The Chofetz Chaim now discusses a more severe level of ona’as devarim (verbal abuse). If one relates something negative to others while the subject is present, causing that person not only hurt but also humiliation, then he has transgressed the prohibition “Do not bear a sin because of him” (Vayikra 19:17) which is the Torah prohibition against embarrassing someone. (With this commandment the Torah teaches that even rebuking someone should be done respectfully, so as not to cause the person embarrassment.)
If one embarrasses a person publicly he has to contend with the words of our Sages, “One who shames his friend in public does not have a portion in the World to Come” (Avos 3:11).
The Chofetz Chaim leads us through a loshon hora conversation, keeping count of all the commandments each participant transgresses.
Reuven tells Shimon, “Levi criticized you.” Reuven has now transgressed his first negative commandment, “Do not go as a peddler of gossip among your people” (Vayikra 19:16), as well as several other related sins.
Shimon, who listened to Reuven and believes his report that Levi said something critical about him, has transgressed the commandment “Do not accept a false report” (Shemos 23:1), which is the prohibition against accepting loshon hora. When Shimon now meets Levi, the person who allegedly criticized him, he begins to harangue and humiliate him. Shimon has now transgressed “A man shall not cause hurt to his fellow” (Vayikra 25:17) which pertains to verbal abuse.
Levi is shocked at the abuse he is receiving and demands an explanation. Shimon responds angrily, “Why did you say those terrible things about me to Reuven? Did you think I wasn’t going to find out?” Shimon has now committed a third transgression, that of relating gossip. By repeating what Levi allegedly said to Reuven, Shimon has set Levi against Reuven.
Levi has a defense. “That’s not what happened.” Now Shimon is furious at Reuven. When Shimon meets Reuven he says, “How could you lead me to attack Levi when he said he never even said those words?” Reuven wants to prove himself correct so he says to Shimon, “Oh, so he denies the whole thing? Come and I’ll repeat what he said in his presence!”
Shimon and Reuven find Levi; Shimon says to Reuven, “Tell me again what Levi said about me.” Reuven proceeds to recount the story once again, transgressing the commandment against peddling gossip. This applies to every instance of rechilus (gossip) even if the person knows the information. In addition, by embarrassing Levi, he has violated the commandment against embarrassing people. Levi responds by saying, “It is true, I did say something about you, Shimon, but I did not say it the way Reuven reported it. I did not use that tone and he totally distorted my point.”
Shimon says to Levi, “Do you really think I’m going to believe you, now that Reuven had the courage to repeat your words in front of you?” These words become Shimon’s fourth sin “Do not accept a false report.” When we tally up the sins, we see that Reuven has transgressed three negative Torah commandments while Shimon has violated four.
The Chofetz Chaim asks, “How could we have ended this story differently?” Even after much of the damage was done, there was still much that could have been salvaged. When Levi defended himself and said, “Yes, I did say something, but I did not say it the way Reuven reported it,” Reuven could have said, “Oh, I see what you mean. I must have misunderstood you.” This would have concluded the story on a peaceful note, averting the last few transgressions.
If we examine our own lives, we find that this scenario, in one form or another, is extremely common. The Chofetz Chaim advises us to be quick to acknowledge that we misunderstood someone’s alleged harsh words about another. In this way, we will save ourselves and our acquaintances from many disputes and sins.