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Gossip: Yom Kippur Eve Sermon

“Oh, Lord, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking falsehood; and to those who slander me, let me give no heed. May my soul be humble and forgiving to all.” Three times a day we close our silent standing prayer, i.e. the “Amidah”, with this sentence.

It is noteworthy that in the Torah, the commandment to not murder is cited only twice. The commandment to not talebear or bear false, on the other hand, is cited about eight times in one form or another. There is a purpose to everything that is in the Torah—the order, the specific words, and yes, the amount of times something is discussed. And yes, the fact that the former is mentioned twice and the latter is mentioned eight times is significant.

Gossip, “L’shone HaRah” (Evil Tongue), has been described as being sort of a living death. When a person is dead, they’re dead. That’s it. When someone’s reputation is maligned, it affects every faucet of their life in a negative way. If people have a bad image of someone, they are very likely to not do business with them. This affects their ability of make a living, and maintain shelter from the elements and put food on the table and clothe themselves, etc. These people would invariably have to leave their home and settle somewhere else where people don’t know them and they can start fresh.

In the Torah, there is the case of a husband who suspects his wife of adultery. The woman is put through tests and when she passes those tests, her husband and her community are commanded to act as if it never happened. She is vindicated.

This is a negative commandment, a commandment in which we are told NOT to do something. There is a positive commandment that may be considered to be the converse of this. That would be to “love your neighbor as yourself”. If you are loving your neighbor as yourself, what would make you want to demean them?

During the High Holidays, we’ve chanted the “Ashamru”, the list of insults that we’ve committed as we strike the left side of our chest with our right fist. Interesting, by the way, that, according to Kabbalah, we are striking the “judgement” side of our body with the “mercy” side. We recite such sins as “we’ve gossiped” and “we’ve lied”.

What would make people gossip and slander and demean people? Consider that it’s an attack. It’s a way of belittling someone. Of course we’re looking to hurt them. It’s also very cowardly because people are talking about other people behind their backs, when they’re not there to defend themselves or set the record straight. This is the whole point. The people who are demeaning the others don’t want a fair fight; they just want to hold all the cards and not be confronted or challenged. They also don’t want to be held accountable for their statements.

This has even spilled over into social media. How many people—kids, actually—have been bullied even to point of suicide by people posting untrue declarations about them? Gangs of kids attacking other kids for really no reason, just because. Why? They want that power.

There are people who make their living, gossiping about famous people. These people sit in judgement of others, discussing in a lot of cases, their problems and weaknesses ostensibly to reveal the “truth” about these people. Many people believe that this is OK, because since these are public figures, they have implicitly accepted this “occupational hazard”. Some famous people have even given up their celebrity rather than bear this situation. Judaism would not condone this; a commandment is a commandment.

Consider that there is a larger picture. Politics, today, has devolved into a battle of wits, and contest of insults, what we used to call—in grade school—a big rank out session. No longer are elections about policy or how candidates are going to make life better for their constituents. Rather, it’s about how bad the other person is and all the terrible things they’ve done. In fact, as many of us have seen, some of those things that politicians are purported to have done aren’t even real and are the stuff of fiction.

During the last presidential election, it wasn’t about problems facing our country and who is best capable of fixing them. It was about someone’s wife, or someone else who was crooked or a liar or their honesty in business. Etc. Name calling and accusations.

And we love it. It’s the best reality show on air! People are talking about it all the time. Journalists, many of whom have won prestigious awards, are visibly uncomfortable attempting to treat this childish nonsense in an intellectual capacity.

The problem is that after years of this, it’s become the new normal. People have accepted this and are now making their voting decisions based on who can rank out their opponent better. L’shon HaRah at its absolute worst.

Asking forgiveness for our sins does not come cheap. When you repent, you have to mean it. It’s been said that if you repent and ask forgiveness for a sin, HaShem will put you in the same situation again to give you the opportunity to show that you are sincere in wanting to change.

The only way we are going to be forgiven is not accept gossip and not listen to slander. Beyond that, we shouldn’t allow others to talk bad in our presence. Confront them with facts, suggest that if they have an issue with someone, rather than talk about them behind their back, they should approach that person and resolve the issues. If they’re not willing to do that, then they shouldn’t say anything.

As it has been said: Evil flourishes when good does nothing.

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