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A D’var Torah prompted by discussion of Parshat Va’etchanan (review of The Ten Commandments) thru Ri’eh (review of The Blessing and The Curse) Deuteronomy 3:23-16:17
The discussion in Torah Study is free flowing and covers a wide range of topics inspired by the readings we are working on. Recently we talked about Lashon Harah in the context of ethics and community.
We all know the story about how Miriam was gossiping about her brother Moshe being married to a Cushite woman, and she was immediately struck with a form of leprosy. It doesn’t matter that the “gossip” was true, the reaction to her judgmental thoughts and words was instantaneous.
None of us are as pure as Miriam, that our derogatory words about others come back to afflict us in an instant. If they did, we’d be much less likely to engage in idle gossip about anyone. More often, the one hurt by Lashon Harah (“evil speech”) is the subject of the gossip, rather than the gossiper him/herself. But according to our Blessed Torah, it is the people who are speaking their unsolicited, unwelcome opinions of others who are committing the gravest sin.
This brings to mind a story that Reb Gershon Winkler told my class in Jewish Shamanism, early in our 2-year term of study. He told the tale of a Hasid traveling on a train in the early 1800s. He was a student of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, who taught his followers to always be singing, to bring themselves joy.
This follower of Reb Nachman was singing on the train. All the while he sat, Deedle-deedle-dee-ing, and Yi-di-di-di-di-ing, and Bee-dee-bee-dee-bum-ing, mostly to himself but a little out loud too, as it made him happy to do so. Some Cossack soldiers saw this as a perfect opportunity to harass this happy Jew, because seeing this Jew happy made them mad. Who does this Jew think he is? What does he have to be happy about? We’ll show him!
They stomped up to him and demanded, “Jew! Stop that infernal singing, or we will throw your suitcase right off this train!” And still the happy Jew Yidled and Didled away, doing his best to ignore the intrusive soldiers. A second time they shouted to him, “Jew! Are you deaf? We said, stop making all those nonsense sounds, or we will throw your suitcase off the train.” But still the student of Reb Nachman kept singing. The Cossacks shouted in indignation. “You have one more chance, Jew. Stop that singing this instant, or we will throw your suitcase off the train!” And still the Jew sang his happy niggun. He wasn’t paying any attention to them at all.
This incensed the men. “That’s it! You lousy Jew! We warned you!” And with that they took the suitcase at his feet and tossed it off the moving train. And what did the Hasid do? He kept singing, with an extra little Beedle-Beedle-Bum this time. The soldiers crowded around him menacingly and challenged, “What is wrong with you, Jew? We threw your suitcase off the train because you were singing… and you… you’re still singing! Are you crazy?”
The Jewish passenger looked up at them from his seat on the train, through bushy eyebrows peeking out from under the brim of his hat, and said calmly, “That’s not my suitcase!”
The train gradually came to a stop. He reached under his seat, grabbed his suitcase, and exited the train, singing happily all the while.
If you hear that people were gossiping about you, or if someone approaches you with unsolicited advice of how you should correct or change your behavior (because it makes them or “some other people” uncomfortable), just take your cue from the man on the train, and tell them, “That’s not my suitcase!”
Because it’s not.
If someone is uncomfortable with anything about you, it’s their suitcase (problem), not yours! And don’t make it yours, by picking up that suitcase (taking on that problem) just because someone tries to give it to you. What anyone thinks of you is none of your business.
And if there is something you don’t like about someone, how they dress or wear their hair, whether they talk too much, whether they eat non-Kosher foods, you don’t like how they smell, or you don’t approve of how they raise their kids, whatever they do that makes you feel uncomfortable… and they haven’t asked for your opinion… then keep it to yourself. Unsolicited advice is unwelcome advice, and it is a form of Lashon Harah.
So is whispering about someone loud enough for anyone else to hear. So is overhearing gossip and then repeating it. So is agreeing to pass on someone else’s criticism to a third party. What you think of anyone else is none of their business. It’s your suitcase.
Gossip can be tantalizing. We probably all do it to some extent. But people don’t change to please everyone who wants them to be different in some way—nor should they. As a community we need to treat one another with compassion, and respect each other’s choices, even if we think anyone we disapprove of would benefit from doing things our way.
If you engage in Lashon Harah, anyone you talk to, or about, may tell you, “It’s not my suitcase.” And even if you can’t see it, the microscopic beginnings of leprosy may be forming on your skin.
Suraya Rose Sarae