Sunday, August 16, 2009
Keeping Our Feathers in our Pillows
One of the books I have been reading lately is called Words that Hurt, Words that Heal, by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. I'm not that far into it yet, but already there is more information that I knew existed about the ways people speak that hurt each other.
He starts with a story I have heard attributed to at least three different faith traditions; Christian, Jewish, and Buddhist. So it must speak a truth, eh?
It goes like this, in Telushkin's version: A man in a town is going around speaking ill of the Rabbi. He comes to regret his words and actions, and goes to make amends with the Rabbi. The rabbi tells him to go to his house, take a feather pillow, and scatter the feathers in the wind. The man does so, and then returns to the Rabbi and ask if he is forgiven. "Almost", says the Rabbi. "Now, I want you to go and gather all the feathers."
It's funny--so, often, we toss out wisdom and knowledge, we discard it, because it is not "ours"; it doesn't come from an explicitly Christian author, so it must not be worth anything.
And so, in our ignorance, we are forced to relearn the wisdom and knowledge. So it is with what we understand as gossip and slander. There are even Hebrew words for what we do, whole classifications for the ways we speak unkindly or imprudently.
Of course, there are ways to talk about people that lift them up. There are things that you can say about people that as Rabbi Telushkin says are "nondefamatory and true."
Then there are negative and true stories, which are called Lashon Ha Ra, or stories which lower everyone else's esteem of someone, and this would include things like tattling, telling folks about something that someone has done, and everyone then thinking less of that person.
Lastly, there are rumors and outright lies, called Motzi Shem Ra.
It is the will of the Lord that we speak to each other and about each other as if the other is Christ. At a practical level, this means that we speak as little as possible about each other--the innocuousness of a plan and seemingly harmless comment can become a weapon for someone who is not inclined to toward goodwill for the person who is the subject of the conversation. And words can blow around like feathers.
Let's talk about Lashon Ha Ra a bit. These are the statements you can make about someone that are negative truth. Telushkin's example goes like this: Imagine two people donate $100 to a charity. One person may find such a sizable donation difficult to manage, and those who are around that person may find themselves admiring them. Another person who makes a lot more may find their reputations lowering, because it is felt that they could have given more. The problem here is that somehow both people's donations became the subject of discussion. That talking these donation totals around, even though it is true, is not complementary toward the richer person, and is Lashon Ha Ra.
Paul writes in this morning's passage that we should be careful how we live, because the days are evil. We are not to contribute to the evilness of the world, but are to combat it with "making melody to the Lord in our hearts". And that something is true is not a high enough bar to speak it.
Unfortunately, we as human beings also engage in just being mean, and saying things about people that are just outright untrue. We all can recall stories about people we've heard that turned out to just be false, but they were spread around anyway; they may have even been embellished, because they may just be so fun to tell, or because we have political or social problems with the person--an ulterior motive, in other words for the focus of our speech to be lessened. A current public example of this is the insistence by certain people that our current President has actually broken the law by being elected; they believe that he was not born in the US. This is the definition of malicious falsehood, of Motzi Shem Ra.
I could engage in speculation of the reason why people are so focused on it, the ulterior motive that is being exhibited by the perpetuation of this lie, but that would actually be an example of Lashon Ha Ra: true, but not complementary.
It is the will of the Lord that, as we are the people of Christ, we speak to each other, and about each other, as if the other person is Christ. After all, Christ is within each of us. It is the Will of God that we acknowledge this truth.
At the end of the story of the man who slandered the Rabbi, after he has scattered the feathers to the wind, and the Rabbi now tells him to go gather the feathers back up, he of course says that such a thing is impossible. And the Rabbi says: Precisely. Though I believe you genuinely regret your words, it is as hard to repair the damage they have caused a it is to gather every last feather back up into your pillow.
It is not the will of God that we speak ill of each other, or even that we speak the truth when it is unnecessary. And "each other" includes more than just the people of our own towns or our own church, the people we actually have to live with every day. It means the people of our nation, and of our world. The will of God is that we be wise; the days are evil, why contribute to them? Why not speak well or not at all?
Let's keep our feathers in our pillows, eh?