The perils of lashon hara
By Rabbi Leonard Rosenthal
SAN DIEGO — While I am not a political junkie, from time to time I do watch the candidates debate. They are often unintentionally entertaining. One of my favorite exchanges took place during the Republican primary debate on January 26, 2012 in Jacksonville, Florida. It was an exchange between Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich.
Gingrich was attacking Romney for owning shares of government-rescued mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac: “We discovered to our shock, Governor Romney owns shares of both Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. Governor Romney made a million dollars off of selling some of that.”
Romney responded that in the first place his investments are held in blind trust, and second, he owns no individual shares of the failed Government Bailoutgiants, but only mutual funds which invest in them.
And then he delivered the coup de grace: “And Mr. Speaker, I know that sounds like an enormous revelation, but have you checked your own investments? You also have investments through mutual funds that also invest in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac!”
A cholera epidemic once broke out in Vilna. As was customary during those times, the Jews began examining their deeds and the deeds of their neighbors in order to determine why God was punishing them so. One such righteous man went to see Rabbi Israel of Salant to offer his explanation of the plague. He told the rabbi what he had witnessed in the house next door. He described the unspeakable immoral acts that were taking place, and asked Rabbi Israel if he thought the plague was divine punishment for the depravity.
Rabbi Israel looked out the window and after a few minutes spoke: “This week we read parashat Tazria-M’tzora in the Torah. In Tazria-M’tzora the Torah describes all kinds of skin diseases and household mold and spells out the cleaning and purification process.
“The rabbis did not see these infections as physical ailments, but rather as spiritual ones. They taught that skin disease and household fungus are God’s punishment for a specific sin: lashon ha-ra, gossip and slander.
“However, one must not think that the category of lashon ha-ra is limited to gossip and slander. The person who also looks for fault among his neighbors is also guilty of lashon ha-ra. One must say to that person: ‘If you are such an expert at finding fault and sin among your neighbors then you have an obligation to leave the community. Only when you are apart from everyone else will you find sufficient solitude to use your expertise upon yourself until you find your own faults and sins are exposed.’”
The lesson we learn from both stories is simple and powerful: before you worry about your neighbors’ faults, fix your own first!
Rabbi Rosenthal is spiritual leader of Tifereth Israel Synagogue in San Diego. He may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org
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