Causing Strife or Hurt

A frequent result of speaking loshon hora and especially rechilus (gossip) is machlokes (dispute or controversy).

The president of a school is unhappy with the executive director’s efforts in an unsuccessful school function. He conveys his feelings to a board member who relates the conversation to the executive director. The executive director responds furiously: “He said that the event was a failure because of me? He is the one who never attended any meetings!”

The board member wastes no time in reporting this response to the president. The president sends the volleyball of blame over the net by saying, “I never came to the meetings because he never called me to confirm them!” The executive director then sends the ball back by saying that if the school would hire a secretary for him, then there would finally be someone who had the time to confirm appointments and meetings.

Before anyone realizes what is happening, the disagreement has snowballed into a full-scale machlokes, all because of one small sentence that should not have been repeated, and certainly not to the subject of the comment.

The Chofetz Chaim teaches that when someone speaks loshon hora or rechilus and it generates a machlokes, he is transgressing two negative commandments instead of one. In addition to the sin of loshon hora, he has transgressed the commandment “Do not be like Korach and his assembly” (Bamidbar 17:5) in which the Torah warns us to reject the ways of Korach, who stirred up a terrible rebellion against the leadership of Moshe Rabbeinu.

The Chofetz Chaim introduces us to another type of forbidden speech which many people are unaware is explicitly forbidden by the Torah— ona’as devarim (hurting people with words), verbal abuse. Only recently in social work and psychology has society come to recognize a fact which the Jewish people have known since the Torah was given: words can hurt — and they can hurt a lot; sometimes even more than physical abuse.

People tend to base their own self-image on the way they believe they are perceived by others. When you tell someone repeatedly that he is incompetent, you are actually reaching into his soul and imprinting the word “incompetent” on his self-image. That destructive process, the Torah tells us, is as prohibited as sitting down to a lavish meal of lobster and shrimp.

Ona’as devarim comes in various forms. The Chofetz Chaim discusses the case of a person who reminds someone of his unpleasant past. It is not that there are any particular elements of a person’s history that one may not mention. Any comment which may cause embarrassment or hurt someone’s feelings — it could be a past family problem, a demeaning job, a less than respectable lifestyle — is considered ona’as devarim and is prohibited by the verse “A man shall not cause hurt to his fellow” (Vayikra 25:17).

If the speaker said these hurtful words to others in the subject’s presence, then he has also transgressed the commandment against loshon hora. After all, what could be more damaging to a person’s self-image than to have his faults or weaknesses revealed to those who know him?

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© 2020 Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation

© 2020 Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation