Gabbing About Goodness
How to change the world with your tongue.
The day was rainy, the bus was late, and the atmosphere at the bus stop where I was impatiently waiting with several other people was tense.
A woman in her late sixties wearing a brown raincoat scurried by. Just as she passed the bus shelter, she slid on the wet pavement and fell. I rushed toward her. Helping her up, I asked, "Are you okay?"
She nodded and commented, "It says that a person who falls in front of other people is a prideful person."
I smiled, thinking, "If you were really prideful, you wouldn't be quoting that." But I said nothing.
The woman continued on her way. As I returned to the protection of the bus shelter, another woman there remarked out loud, "What a special person! She falls and she uses it as an opportunity to admonish herself spiritually! What a remarkable, humble person!"
With that comment, the atmosphere in the bus shelter palpably changed. Goodness hung in the air like a presence. We all smiled at each other and nodded.
HOW TO LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR
The mitzvah, "Love your neighbor as yourself," is considered by the sages to be a fundamental mitzvah of the Torah. Like all mitzvot, it requires us to do something concrete and specific. Vague sentiments of affection for others could delude a person into thinking that s/he is fulfilling this mitzvah, but the Torah insists that we ground our sentiments in concrete actions.
Thus Maimonides, in his magnum opus delineating the mitzvot, writes that "Love your neighbor as yourself" is fulfilled in three ways: 1) By speaking well about others; 2) By seeing to their physical requirements; and 3) By treating them with honor.
Although I had had the same positive thoughts about the woman who slipped at the bus stop, the person who actually voiced her praise was fulfilling the mitzvah, "Love your neighbor as yourself." And because every mitzvah connects a person to God, the atmosphere in our damp bus shelter reflected that spiritual transformation.
We can probably triple the amount of good we speak about every day.
In the Jewish world today, much focus is given to not speaking gossip, lashon hara. The Torah prohibits us from speaking negatively about others, even when it's true, except in cases when one must protect a third party (such as a prospective business partner) from being harmed. To refrain from speaking lashon hara is an exalted spiritual accomplishment.
Much less emphasis is given to the other side of the coin -- speaking well about others. Of course, if you praise A to B, who dislikes A, B is likely to respond with a string of pejorative lashon hara: "She's not really so great. Why, I've seen her do x." As always, you must be circumspect about to whom you say what.
With that caution in mind, however, each of us could probably triple the amount of good we speak about every day.
In fact, this is an important principle in educating children. The experts instruct us to give our children more positive feedback than negative feedback. Thus, they tell us, don't wait till your toddler misbehaves to comment on his behavior. Notice when your toddler is playing nicely, and say out loud, "How nicely you're sharing that toy with your sister." This reinforces good behavior.
Even those who have acquired the skill of praising young children probably pass up manifold opportunities to voice goodness about those we live and work with. How about:
Every night at dinnertime or bedtime, telling your spouse one positive thing about each of your children. "When Jason spoke on the phone with his grandmother today, he showed her a lot of love and respect." "When I told Jennie she couldn't use the car tonight, she accepted it graciously."
Pointing out your spouse's good points to your children: "You know, Dad was really tired tonight, but he helped you with your homework anyway." "Even though Mom was super busy today, notice how she took time to call Aunt Marge so she wouldn't be lonely."
Not just thinking well about your friends, but actually mentioning their good traits: "Linda is so reliable. She said she'd do me a favor, and then even though her schedule changed, she still went out of her way to do it." "Brad is so honest. The bank teller made a mistake in his favor, and he pointed out the mistake to her."
Looking for positive things to say about your fellow workers: "My secretary has a bad cold, but she still came in today because she knew I needed her." "My boss is under a lot of pressure right now, but he took the time to mention the good job I did on that recent project."
With each of these simple statements, you fulfill that primary mitzvah: Loving your neighbor as yourself.
Rabbi Avraham Twersky points out that the Morning Prayer service begins with the words, "Blessed is the One who spoke and the world came into being." He explains that at the outset of our prayers, we have to remind ourselves that words create worlds.
At the outset of every day we should remind ourselves that good words create good worlds.
Sara Yoheved Rigler will be lecture touring in the U.S. November 1-20. To see her speaking location nearest you , click here.