Sunday, September 25, 2022

On September 22, 2010, Tyler Clements, an 18-year-old student at Rutgers University, jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge. It was soon discovered that Tyler’s roommates and hallmates used a webcam on his computer to view and then publicly broadcast the most private aspects of Tyler’s life. Once the recordings were out there, his own death was the only thing Tyler could envision to ease his pain. The outrage generated by this tragedy resulted in state- and nation-wide “anti-bullying” legislation and anti-bullying programs at schools. These initiatives evidenced the commitment to prevent further heartbreaking outcomes of these acts, particularly the devastating results of “cyberbullying.” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in his “Covenant and Conversations” column, reminds us that “cyberbullying” reflects the tragic outcome of lashon hara, circa 2016. Moreover, the extent to which information spreads when it goes viral through the avenues of social media is a modern-day version of the well-known “feathers in the wind” metaphor used in the Torah to explain the difficulty in recouping the damaging words of lashon hara.

In the parshiot prior to the Yom Tov of Pesach, the biblical response to lashon hara is presented in great detail; we learn of the strange “leprosy”-type malady that offers warnings to perpetrators of lashon hara, which first appears on their houses, then on their clothing and finally on their skin. This sequence offers the perpetrator ample time to “clean up his mess,” by being vigilant in avoiding this transgression. The Torah then informs us of the lengthy diagnostic process by the kohen that could lead to a final diagnosis of “tzara’at.” In addition, if the examination leads to a positive diagnosis, a “quarantine-like” isolation is imposed on the perpetrator and he is sent outside of the camp for a period of seven days. His seclusion is meant to develop empathy for the physical and emotional isolation experienced by the victim.

Despite the longstanding history of the tragedies resulting from lashon hara, including the dark galut that continues today, it is a mystery why the prohibition is considered to be a mitzvah that has almost “died out.” Years ago, when I committed myself to personally addressing this challenge, I began to understand the magnetic force of this temptation. Yet, before we tackle “why” lashon hara continues and “how” to combat the temptations that draw us to it, I would like to retell a story that reveals why it is so important to prioritize bringing this mitzvah to life.

A pious Yerushalmi once entered a bus at the end of his workday. He used the time to review his

Gemara, but soon fell asleep; as he slept, a group of young boys entered the bus and began a lively conversation. When he eventually woke up, he soon realized they were viciously maligning a classmate and figuratively tearing him to pieces. Just as the group departed, they named the victim of their abuse, his beloved son. Armed with this knowledge, he could no longer contain his grief, shame and rage. He got off the bus, heartbroken and in tears, and continued his lonely journey home.

The impression this story had on bringing “home” the lesson of the great sorrow experienced by HaKadosh Baruch Hu as He hears His children suffering the pangs of lashon hara stays with me until this very day, and it is crystal clear as to “why” we must work so hard at overcoming this moral and spiritual growth challenge.

In the next article we will come to understand why the challenge continues to be so difficult to address, despite its tragic repercussions. It is important, however, to know that we are never alone in this challenge, and once we open the door, Hashem will surely come in and help us along the way. To begin with, as we clean out our “chametz” in preparation for Pesach, let us rid ourselves of our “spiritual chametz,” starting with a commitment to eradicate lashon hara from our Yom Tov environment; and it’s easier than we think.

Chazal tell us that Hashem’s Shechinah resides only in an environment where joy and happiness are present, and, interestingly, current psychological theory and practice evidences that “negativism” and “positivism” cannot co-exist in the same place. Viewed through this lens and delving into the deeper meaning of makat choshech—the plague of darkness we will soon read about, helps us understand the intent of Hashem’s response when we face spiritual challenges. In the case of makat choshech, the miracle was not simply an absence of light; it was also symbolic of the forces of spirituality and goodness that were absent in the environment. This created a vacuum that needed to be filled. And as we learn, Hakadosh Baruch Hu filled it with a dense, palpable darkness. I would like to suggest that this darkness represented their evil that was now turned against them. Indeed, this was a clear example of a punishment executed in the “midah k’neged midah” fashion.

As we enter Pesach, and clear out our physical chametz, this is also a metaphor for the spiritual chametz that contaminates our souls. One example of this is viewing the world through an ayin ra, a negative lens that is the source of lashon hara. And now, my friends, we know that by committing ourselves to eradicating lashon hara, we are left with an empty space. This then, is the perfect time to fill this space with the creative and positive forces of looking at the world through an ayin tov, an eye that sees pleasantness in all. Armed with this strategy, we can easily express our hakarat hatov, appreciation, to Hashem, for intervening in our world, and to those we love and care about, for all they do. This is truly what Pesach is all about. Once focused on the positive force of appreciation, all prospects of negativity will melt away.

Renee Nussbaum is a practicing psychoanalyst, with special training in Imago Relational Therapy. She can be reached at [email protected]

By Renee Nussbaum


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