Cord 1: Esteeming Others via Self Esteem
Our sages consider much of our sad history to be the consequence of the sin of improper speech. While the most direct manner to combat this deficiency is by studying the laws of lashon hara, this line of defence requires additional reinforcements. If a sharp tongue is compared to arrows, then the weapons factory which produces them is hidden deep underground. To win the war of the tongue, one must also conquer those negative forces which lurk inside one's heart. Imagine finding strange smoke streaming out of the exhaust pipe of your car. You take it to the mechanic who lifts the hood and peers intently at its grimy but wondrous innards. Wanting to be helpful, you redirect the mechanic from his focus of attention. "Don't worry about the front of the car; that part's running fine. It's the back of the car where the problems are!" Bemused, the mechanic thanks you for your advice and continues studying the engine. True, the smoke is emanating from the rear of the car, but the cause of the fault may lie entirely elsewhere.
Similarly, lashon hara is often the symptom of a deeper malaise. A mouth that spews ill speech often indicates not only a malfunction of one's exhaust system, but also of one's engine. If you were to analyse the reasons for people speaking lashon hara, you would find three general categories:
1. Idle Gossip. Curiosity to know what is happening with others.
These three reasons each have one thing in common: the speaker of lashon hara lacks a sense of fullness and inner worth. Idle Gossip. Someone who is always interested in the lives of others demonstrates that his own life is shallow or empty. Such people feel a need to vicariously live through the lives of others.
Negativity and jealousy. As the Gemara points out, "All who point out the failings of others, merely reflect the faults within themselves".1
Rabbi Mordechai Gifter relates a story about a man who visited the Louvre in Paris, where many of the world's most magnificent works of art are stored. He saw a crowd huddled around a rare Rembrandt, marvelling at the beautiful work. The man pushed through the crowd to take a closer look. Wrinkling his nose, he huffed, "It looks like sour milk!" He then walked passed a Van Gogh. While everyone ooohed and ahhhed in admiration, he summarily dismissed it, "Pheh! It's just sour milk!"
Finally, he came to the Louvre's most famous work, considered by many the most beautiful portrait ever painted - the Mona Lisa. Here everyone stood in hushed reverence staring at the work. Again, the man strode over and exclaimed in exasperation, "I can't see what you're making such a fuss about! It looks like sour milk to me!"
The onlooking crowd could contain their consternation no longer. "This man must be deranged!" announced one patron of the arts in a shrill voice. "He has absolutely no appreciation of art at all!" cried another. One observant fellow noticed something peculiar about the man's spectacles. He walked over to him, pulled off his glasses and studied them closely. "Aha! Now I understand why all the pictures looked like sour milk to you. You have sour milk spilled all over the lenses!"
If all the people we see appear mean and ugly, it may be because we view them through the lenses of our own imperfections.
A dog's life
The Torah tells us about the sin of lashon hara immediately before discussing a mitzva that involves dogs. The sages make a connection between the two and compare the habitual speaker of lashon hara to a dog.2 In light of the above, we can explain the comparison as follows: Of all the animals in the animal kingdom the dog appears to have the worst reputation. Koheles observes that, "A live dog is better than a dead lion," thus placing the lowly dog and majestic king of the beasts on the opposite ends of the animal spectrum. Throughout Tanach, the dog is used as a symbol of insult and degradation.
Why is the dog considered such a lowly creature? The Maharal explains that the dog differs fundamentally from every other animal. All other animals feel a deep connection to Hashem as its source of life and sustenance. For this reason, other animals do not relate much with humans. They retain a certain sense of pride and independence because they instinctively feel that they do not need us.
By contrast, the dog lacks this feeling of connection to Hashem. In its stead, the dog develops a deep attachment to its human master, fawning over him with love and loyalty.
