Rabbi Shimon Kessin
How can we control an action that is usually done without much thought?
At this point, you have a fairly clear idea of the power of Loshon Hora and Rechilus and the damage that they can do to you. You also know some of the key concepts attached to these prohibitions. But how do you control them? Talking is as natural as breathing. How can we control an action that is so effortless and is usually done without much thought? The truth is that controlling Loshon Hora and Rechilus is not as difficult as you might think. The major difficulties exist only at the outset and after awhile they gradually disappear, leaving you very much in control of your speech. There are several steps to be taken to become a master of your speech. Let us examine them in detail.
The Chofetz Chaim’s sensitivity to Rechilus: A Story
There is a very interesting story told by Rav Shalom Schwadron zatzal about the saintly Chofetz Chaim zatzal104. The Chofetz Chaim (he was called this name after the title of his famous book on the laws of Loshon Hora) and another distinguished Rav were once traveling on the road somewhere in Poland with the purpose of performing a mitzva. On the way, they stopped at an inn known for its high standards of kashruth. The owner instantly recognized them and took their order. After the meal was finished, the owner asked the rabbis if they enjoyed their meal. The Chofetz Chaim replied that the meal was very satisfactory. The other rav replied that while the meal was good, nevertheless, it lacked enough salt so that it wasn’t truly satisfying. Thereupon the owner departed and went into the kitchen.
The Chofetz Chaim suddenly turned to his companion and criticized him saying that his remarks were prohibited since they contained Rechilus and Loshon Hora. He explained that as a result of his reply, the owner probably felt disturbed since he wanted to please them. He further stated that, probably, at this very moment, the owner was censuring the cook and that since this position was usually filled by a poor widow, she was probably crying in fear of losing her job. The other Rav objected to this criticism and claimed that it was an exaggeration since his remark was simply an observation about the saltiness of the food.
The Chofetz Chaim arose and took the other Rav into the kitchen. When he opened the kitchen door, they saw the exact scene that the Chofetz Chaim had predicted. The owner was censuring the cook, a poor widow, who was crying profusely and begging to remain at her job. Immediately, the shocked Rav attempted to intervene and intercede on behalf of the cook so that no harm would result from his remarks.
The first requirement of Shmiras Haloshon: sensitivity to the damage of another person
When we analyze this story, an interesting question arises. How did the Chofetz Chaim know, in advance, what would ensue from the other rabbi’s remarks? The answer lies at the heart of the control of Loshon Hora and Rechilus. He knew intuitively that a comment about the saltiness of the food was, in its essence, a comment about the competence of the cook and that the owner’s disappointment could easily translate itself into hostility towards the cook thereby threatening her employment. His perception of the situation was an outgrowth of a highly developed sensitivity to feel, in advance, potentially threatening situations for other people. He developed in himself a heightened awareness for the feelings of other people and how they can be affected by the events surrounding them, especially ominous ones.
When it comes to other people our sensitivities are dulled
All of us have long ago developed this sense for ourselves. For example, we know that if there is ice on the road, we must walk slowly and not run. We don’t need a sign or another person to tell us of its dangers. Even in subtle situations, we can distinguish almost immediately between those events that will support us and those events that will threaten us. We can also frequently distinguish between a person who is a friend and one who is a foe from only a remark, a facial expression or a voice intonation. When it comes to other people, however, we are only attuned to obviously threatening circumstances such as when another person runs quickly into the street without looking for oncoming cars. But in subtle situations, our sensitivities are dulled and we are unable to predict, in advance, potentially damaging consequences for other people, especially strangers.
Shmiras Haloshon requires a clear recognition of another person’s existence
The Chofetz Chaim saw other people, friends and strangers, as he saw himself. He truly fulfilled the commandment, “and you shall love your neighbor as yourself.” With this quality, he was able to effectively guard himself from hurting others during daily conversation.
Why can’t we do this? Why don’t we possess this quality? The answer is that, unfortunately, most of us are too self- centered and wholly focused on our own successes and failures. Other people come into our focus only when they relate to our needs and expectations. Otherwise, they are like mere blips on our radar screens and are not to be taken seriously. Guarding one’s Loshon Hora successfully, requires a clear recognition of another person’s existence beyond our own and sensitivity to his feelings and to what may harm him.
The second requirement of Shmiras Haloshon: The control of which thoughts exit the mouth
Is the possession of this sensitivity enough to guard against Loshon Hora? The answer is no. From the time that we were small, we have said whatever we have thought. Our thoughts were never evaluated before they were said. As soon as they entered our mind, they always had full license to exit our mouth. It’s as though there was a special pipe connecting the brain to the mouth. As soon as the thoughts entered one end, it quickly flew out of the other end as speech. We have, out of habit, lost control of our speech. Without this control, there is no way we can guard our tongue from emitting harmful words. To guard our speech we must take this control back. One cannot evaluate his speech if it flies by too quickly.
Gaining control of our speech: a technique
How do we do this? There is a very simple exercise that, in a short time, can quickly restore a person to this control. Every day in your regular conversations with other people, select a specific thought and withhold it from being spoken. The thought may be a fact, an opinion, a novel idea, and may be fully permissible to say. Nevertheless, arbitrarily select this thought and stop yourself from expressing it telling yourself that it is you who are in control of your mouth and that you and not your mouth will decide what will be said and what will not be said. Practice this exercise selecting three thoughts from the hundreds of thoughts that come to mind during the day.
