psychological needs of people to feel good about themselves and that a prime way of trying to do so is by knocking down others in their very own areas of weakness.

Of course the rise in self-worth derived from speaking lashon hara is artificial and very short-lived. After a short while the speaker’s true sense of inadequacy returns and he feels the need to criticize more in order to boost himself. Any person who has tried to refrain from lashon hara can testify that on the occasions when they held themselves they did not feel any lacking - on the contrary they felt better about themselves for doing the right thing.

There are two important lessons that can be dreived from this understanding of lashon hara. Firstly we must be highly vigilant of our intentions when we speak negatively for a constructive purpose. This is especially true in the delicate area of criticizing other groups or ideologies within Judaism. Indeed the Manchester Rosh Yeshiva, Rav Segal zt”l said that only great tzaddikim can speak critically of other groups. One reason for this may be that tzaddikim are secure in themselves and have no psychological need to criticize people. However, everyone else is prone to feelings of lack of self-worth and we may express righteous condemnation of those that we disapprove of for reasons that are not leshem shamayim. This constitutes lashon hara midoraysa and it is surely wise to heed the words of Rav Segal and to never risk transgressing such a serious aveiro.

The second lesson is that if we see in ourselves the desire to disparage others then we must do a cheshbon hanefesh to discover its source. Very often, it may arise because of a lack of self-worth. But instead of putting down others, we can feel better about ourselves by improving our midos and striving to be active and productive members of society. May we all be zocheh to purify our speech and learn the lesson of the meil.

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