The dog is deemed lowly because it lacks a connection to Hashem. This manifests itself as a species-wide lack of self-esteem. For this reason, a person who loses his self-esteem is compared by our sages to a dog. For example, they note that, "One who eats in the public marketplace is comparable to a dog." Eating in public demonstrates a lack of self-respect, a trait shared with the dog. In the eyes of our sages, this is the worst insult imaginable.
Low self esteem - the source of baseless hatred
Rabbi Nosson Wachsfogel zt'l, the mashgiach of Lakewood yeshiva said the source of lashon hara and sinas chinam (baseless hatred) derives from a lack of self-esteem. If you respect yourself, you will respect others as well.
"In these days (of the three weeks) we mourn the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash and Yerushalayim. But our mourning is one of pain and anguish but not one of tikkun - rebuilding. We forget the main thing, which is to work on uprooting the evil trait of sinas chinam, which was the cause of the destruction.
The students of Rabbi Akiva died between Pesach and Shavuos because they did not treat each other with honour.3 Their fatal flaw stemmed from a lack of self worth. As the mishna in Avos teaches, 'Who is honourable? He who honours others.'4 One who honours others demonstrates that he himself possesses honourable qualities. If someone does not show honour to another, it is because he himself lacks nobility of spirit.
What a person says about others is what he sees in himself. If one sees himself lowly and degraded, he will naturally say his friend is also despicable. He does not say this because he wishes to belittle his friend, but rather because he doesn't see any positive qualities in his fellow man. And this stems from not seeing any positive qualities in himself.
What is the path to rectifying the evil trait of sinas chinam? It is through appreciating one's own distinctiveness and feeling, 'Because of me the world was created.' One should see himself as a baal ma'alah - a person of qualities, and that he has the ability to accomplish great things. Through these thoughts one comes to appreciate his fellow man's qualities as well, and see him also as a distinguished person. By recognizing your friends qualities one comes to totally love him and through this we will merit to see the rebuilding of the Beis Hamikdash speedily in our days."5
As the following two anecdotes demonstrate, the most important gift we can give our students and children is self-esteem. Rabbi Yisroel Pesach Feinhandler, a respected educator in Israel, relates the story of a child who was a very poor student in his yeshiva. He was expelled from one yeshiva and found another where lower level students were accepted. There too he became one of the worst students in the yeshiva.
When the father had a discussion with the mashgiach of the yeshiva, he was told of his son's disappointing progress. The father asked the mashgiach, "Does he possess any good qualities at all?"
After some thought, the mashgiach answered, "He does pray nicely."
"Excellent!" the father exclaimed, "Please praise him daily for his good praying, and ignore his poor learning and behaviour during the day. Just try this experiment and let us see how it works."
The mashgiach agreed and the results were soon obvious. The child became one of the best students in the yeshiva.
Rabbi Yechiel Yaakovson, tells of his experience teaching in a non-religious high school in Ashdod. The first day in class, he told the students that he would like to get acquainted with them, and asked each student to tell him his name and state one good quality which he possessed.
The students did not know how to respond. One said, "I do not have any good qualities."
Rabbi Yaakovson answered, "There is no such thing. Everyone in the world has been blessed by G-d with good qualities. Search for them and you will find them." Rabbi Yaakovson then gave the students a homework assignment to write about their good qualities.
The students managed somehow to complete the unusual assignment and brought it to class the next day. Rabbi Yaakovson collected the papers and announced, "Now I am going to distribute these papers randomly among the class and I want you to write what you see as the good qualities of the person whose name is written on the page." The students proceeded to do this, and then Rabbi Yaakovson gave each student the paper with his own name on it, accompanied by the comments of his fellow classmate. This caused a great commotion in the class, as the students were all surprised at how positively they were thought of by their classmates.
A few days later, the principal of the school approached Rabbi Yaakovson and asked him how he had managed to improve the students so quickly. Instead of the arrogant abusive language they usually used, they now spoke politely. Rabbi Yaakovson answered, "I simply showed them how important they were. Now they no longer need to use abusive language to make themselves feel important."