After a while you will notice that something strange is happening. Your thoughts, as they enter your mind, will begin to diminish their speed to your mouth and no longer automatically flow out into your speech. In a short while they will actually stop and it will feel like they are sitting in your head waiting for your approval on whether or not to be expressed. Suddenly you will realize that you are truly in charge. For perhaps the first time, you can begin to evaluate your thoughts before you spill them out and it is too late. You can evaluate them because now you can first listen to them. They are now yours to control.
The third requirement of Shmiras Haloshon: Knowing the laws
Is the possession of the sensitivity to the damage of other people along with the ability to screen your thoughts enough to enable you to guard your tongue? The answer is not yet. There is yet one more important element that you will need to have before you can succeed. You will need to know how to evaluate your potential speech, that is, to know what factors and which situations make your communications permissible or prohibited. You will need to be familiar with the laws of Loshon Hora and Rechilus.
Damaging words are invisible and show no clear sign that they are forbidden
The necessity to know the laws is especially true with respect to the commandment of guarding your tongue. If someone were to place a piece of meat on a plate before you and invite you to eat it, certainly, you would first attempt to identify the meat to see if it was kosher. If you saw that it was pork, you would immediately push it away and refuse to eat it. This would be very easy since the prohibited substance is clearly recognizable to your senses.
In the case of Loshon Hora, this would be much more difficult. The prohibited substance, the damaging words coming from your mouth, are invisible and show no clear sign to your senses that they are forbidden. You could only identify these spiritually poisonous words by a clear knowledge of the laws that describe them. Here, knowledge of the laws would replace knowledge of the senses. It is only after you possess this third element that you will be in a position to completely master your speech and guard your tongue from speaking Loshon Hora and Rechilus.
Shmiras Haloshon is only difficult at the beginning
At this point, many people will begin to complain as follows. “Even if I develop a sensitivity to other people’s hurt and I learn how to evaluate my own thoughts before I say them according to the laws of Loshon Hora, nevertheless, it will still require a tremendous effort not to speak Loshon Hora. It would require an enormous and continuous conscious effort on my part that would then result in my conversation losing its natural and easy flow. How can Hashem expect me to do this? It seems that the only way to comply is to almost stop talking altogether110. This too would be unnatural and very unrealistic”.
The answer to this question is very important to know because it involves a principle that not only applies to the process of guarding one’s speech, but it also applies to the process behind all spiritual growth. In the beginning of any self-control process, without question, a certain amount of conscious effort is required. After a short while, however, this conscious effort becomes less demanding and gradually it is replaced by an effortless, intuitive sense.
In other words, what starts out as a process of conscious deliberation eventually ends as a process that is automatic and almost instinctive. This was already seen in the process described earlier where we tried to control the automatic flow of thoughts into speech. The beginning of the process required conscious attempts to withhold selected arbitrary thoughts from becoming speech. However, after a while, all the thoughts began to slow down by themselves, waiting for permission to come out as speech. Gradually, the whole process became automatic with no conscious effort required at all. The person’s thoughts learned obedience naturally and did not spill out as speech automatically. With this new self-control, the person finally became their commanding officer.
The initial evaluation process gradually disappears and is replaced by an intuitive feeling
So it is with deciding what to say. At first, a person actually has to think and evaluate whether the thought that just entered his mind and is waiting to be spoken is Loshon Hora or Rechilus. After a while however, this evaluation process gradually disappears and is replaced by an intuitive feeling. If the thoughts contain Loshon Hora or Rechilus, an intuitive feeling of discomfort arises with these thoughts and the person senses a feeling of possible danger if he says them. It’s almost as if he develops a sense of smell to the odor of Loshon Hora and Rechilus. This intuition, this feeling, this sense of danger now becomes his guide. He no longer has to intellectually identify Loshon Hora because he can now sense it directly through his intuition. From then on his conversation is smooth and flowing, intuitively sensing and then stopping any thoughts that may contain prohibitive speech.
Animals have a similar mechanism. They don’t think if they are in danger, they instinctively sense it. A person’s effort at controlling his speech can eventually achieve this same effortless level. All he has to do is begin. It is for this reason that we have no excuse in front of Hashem concerning our ability to control our Loshon Hora. If we say that it was simply too difficult, His answer will be, “Yes, this is only true in the beginning but I have given you the possibility to develop it into an intuitive sense and therefore, why didn’t you even try?”
The best motive for Shmiras Haloshon: Is It Worth It?
What should your ultimate and final motive be to guard your tongue? If you are told that it is a sin in the Torah, you may respond by saying that just as you unfortunately transgress other mitzvos, so you may transgress this one as well. If you are told that because of Loshon Hora the Moshiach cannot come, you may respond that you are not sure of the benefits his arrival will bring anyway. But if you are told that by speaking Loshon Hora you become your own worst enemy, that you can create powerful accusers in heaven that can wreck your mazal and bring you great suffering, you will suddenly stop and reconsider this sin since everyone has a self-protective instinct. It would be best, of course, if you could be motivated to stop this sin simply because Hashem dislikes it but finally, if your only incentive to stop Loshon Hora is to prevent your own self-destruction, then this motive would also be quite beneficial.
In many ways deciding to stop speaking Loshon Hora is like making a business decision. Every businessman wants to maximize his profits and minimize his losses. His bottom line for every business decision is, “Is it worth it? Will taking this action lead to greater profit or greater loss?” So it should be with Loshon Hora. Speaking Loshon Hora may bring you some pleasure, increased ego, social approval and even some personal benefit, but is it worth it? Is it worth the losses and suffering that will surely come at a later date because of the accusing angels that you have created in the process? Clearly as a business decision, it is not! Keep this in mind.