One sunny morning while Rebecca was riding the bus to work, she overheard a conversation in the front between a confused foreign couple and the bus driver. She understood the language they were speaking perfectly; it was the language she learned from her parents as a child. The opportunity to interject and clear up the misunderstanding presented itself to her. She could help the couple reach their destination.
Yet, she did nothing. She convinced herself that she was sitting too far back to jump in. Plus, they’d probably figure it out on their own anyway. So, she did nothing.
We’ve all seen someone searching for a quarter at the checkout counter, struggling with a heavy door, or scrabbling to pick up a dropped item while juggling too many things. Or how many times have we witnessed a misunderstanding that we could straighten out? When we witness someone in need, how often do we decide to step up or speak up and help? There are times when we have the power to assist another. Sadly, many of us pass up these opportunities and choose to remain anonymous.
Moments like this happen all the time. Kabbalists teach that this is a form of lashon hara, or negative speech, that does as much to disconnect us from the Light as malicious gossip or unkind words. Few of us realize choosing not to say anything positive is just as bad as saying something negative.
Other forms of negative speech are more obvious. Gossip is clearly problematic since even seemingly mild comments about another can have damaging results. Kabbalists warn that speaking ill of another is worse than physically harming someone, for we can apologize for hurting someone, but we can never take away the effects of ruining someone’s reputation. Negative self-talk is also something we ought to keep in check. The unkind words we direct towards ourselves can be the catalyst of a downward spiral towards negative emotions like self-doubt, jealousy, or sadness.
Lashon hara includes not only the words that escape us, but the words that do not. The chance to help another is really an opportunity for you to change your nature. Sometimes all that is necessary is a kind word of encouragement. Other times, the role we play is great, standing against injustice or the ego-driven actions of others. Either way, our mission is to act. Michael Berg says, "By deciding not to speak or act on their behalf, we not only miss an opportunity to help, but we diminish the Light of our own souls."
The trap our egos lay for us is the notion that small deeds do not matter. We are well aware of how great gestures can spark positive transformation. History does not let us forget the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr. or Susan B. Anthony. We think that small gestures don’t matter. We can easily forget how important small steps are in moving towards change.
Our words are significant. Our words are powerful. They have the potential to change the course of one’s life. Indeed, they have the power to change the world. “One of the things that makes choosing not to help and lashon hara, negative or evil speech, so insidious,” says Michael Berg, “is that words themselves seem like such small, unimportant things.” We can occasionally allow ourselves small negative deeds, thinking it’s only the big stuff that matters. Yet, sometimes it’s the small stuff that matters most.
Rav Ashlag taught that how we view ourselves determines who we are. When we see the spark of Light within ourselves we are more likely to use it, share it, and allow it to benefit others. We all hold the potential to create wonderful change in the world. But we can only achieve miracles if we believe it is in our power to do so. Inaction cuts us off from the Light of the Creator. Our job then is to share with our voices and our actions. "Every word we say matters,” says Michael Berg, “because we ourselves matter."