Some twenty years later Rabbi Yaakovson was living in the town of Zichron Yaakov. One day there was a knock on his door and in walked a police inspector. The policeman asked if he was Rabbi Yaakovson. When Rabbi Yaakovson confirmed that he was, the policeman took a piece of paper from his wallet and said, "I was your student in High School in Ashdod. I had been planning to join a street gang, but you changed my life with this piece of paper on which my fellow student wrote nice things about me."
Cord 2: Connecting to Others via Generous Praise
We all know that gladdening a chassan and kalla at their wedding is among the greatest mitzvos in the Torah. We perform this mitzva by attending a wedding dressed in our finest, as well as by dancing, gift giving, and for those who know how, by taking centre stage in fine step dancing, juggling, and acrobatic feats. But which of these above-mentioned actions do the chassan and kalla appreciate the most? Surprisingly, none of the above. The Gemara in Brachos says that the highest reward for gladdening a chassan and kalla is granted for words.6 That is, by gladdening the heart of the groom by praising the qualities of his new bride.7
The Gemara in Kesuvos therefore asks, keitzad merakdim lifnei hakalla? "How does one dance before a bride?" meaning, "What praises should be said about her?"8 Naturally, if the kalla is perfect in every respect the question is rhetorical, since all praise befits her. The question gets thorny if the particular kallah has glaring imperfections and faults. What should you do under such circumstances? Should you lie and exaggerate, praising her for possessing all qualities, real and otherwise. Or should you just praise her true qualities, but by doing so, risk shaming her? For example, suppose you are attending a wedding where the kallah is blind or lame. If you only praise her for selected qualities, such as possessing beautiful hands or eyes, it clearly implies that she is lacking in others.
The school of Hillel posit that praising her salient features alone would be a violation of the prohibition of avak - residue - lashon hara. Because if you say her eyes are beautiful it implies that the rest of her is not. Therefore, say Beis Hillel, we should praise every kalla, regardless who she is, with the highest possible praise. They therefore adopted a universal song to be sung at every wedding, 'Keitzad merakdim lifnei hakalla?. Kalla na'ah vechasuda.' 'How do you dance before a kalla? [She is] a beautiful and gracious kallah.'9
In practice, the halacha follows this opinion of Beis Hillel. But a question still remains, what happened to the prohibition of lying? If you think someone is ugly how can you honestly say that she is beautiful? The Maharsha answers that in subjective areas there is no absolute truth. Even if everyone else thinks this particular kalla is ugly, the chassan apparently did not think so, or else he would not have married her. Since in his eyes she is beautiful, you can honestly tell him that she is a beautiful kalla. The Ritva provides a broader approach. He explains that something said to generate peace and harmony does not fall under the prohibition of uttering falsehood.
We can derive from here the importance of being free in our praise in order to make others happy and feel comfortable. While some people are very economical when it comes to dishing out praise or compliments, the Meiri writes that, "a person should not deal with others both in deed and speech with a strict, exacting measure. Rather he should loosen up [and offer praise freely and] even excessively. Those who act this way are deemed praiseworthy and even the elder sages did not refrain from acting in this manner."10
Rabbi Avigdor Miller would say that everyone could use a good word, even a famous rosh yeshiva. As Rav Chaim Shmulevitz, the rosh yeshiva of the Mir in Yerushalayim, relates in the following personal vignette.
Rav Chaim's yeshiva was located in the Beis Yisroel neighbourhood in Yerushalayim. One day, a mentally deranged man who lived in the vicinity ran into the beis hamidrash during seder and began to shout, "You should all know that Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz is the Gadol Hador!" Reb Chaim later confessed, "I know as well as everyone else that the man is totally insane and he always speaks senseless prattle. But still when he came in and screamed that I was the Gadol Hador, it felt just great."
