THE GOSSIP FACTOR
Rabbi David Walk
For those of you who continue reciting Pirkei Avot after Shavuot and through the summer, a fascinating interpretation flows from a mishneh studied last Shabbat. We learned: Nitai the Arbelite would say: Distance yourself from a bad neighbor, do not cleave to a wicked person, and do not abandon belief in retribution (Avot 1:7). What terrible thing will happen to us if we find ourselves hobnobbing with negative characters? We seem to find the answer in the extended version of Pirkei Avot called Avot d'Reb Natan. In this text we find our mishneh and then after it are two long rabbinic statements about the evils of gossip (lashon hara). From this I think that we can conclude that if we hang with the wrong crowd, we'll find ourselves talking lashon hara. Therefore it must be safe to associate with good neighbors and righteous people. Oh, really? At the end of this week's Torah reading we find Aharon and Miriam gossiping about Moshe. If you can find better company than Aharon and Miriam, please, let me know who they are and where they spend time. This phenomenon is worthy of further investigation.
Over Shavuot we had a wonderful scholar in residence here at Congregation Agudath Sholom,
Why do people gossip? Rabbi Wieder pointed out that everyone gossips (based on the Talmud, Baba Basra 164b). If that's true then why worry about it? The answer is that there are many categories of gossip, and recognizing that may make a big difference. So, again, I ask, why do people gossip? Nigel Nicholson pointed out that there are three very essential functions of gossip: networking, influence and social alliances. We have evolved to gossip. The PBS website www.pbskids.org points out that people, sadly, gossip for nefarious reasons, including: to feel superior, to feel like part of the group, for attention, for control or power, out of jealousy or a need for revenge, and, most surprisingly the number one reason to gossip, out of boredom. These juicy tidbits make life more exciting for many. All those tabloid newspapers and TV shows full of celebrity gossip are pure proof that rumors are a popular form of entertainment. Generally there is little concern for the damage done to others in the process. Dr. Irene Levine in her Friendship blog points out that gossip is relational aggression. It's a way to fight wars with words.
Dr. Samantha Smithstein of the Pathways Institute for Impulse Control in San Francisco wrote a cool article on www.Psychologytoday.com. She explains that studies have shown that lashon hara leads to ayin hara (evil eye). Researchers, led by psychologist Lisa Feldman Barrett of Northeastern University in Boston, published the results of a study that indicate that not only does gossip influence how we feel about a person and how we think of them, it literally effects the way we see them. The study indicates that disapproving gossip quickly gets associated with the face of the person being gossiped about, and that this connection operates outside of our conscious awareness. In other words, our visual perception of that person changes - rather than seeing the person's face as neutral, the face becomes villainous to us, even if we are not aware of it. She goes on to describe how there are times when gossip is necessary, but that we must be very careful before gossiping to ask ourselves questions like: Is the information we are spreading important for the safety of the listener? If we need to talk with someone about what has happened to us, do we need to name the other people involved?
Now we have to go back to Miriam and Aharon. Why were they gossiping about Moshe? Many commentaries believe that they had real concerns. They spoke about Moshe's wife because Miriam had become aware that they had separated, and was concerned for their marriage and his mission (Midrash Sifre). Miriam then said that they were also prophets and had spoken to God. She didn't understand that Moshe's status was so exalted that he had to be constantly available for prophecy, which was unique and demanded a separation from normal marital relations. Miriam meant well, but was mistaken. One can argue with this interpretation, of course, but the purpose of this approach is important. Even good people speak Lashon hara, but since the intent isn't evil the collateral damage will not be as bad.
At last we can discern a major difference between hanging out with positive personalities as opposed to bad buddies. Lashon hara is going to happen. However, when the malicious nature is toned down the damage done to our psyches and souls is diminished. In areas like gossip we can aim for total abstinence, but must settle for damage control. So, you're always going to be better off with Miriam and Aharon instead of bad neighbors and wicked people, because they will think carefully before they speak. And when they gossip, it will be in error rather than in malice.
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