SEFER CHOFETZ CHAIM
Preface: Negative Commandments
There is no greater source of blessing than shalom, peace, and there is no greater source of destruction than machlokes, strife.
When Jews are at peace with one another, we create a special aura of protection around ourselves. We are protected from our enemies, we are protected from the indictments of the Satan, and even more incredibly, we are protected from Divine punishment for our sins.
This, said Rabbi Aharon Kotler, was the difference between the Generation of the Flood and Generation of the Dispersion. The fact that the Generation of the Flood was mired in robbery proved that the people were not united at all. Therefore, their fate was sealed and they were destroyed. However, the Generation of the Dispersion, though it was rebellious towards Hashem, maintained unity towards one another. Therefore the people dispersed but not destroyed.
When lashon hara causes or strengthens machlokes, the speaker has transgressed, “And do not be like Korach and his congregation.”
Korach led a shameful rebellion against the leadership of Moshe Rabbeinu and Aharon HaKohen. The story of his rebellion and the bitter end that he and his followers met remains a symbol for all time of a dispute that was not l’shem Shamayim (for the sake of Heaven) and therefore had tragic consequences.
The Torah states, “And you shall not aggrieve one another.” Rashi states: “Here the Torah cautions us regarding causing pain through hurtful words.”
The Torah forbids us to say [or do] anything that will hurt someone’s feelings. This is very different from the common case of lashon hara. Common lashon hara is where Reuven tells Shimon, “You know, Levi is a terrible person,” or something else derogatory about Levi. Ona’as devarim is where Reuven tells Levi, “You know, you really are a terrible person.” Though these words were said privately, the speaker has been guilty of the very serious sin of ona’as devarim because he has hurt Levi’s feelings.
The Chofetz Chaim informs us that if Reuven tells Shimon, “Levi is a terrible person,” and Levi is present, then aside from transgressing the sin of lashon hara, Shimon has also been guilty of ona’as devarim.
The classic example in Tanach of ona’as devarim is the episode of Chanah and Peninah, the two wives of Elkanah. Chanah was childless, while Peninah had a number of children. Peninah, recognizing that Chanah was a tzadekes, firmly believed that if Chanah would pray more intensely, she would be granted a child. So she taunted Chanah in the hope that this would spur her on to greater tefillah. Though her intentions were honorable and, as Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz writes, it surely pained Peninah to hurt Chanah’s feelings, she did not escape severe punishment.
R’ Chaim compares this to someone who puts his hand in a fire. The best intentions in the world will not save him from getting burned. To hurt a person’s feelings is to play with fire.
IN A NUTSHELL
Lashon hara can sometimes lead to machlokes, which is highly destructive, and can involve the terrible sin of hurting someone’s feelings.
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