Cord 3: Reconnecting the Cords through Piyus
When discord tears at the cords of friendship, the first step of repair is asking the victim for forgiveness. As a school child, I remember my classmates asking each other forgiveness before Yom Kippur. However, their pre-Yom Kipper "You're mochel me" chant, sounded more like a demand than a question. Asking forgiveness should really be a heartfelt plea begging for undeserved graciousness from the victim. Its flippant overuse has not only trivialised the concept, but often adds insult to injury.
Had someone stole a hundred dollars from his friend, it is clear that his forgiveness must be preceded by returning the money he stole. But suppose he did not steal a hundred dollars, but caused him personal anguish instead. The monetary equivalent of personal suffering often far exceeds that amount. Perhaps that can explain why the Torah uses the phrase, "An eye for an eye" when discussing the laws of personal injury. True, the Sages interpret the verse that the damager is only obligated to pay monetary compensation. But the Torah uses the harsh terminology of "an eye for an eye" to stress that the damager is deserving in heaven to receive punishment identical to the suffering he caused. Once aware of the magnitude of the harmfulness of his actions, the damager will be filled with a spirit of broken hearted contrition when making amends to the person he harmed.
A phrase used in the Shulchan Aruch when discussing the law of asking forgiveness, is piyus: appeasement. To ask forgiveness to spare oneself from retribution is a mere act of self preservation. Piyus is something far nobler. Appeasement means to do whatever you can, to help undo the pain you caused.
There are times when simply saying, "I'm sorry" is just not enough. A sincere "I'm sorry" may be sufficient for a small slight, but would be woefully inadequate for someone whose feelings were consistently hurt over a course of time. If someone asks forgiveness to the person he has greatly harmed, but is otherwise unconcerned with his victim, the victim's pain has clearly not eased much. But the offender who makes amends by giving pleasure to the one he harmed, in a concerted effort to alleviate in some measure the pain he afflicted and to restore the bonds of friendship, that is appeasement. In the Philadelphia yeshiva one Purim, some boys hung up a mocking caricature by the seat of one of the rebbeim. Reb Mendel was very upset by this public embarrassment of a rebbe. He told the "artist" to appease the rebbe by buying a set of sefarim that cost around fifty dollars (a large amount at that time) and offering him an apology. "Es darf costen" - It has to cost money, Reb Mendel said. "Today, words are cheap. Only by giving away your own money can you demonstrate that you're truly sorry."11
A friend of mine relates the following incident:
I once had a financial disagreement with a certain Rabbi X, claiming the sum of three thousand dollars from him. Since I was overseas at the time, we corresponded back and forth each giving our own sides of the story. Naturally I found the matter greatly upsetting, and I expected that we would have to settle the matter in Beis Din."
When I returned home briefly from my trip, Rabbi X called me and said he wished to see me. I didn't know what the meeting would be about, but when Rabbi X met me he took out an envelope from his pocket which contained five thousand dollars cash. He said that he was sorry for all the aggravation he caused me and wished that I accept the entire amount. I told him that I was only asking for three thousand dollars and I immediately handed him back the other two. Although Rabbi X was a poor man, he insisted that I keep the entire amount. It was only with difficulty that I got him to take back the extra two thousand dollars."
The following week I returned back to Israel. To my surprise, Rabbi X found out exactly when I was leaving and went to the airport to see me off. He hugged and kissed me goodbye, and gave me a present, as well as a purse of Israeli coins so that I would have change on me as soon as I arrived. I can't express how full of love I felt for him at that time and how any ill feelings I had prior to that moment was totally erased. Now it is many years later since that incident and Rabbi X and myself are the closest of friends.
In these painful and frightening times, we often feel powerless to prevent the tragedies affecting Klal Yisrael. Just as a chain is strengthened only when the weakest link is reinforced, so too is the whole of Klal Yisrael strengthened and protected if each of us repairs a breach that we have with someone. May we all work to strengthen our bonds of friendship with each other, so that Hashem in turn strengthens his bonds of friendship with us, and bring us our long awaited redemption.
1 Kiddushin, 70a
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