Feathers: A sermon for Yom Kippur
There is a story from the old country, a story attributed to Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev, a story I would like to share with you today.
Some years ago, a man in a small town found himself in great distress. He found the rabbi in the marketplace and begged him for help. The rabbi told the man to meet him in his study that afternoon.
Now, this was a beautiful day, much like today, the sun was shining, the skies were clear, birds sang happily and a wonderful breeze rustled through leaf and stalk. It was the type of day we rarely have here, where open windows are common. So it was in the rabbi’s study, when the man came before him.
“Rebbe, the man said, you have to help me. I’ve created a terrible situation. I said something flippantly, just, you know, in conversation and it got out of control.”
“Go on”, said the Rabbi
“You know Meyer Mendelwicz, who runs the general store? I said I didn’t know if I would buy fabric by the yard from a guy who cheats at golf.”
(Aside: I know, they didn’t play golf in the shtetl, but just roll with me.)
Well, I don’t know how it happened, but now nobody will buy anything from him. He has to leave town! I saw him packing up his store in a wagon this morning right before I ran into you! He’s my friend, we grew up together, I had no idea this could happen, I didn’t mean to destroy his business. He has a family to support! You have to help me fix this!”
“Okay,” said the rabbi, “Do you have a feather pillow? In your house?”
“Of course,” said the man, “but why do–”
“Just get it. Run. As fast as you can, bring it here!”
The man returned a few minutes later, panting, pillow in hand.
The rabbi took the pillow, cut it open and began throwing feathers by the handful into the air.
“What are you doing?” the man asked, shocked.
The rabbi said nothing. He cast out more feathers, in great plumes. They went everywhere. Out the window, up the chimney flue, out and into the beautiful breeze.
“Rabbi!” cried the man, a little freaked out. “What are you doing?”
The rabbi stopped and handed the man the empty pillowcase. “Now, as quickly as you can, gather up the feathers and return them to their place in the pillow. You must be diligent, you must get them all, or it won’t work.”
“Rabbi,” the man said, horror-stricken. “That’s just–that’s impossible..look, they went up the chimney–you can see them–look there, they’re blowing past the marketplace already. There’s no way to do that! There’s no getting them back.”
“I understand,” said the rabbi, sadly. “And I believe you are right. So it is with words, my dear friend. Words are like feathers.”
Well, here we are, Yom Kippur, a day to consider and repent for our sins. But first, let’s talk about your sins. Boy oh boy, we have some juicy ones here today.
Now, everybody look around and see if you can guess who I’m talking about when I tell you that among the sinners gathered here today we have a recidivist alcoholic, a petty thief, a gambling addict, a woman whose husband hits her but she’s too afraid to say anything, an adulterer, an adulteress, someone addicted to internet pornography, a pathological liar, a couple of garden variety racists, a few DUI’s and so much more. We could go all day.
I don’t know this because you have told me this in confidence, because if that were the case, nobody but you or I would ever know what was said. I know this because your friends told me this about you. Why? Well, that’s the question.
There are at least three types of speech-crimes in our tradition.
Rechilut– Gossip, or telling tales, and that’s forbidden. Gossip isn’t disparaging, but it leads to the other more destructive kinds of negative speech. Like, “Did you see Bob got a new car?” or “You need to see Joanie’s new haircut!”
Second on the list is Hotza’at Shem Ra, slander and falsehood, defamation based on falsehood or misinformation, a terrible sin, punished biblically by the plague of Tzara’at, from where we get the word Tzuris. Some have suggested this is the root of the word Psoriasis, which we know is a painful, unsightly and difficult disease, a sure source of Tzuris.
Lastly, we have Lashon Hara, defamation based on truth, the subject of today’s lesson. The Talmud teaches us that the most dangerous part of the human body is the tongue, and for that reason it remains guarded by two walls, one hard, the teeth; and the other pliable but strong, the lips.
Weaponized speech is incredibly dangerous. It travels further and faster than arrows. To use the modern analogy, a rifle can kill at 2,000 yards. A word slays people a continent away, and it’s range is unlimited.
It is said that Lashon Hara kills three at a time; the one who speaks it, the one who hears it, and the one it is about.
Lashon Hara broadly defined is speech that, while based in truth, would cause only hurt to another person’s livelihood, reputation or emotional well-being. Statements like:
“She used to be an “exotic dancer,” you know…”
“Well, I don’t know if he still drinks like he used to, but he could put it away…”
“I don’t know if you know this, but she got pregnant and had to drop out of nursing school…”
“Her husband used to beat her, so you know, that explains why she’s so sensitive to criticism…”
“Oh, he’s been in jail a bunch of times for stupid things. But he’s a good guy…”
Sure, it’s true, but what purpose does it serve other than to elevate yourself over the person you speak of.
Imagine if you overheard someone speaking truthfully but derogatorily about your child or someone you loved deeply. How would you feel and what would you want to say or do to the person speaking evil about your loved one?
What if the person you speak of was the child of the living God? Would that be someone you want to offend or hurt?
“But,” you protest, as people do, “I’m just telling the truth. That’s me, I just call it like I see it. It’s true, isn’t it?”
Truth? You can’t handle the truth. Here’s the truth. Truth isn’t a defense for murder.
The act of embarrassing someone with our speech is akin to murder. When you tell me something damaging about another person, you diminish the image I have of them in my mind. You take away from the way I might otherwise feel about them.
The rabbis teach us that when you cause another person to blush, you have caused their blood to run. When you talk evilly about someone behind their back, you may think you are sparing them. In fact, you alter the way the person you speak to will perceive the person you speak about.
You diminish or destroy the image of another person. You diminish or destroy a living image of God. Who among us dares presume that right?
The world was created by an act of divine speech. The words we utter as Jews have the power to sanctify time and space. The words we utter about other human beings have the power to cause great harm to others and to ourselves.
Now, obviously there are exceptions. If you are preventing concrete, real harm, you may and often must warn someone.
If I call you and say, hey, I’m thinking of investing my money with Bernie Madoff, you would be correct to suggest I do some more research. If someone tells you ‘Hey, I just met this charming, handsome guy named Ted Bundy, he wants to meet for drinks,” you are obligated to mention that you believe Mr. Bundy is a well-known serial killer and that your friend should definitely stand him up. Saving lives or livelihood is not Lashon Hara.
But if the case is simply that you learn or discover something about one of your fellow human beings, either ask them about it privately or never speak of it. Those are the appropriate choices. If someone offers you the intimacy and trust to reveal their personal struggles and pain with you, that does not give you the right to use it as a weapon against them or as a tool with which you can further your own agenda by bonding with other people with juicy tidbits of other people’s pain. We all do it, and we all should be mortally ashamed of it.
Words are like feathers, and our mortal lives are like dust in the wind. Our souls, however, are immortal. A reflection of God. There is nothing more precious or more important to protect, and on this day, to redeem and restore. Hatima Tova.