By Shira Schechter
There is a Hasidic tale about a man who went about the community telling malicious lies about the rabbi. Later, he realized the wrong he had done, and began to feel remorse. He went to the rabbi and begged his forgiveness, saying he would do anything he could to make amends. The rabbi told the man, “Take a feather pillow, cut it open, and scatter the feathers to the winds.” The man thought this was a strange request, but it was a simple enough task, and he did it gladly. When he returned to tell the rabbi that he had done it, the rabbi said, “Now, go and gather the feathers. Because you can no more make amends for the damage your words have done than you can recollect the feathers.”
Psalm 52, written by King David, is a powerful reminder of the destructive consequences of evil speech. The psalm begins with the Hebrew word maskil, which implies that it was composed with the intention of imparting wisdom or instruction. In this case, David is instructing us of the consequences of gossip and slander. The sin of evil speech is widespread and tempting, and thus it requires great wisdom to fulfill the teachings of the Torah and refrain from what we call in Hebrew lashon hara.
The story behind this psalm is the tragic incident that took place in the city of Nob. David, forced to flee from his father-in-law Saul, arrived at the Tabernacle in Nob and asked the priest, Ahimelech, for bread and a sword. Assuming that he was on a mission from King Saul, Ahimelech provided the starving and unarmed David with the food and weapon that he requested. Doeg the Edomite, King Saul’s advisor, was also in Tabernacle at that time, and reported the incident to Saul in a way that implied that Ahimelech was a conspirator against the king. This slander caused Saul to condemn the entire city of Nob to death, a sentence carried out by Doeg the Edomite himself (I Samuel 21–22).
The tragedy of the massacre of Nob highlights the importance of refraining from speaking lashon hara, or evil speech. The laws of lashon hara aim to protect people from the harmful effects of negative talk, emphasize the importance of avoiding negative speech, even if it is true, and to always judge others favorably. The laws are numerous and the book, Chafetz Chaim, written by Rabbi Israel Meir Hakohen of Radin, is a comprehensive guide to the laws of lashon hara.
According to the Midrash Shocher Tov 7:8, the sin of slander is so severe that the armies of King Saul lost their battles with the Philistines as a result of slander spoken against King David, while the armies of the notorious King Ahab, who were idolatrous, were successful in their battles because they did not sin in the same manner.
In Psalm 52, David speaks out against the wickedness of Doeg and those who engage in similar behavior:
“Your tongue devises mischief, like a sharpened razor that works treacherously. You prefer evil to good, the lie, to speaking truthfully. Selah.” (Psalm 52:4-5).
David goes on to describe the consequences of this type of speech:
“So Hashem will tear you down for good, will break you and pluck you from your tent, and root you out of the land of the living. Selah. The righteous, seeing it, will be awestruck; they will jibe at him” (verses 7-8).
These verses highlight the fact that even if one’s slanderous words achieve their desired effect in the short term, in the long run they will be exposed for what they are and will bring shame upon the speaker. David also says:
“But I am like a thriving olive tree in Hashem’s house; I trust in the faithfulness of Hashem forever and ever.” (verse 10).
This highlights the importance of trusting in God and focusing on righteousness, rather than engaging in negative and destructive speech.
The message of Psalm 52 remains as relevant today, as it was in David’s time, as the sin of slander continues to be a widespread issue in society. This psalm is a reminder to all of us to be mindful of our words and to use them only in a positive and constructive manner. The story of David, Ahimelech, and Doeg serves as a warning of the destructive consequences of evil speech and the importance of being careful with what we say and how we say it. The teachings of Psalm 52, and the laws of lashon hara, provide us with a roadmap for ethical and responsible communication, and serve as a reminder of the power of our words to either build up or tear down.