Slandering the Image of God

The Sages tell us, “What is the remedy for one who has spoken leshon hara (slanderous speech)? If he is a Torah scholar, let him engage in Torah study.” (Arachin 15b). Leshon hara defaces man’s “image of God”, and Torah study restores it.

According to the Midrash (Tanchuma, Kedoshim #13, and Nedarim 32a), Avraham was punished for his reaction to God’s promise in the Bris bein Habesarim that He would grant him possession of the land of Canaan. God told him, as it were, “You want to know? Here is something you can know (Bereshis 15:13): ‘Know with certainty that your offspring will be strangers.’”

Daf Yomi Digest
Distinctive Insight
“The power of word”
Arachin 15

There is one who speaks [harshly] like piercings of a sword, but the tongue of the wise heals. True speech is established forever, but a false tongue is only for a moment. –Proverbs 12:18-19 (Stone Edition Tanakh)

I suppose I’ve been on something of a mission lately to try and emphasize that, among people of faith and disciples of the Master, we have an obligation to treat each other with the same love and respect that Jesus has for his people, both the “lost sheep of Israel” and we non-Jews sheep who are “other sheep…not of this fold” (John 10:16). I know I’ve said this before, and blogs and sermons on the topic of “lashon hara” (the evil or slanderous tongue) are plentiful, but it is a lesson that we can’t seem to get enough of. I say this because, if we were taking this teaching to heart and incorporating it into our lives (and our speech), then there wouldn’t be so much harmful speech, insults, and character assassinations in the religious blogosphere.

And I would be writing about something else this morning.

It’s interesting what the Daf has to say about the “cure” for “evil speech”. “What is the remedy for one who has spoken leshon hara (slanderous speech)? If he is a Torah scholar, let him engage in Torah study.” Is the same remedy available for those of us who are not Torah scholars? I hope so (though I can’t speak from Jewish halacha on the matter). Where else can we find a cure for the evil that resides inside us than within the Word of God?

The commentary on the Daf tells us why speech is so important and how it can be so potentially lethal:

Rav Shach once explained that the uniqueness of man in creation — the “image of God” that was bestowed upon him—lies in the fact that he is a “living soul”, which Onkelos renders as “a speaking spirit.” It is the ability to speak that sets man apart from the beasts. The power of speech is indeed a reflection of “God’s image.” Just as God’s very word is capable of accomplishing the same as an actual deed, as it says (Tehillim 33:6): “By the word of God the Heavens were created,” so too is man’s power of speech capable of “establishing the heavens and settling a foundation for the earth” (Yeshaya 51:16). We must therefore ensure that our speech is pure and exact, in order not to corrupt the “image of God” within us.

This is why Avraham was punished for his expression, “How can I know,” although this was seemingly only a minor impropriety of speech. Similarly, Moshe was taken to task for asking God (Shemos 5:22; see Rashi ibid., 6:1), “Why have You treated this people badly?” There are many other examples of improper expressions and harsh penalties for them — all because of the fact that to misuse the gift of speech is to tarnish man’s image of God.

One way I choose to read this is that the “power” of speech comes from our being made in the “image of God” and that it defiles something about our Creator when we misuse this unique gift that he has provided only to humanity. Also, when we use this unique gift to harm another, we are injuring something of that “image” in the other person. Harmful speech damages not only that aspect of God in which we were made, but the same aspect in the other human. It is as if we are using “the power of the word” to damage or destroy “the power of His Word.” So we are hurting ourselves, hurting someone else, and “hurting” God when we commit “lashon hara”. Why is it so easy (I say this, because such speech is exceptionally common in the blog comments I read in the religious blogosphere) for us to spew our insults and harsh words on other brothers and sisters in the faith?

Haven’t we read what the Master said about this?

It is not what enters the mouth that contaminates the person, but what comes out from the mouth – that contaminates the person. –Matthew 15:11 (DHE Gospel)

Even the brother of the Master teaches this lesson.

Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness. For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things.

How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell. For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by mankind, but no human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse people who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brothers, these things ought not to be so. Does a spring pour forth from the same opening both fresh and salt water? Can a fig tree, my brothers, bear olives, or a grapevine produce figs? Neither can a salt pond yield fresh water. –James 3:1-12 (ESV)

If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time, you already know these lessons and you know what they mean. If you then continue to deliberately use your speech (or what you write in blog comments or discussion threads on the Internet) to hurt someone else, you must realize that you are also deliberately disobeying the teachings of Jesus and spitting on the will of God. Please keep that in mind.

I am sometimes questioned about how I can use Jewish teachings to help me better focus on the lessons of Jesus (and no, I am not a “mere imitator of Judaism” in my faith or practice), but I find many seemingly associated themes. I don’t know that they are directly connected in any manner, but I find them comforting nonetheless.

Today’s daf discusses the negative consequences of speaking leshon hara.

Once a certain father heard that a child of the rebbe of Toldos Aharon, zt”l, wished to make a match with his daughter. He was overjoyed…until someone told him that the young man was not in his right mind. Obviously, the father was distressed. He was also worried about how to ascertain the truth; surely a maggid shiur or other person within the Toldos Aharon system wouldn’t say anything negative about the rebbe’s grandson.

He finally decided to ask the rebbe himself, since he was certain that the tzaddik would not deceive him. When this question was put to the rebbe he denied the claim against his grandson. “I know that child since he was born. No one has ever thought there was anything wrong with him.”

The father was very glad to hear this, but also furious at the one who had slandered the innocent bochur, and immediately blurted out, “Do you know who told me? It was…”

“Just a moment,” the rebbe firmly interrupted, “It is a question of leshon hara. Perhaps you are forbidden to tell me. Working out whether this is permitted is no simple matter. I am going on a fundraising trip for two weeks in the next few days. When I return you are welcome to come back and I will tell you the halachah.” When the rebbe was away, he learned the entire Sefer Chofetz Chaim through twice with great care. When he returned, the father of the girl—now engaged to the rebbe’s grandson—came to ask whether he was permitted to tell the rebbe who had slandered the bochur.

The Rebbe of Toldos Aharon said, “I learned the sugya very carefully while I was away and I concluded that if you don’t derive any pleasure in the telling, you are permitted to tell me who slandered the young man.”

Before the man could say a word, however, the rebbe stopped him with a motion. He astounded the man with his concluding words, “It may be permitted, but nevertheless, I do not wish to hear about it!”

Daf Yomi Digest
Stories Off the Daf
“A Question of Leshon Hara”
Arachin 15

We may not be able to prevent our brother from using harmful speech or trying to “stir the pot,” but we can certainly control our own tongues (or fingers on the keyboard). And like the Rebbe of Toldos Aharon, when someone is about to speak in such a manner, even if it is “permitted,” we can refuse to listen and refuse to respond.

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