THE COMPLETED EXPANSION OF Ohel Yaacob Congregation, LAWRENCE AVENUE SYNAGOGUE

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BITE BACK THAT BITE!

By: L. Azar

Holding back those biting words can be undertaken as a merit for a loved one.

Mosquito season is in full swing. For some, that means a couple of itchy sensations here and there.  Others experience real anxiety, so that just pondering about it makes
them itch!

The mosquito is your nemesis, its status rivaling that of hungry lions, skeevy burglars, and even ISIS. You avoid the mosquito at all costs; you will wear anything and eat anything – anything! –
to ward off its bite. By the time those devilish creatures do their damage, you’re bedecked in a coat of giant pink polka dots and an itching marathon commences. Not only that, you constantly keep count of how many bites you’ve got because maybe this time you will set a Guinness World Record for “the most mosquito bites on one body.” (At least then all those bites be worth something!)

While brooding about these little creatures, I’ve given thought to another kind of bite that unfortunately exists in our society, this one far worse. The mosquito penetrates the arm or leg or cheek in its hunt for a juicy portion of blood, but at least the bite eventually heals. This other bite – and I’ll clarify momentarily – penetrates a human being’s soul and doesn’t heal very speedily, if at all. I’m referring to the biting words people often utter about one another.

We know the reward of holding one’s tongue from slander – He who does
so merits a hidden light that no angel
can fathom.

Conversely, we know the dangers of unleashing slanderous words – All the gossiper’s good deeds are transferred to the subject being spoken ill of, while the slanderer receives the subject’s sins.

We know, yet we continue to stumble. Or at least I do. I’m getting on a soap box with this confession not because I’m proud of it, but because I know there are others who face this struggle as well and wish to improve their speech habits.

My teaching position in a girl’s high school exposes me to myriad programs and school projects that blow me away. The latest one, a month-long worldwide shemirat halashon campaign, has left me impressed and inspired. 61,000 high school girls spanning 23 countries have joined what is, per the Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation pamphlet, “possibly the largest shemirat halashon project in history.” Thousands of students have collectively undertaken avoiding both speaking and listening to lashon hara during their lunch break. In one month, they will have amassed half a million hours of slander-free conversation. The program’s fabulous success is largely attributed to the fact that there is comfort in numbers. It’s infinitely simpler for these teenagers to work on their speech as a group. Being part of a unit makes it so much easier for them to declare with confidence, “Let’s change the subject” or “It’s my ‘lashon hara-free’ hour.” When making this proclamation they can be assured their friends won’t laugh at them, because all have taken on the same goal. When they declare themselves lashon hara-free, they are met with respect,
not ridicule.

As summer approaches, it’s true that mosquitos are out and about, but that won’t keep us from staying outside. The days are long and the weather is nice, which widens the opportunity to socialize with our family and friends.

Are you up for a challenge?

I propose that as a family unit and/or
social circle you try to refrain from speaking
or listening to negative speech. It can be as simple as announcing that you’d rather not speak about a certain topic just then. And if someone other than you suggests a halt in conversation, take heed. Often, that person has mustered up much courage to go against the tide and break up a negative conversation. He deserves an accolade for doing so. In fact, someone who prevents or stops lashon hara in its tracks deserves an all-out “thank you” for saving us from sin, much the same way someone who stops us from mistakenly eating a non-kosher food would.

Holding back those biting words can be undertaken as a merit for a loved one. Do it for those who lie ill in the hospital. Do it for the one awaiting a marriage partner. Do it for the one longing to hold a child in his arms. It may be difficult at first, but others will respect you more for your propriety and won’t wish to speak slanderously in your presence.

I’m going to give it my best shot and I’d be thrilled if you’d join me.