The individual does as directed and returns to the rabbi. “Now go find every feather,” instructs the rabbi, “and gather them together once more.” “But that’s impossible!” the person protests. “I doubt I can find even one feather, let alone all of them, for the wind has flung them far and wide.”
“Your words, too, are feathers in the wind,” replies the wise teacher. “Once spoken, they are released in many directions and you can never pull them back again.”
* * * * * *
This traditional wisdom tale speaks to the Jewish teaching on lashon hara, which translates as “evil tongue”, and refers to speaking unconsciously or with ill intent.
“Lashon hara is a very complex phenomenon,” explains Rabbi Birdie Becker of Pueblo’s Temple Emanuel. “It doesn’t simply refer to speaking ill of others. It’s also about not being party to such talk by listening to it.” Jewish teachings are quite clear on this point. In listening to disparaging speech, we offer ourselves as the necessary platform for its manifestation and are, thus, implicated as much as the speaker.
“Lashon hara doesn’t only refer to speech about others,” Rabbi Becker continues, “Denigrating oneself is not acceptable either.”
Proverbs, that most pithy of all the books of the Tanakh, the Jewish name for what Christians call the Old Testament, puts it this way: “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” Just like the babbling person in this tale, we often open our mouths without discernment, and what flies out can enliven or destroy. But just as the person in today's tale, we can turn toward wisdom by choosing our words with care, aware of their possible consequences.
This is not an easy task. Living in community with others gives rise to conflict~~both within us and around us~~which must be addressed for resolution to occur. But true peace cannot come or be sustained without respect. Our charge, Rabbi Becker reminds us, is “to keep the level of conversation moving always upward.”
I love that line! In the days since I first heard it, I've seen words spiraling upward, scented smoke swirling from a lit stick of incense.
We can interact with our fellows civilly, even during periods of strife, by holding a compassionate awareness of our essential kinship. Not only are we each trying to negotiate this perplexing human journey, but the very flaw we recognize so readily in another likely lies within us as well, though perhaps in a slightly different form.
If every human being carries a spark of the Divine, then to defame, belittle or disregard someone also defames, belittles and disregards the Divine. In speaking unconsciously or with malicious intent, we also actively reject our own true potential and, in the process, do a disservice to the gift that is our life.
We bear responsibility for these pillows of ours. They contain all that we are, all that we can be. Our every word and deed become feathers on the wind, the gift of ourselves to the world. What shall we offer, and what will become of these feathers of ours?
As another Jewish sage put it, “The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind. The answer is blowin’ in the wind.”
Speak well, listen well, be well!
Speak well, listen well, be well!
PS. This essay had an interesting developmental process. A couple of months ago, reader Giselle Massi, sent me a link to an article she had published in the online magazine, The Edge. In it, she referred to the concept of lashon hara, without naming it. I was intrigued and spoke with a Jewish friend of mine, Judi, who supplied me the name along with her thoughts on the subject. Thus began a flurry of research, leading me at last to Rabbi Becker. Thanks to all of you!
PPS. For a Buddhist spin on lashon hara, see Thich Nhat Hanh's Fourth Mindfulness Training, in which he expands on the Buddha's fourth precept which prohibits lying.