Kedoshim (Leviticus 19:1–20:27)

Guest Blogging By Jen Smith

Gossip: Preventing a Triple Homicide

In Parashat Kedoshim, we are called to embody holiness in every aspect of our lives. From acts of charity to fair business practices, from honoring our parents to treating strangers with compassion, the Torah outlines a blueprint for creating a society founded on righteousness and justice.

Central to this vision is the prohibition against gossip and slander. Do not go about spreading slander among your people. Do not do anything that endangers your neighbor’s life. I am the Lord. (Lev. 19:16)

Why does the Torah emphasize the prohibition against gossip in a portion dedicated to holiness? The answer lies in understanding the profound impact of our words on ourselves and others. Just as holiness permeates every aspect of our being, so too must it infuse our speech. Gossip, or lashon hara, not only damages relationships and reputations but also corrodes the very fabric of community and trust. It thrives on speculation, innuendo, and half-truths, poisoning hearts and minds with negativity and suspicion.

But gossip does more than just harm others—it diminishes our own holiness. The Talmud teaches us that one who speaks gossip is considered as if they deny the existence of God. By engaging in gossip, we betray our own divine potential and distance ourselves from the sacred.

Our sages teach that Lashon Hara, or gossip and negative speech, kills three people: the person speaking, the person about whom you are speaking, and the person listening.

The Person Speaking:

The speaker dies first as the speaker is perceived to be condemned by God. Within the context of Kedoshim, the presupposition that we are made in the image of God is the proverbial nail in the coffin. When we speak badly about another human being, it is to ignore – or worse, to condemn – God’s divine spark in another human being. Earlier in Exodus, the name God provides to Moses is I am that I am, or I will be what I will be. Love, kindness, and the potential for healed world if we only realize that God is one. If God is one, and we are made in God’s image, then to slander another is akin to spiritual suicide, using God’s gift of speech to stir unrest, belittle others, or share private confidences with others. That is true weather the words are Let there be light, or Let Moses speak, or even Off with her head. What are we creating in the last example? Darkness

If it isn’t enough to disappoint ourselves, often the listener also perceives the speaker to be flighty and careless at best, manipulative and mean spirited at worst. Habitual gossipers lose trust and respect as others recognize their tendency to speak badly of others, rendering them less likely to be called on for sincere counsel or intimate confidences.

The Person Being Spoken About:

The person being talked about is the first one to die, even if they are the last to know.  This person goes about their daily business, blissfully (or if not blissful, still alive) unaware of how your words are shaping their reputation, whether your words are true or not.

A reputation built over a lifetime can vanish in an instant. A person’s good name, reflecting qualities like honesty and kindness, is essential to their well-being. Unlike money, which can be replaced even at a high cost, a damaged reputation can be incredibly hard to repair. The idea of “losing face” in Japanese culture perfectly captures the profound impact of a damaged reputation, as if the person’s very identity is stripped away.

Our sages believed the very same thing. In Pirkei Avot 2:10 (Ethics of our Fathers), we read that Rabbi Eliezer said: Let the honor of your friend be as dear to you as your own; And be not easily provoked to anger.

If we believe that we are made in God’s image – B’tzelem Elohim – then we are all connected to God.

Recently, I was snuggled in front of a fire with my kids for an epic Harry Potter screening on a rainy afternoon. The premise of this chapter in the Hogwarts saga was built upon Horcruxes, which are described as regular objects (a ring, a book) and other living beings (a human being as well as a serpent) that Lord Voldemort (bad guy) used to store numerous fragments of his soul. The evil logic: If you kill one part of me, 99 parts are still alive! It is a life, but it is broken. Shattered into tiny glass pieces that can never be seamlessly restored. It is not a life that can be shared and used to support and uplift others.

The Person Listening:

The Talmud offers profound insights into the dynamics of our interactions, shedding light on the significant impact of our roles, even in seemingly passive situations like listening. It reminds us that while gossiping is widely recognized as harmful, the act of listening carries its own weight of responsibility, surpassing even the speaker in the harm it can cause.

Deep within us, we hold a sense of the inherent wrongness of gossiping about others; and we feel our transgressions, even if we won’t admit them. The Talmud’s wisdom invites us to consider the position of listener more closely. Passivity is not the same as Immunity, and sometimes it is when we are in a passive state that we can demonstrate true accountability. Unlike the speaker, who has already chosen their unholy words, the listener holds the power to stop the spread of malicious speech. This is why divine judgment rests upon them equally.

Let’s also consider the broader application of these principles. They extend beyond individuals and encompass organizations, communities, and even ourselves. In fact, even self-deprecation has the potential to be a violation of our sacred principles. By embracing our worth and potential, we honor the divine within us and contribute positively to the world around us.

This Shabbat, may we all celebrate our inherent holiness by following the light provided by our own Divine spark. Let’s spread light and love and use our words to inspire and uplift ourselves and others. Shabbat Shalom.