Is there such a thing as Lashon Tov?
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The Summary

This summary is adapted from this week’s main Covenant & Conversation essay by Rabbi Sacks.

God created the world with words, and He gave us the power to create and destroy relationships with words. This week we continue learning about the power of speech. We often learn about lashon hara but the rabbis said virtually nothing about lashon tov. If it is a sin to talk badly about people, is it a mitzvah to speak well about them? Rabbi Sacks teaches that it is, and gives the example of Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, who used to give individualised praise to each of his five students.

Rav Dimi later stated that Rabban Yochanan’s praise contradicted a Talmudic principle. Rav Dimi said, “Let no one ever talk in praise of his neighbour, for praise will lead to criticism.” Rashi understands this tension to be about the nature of the praise and whether the praise is accurate, authentic, or overstated. If the former, it is permitted; if the latter, it is forbidden.

Rambam, however, sees matters differently. He writes: “Whoever speaks well about his neighbour in the presence of his enemies is guilty of a secondary form of evil speech [avak lashon hara], since he will provoke them to speak badly about him.” According to the Rambam, the issue is not whether the praise is moderate or excessive, but the context in which it is delivered. If it is done in the presence of friends of the person about whom you are speaking, it is permitted. But in the presence of others, even mentioning a person in a positive way can result in them countering your praise and engaging in a negative conversation.

Are these merely two opinions, or is there something deeper at stake? It turns out that this is a debate about the nature of language itself. Do we think of language as a way of making true and false statements, or can we see language in another way. We can use our words to encourage, empathise, motivate and inspire. Or we can use it to discourage, disparage, criticise and depress. Language does more than convey information. It conveys emotion. It creates or disrupts a mood. The sensitive use of speech involves social and emotional intelligence. For Rashi, the critical question about praise is: Is it true or excessive? For Rambam the question is: What is the context? Is it being said among enemies or friends? Will it create warmth and esteem or envy and resentment?

Let’s return to Yochanan ben Zakkai, and how he would praise his students. This mishnah is telling us something profound indeed. Pirkei Avot begins with the advice to raise many disciples. How do you create disciples? How do you inspire people to become what they could become, to reach the full measure of their potential? By acting as Rabban Yochanan. praising your students, showing them their specific strengths.

Rabban Yochanan took a Rambamesque view of praise. He used it not so much to describe as to motivate. And that is lashon tov. Evil speech diminishes us, while good speech helps us grow. Evil speech puts people down, while good speech lifts them up. Focused, targeted praise, informed by considered judgment of individual strengths and sustained by faith in people and their potentiality, is what makes teachers great and their disciples greater than they would otherwise have been.

According to Rambam, lashon tov follows the command of “Love your neighbour as yourself.” Avot says it is one way of “raising many disciples.” It is as creative as lashon hara is destructive. Seeing the good in people and telling them so is a way of helping it become real, nurturing their personal growth. We praise God. We must praise people, too.

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Around the Shabbat Table

  1. Where else in the Tanach do we see biblical figures using lashon tov to lift each other up?
  2. How impactful are the words that people have said to you? Have they shaped your choices in a positive way?
  3. What is something genuine you can say to someone close to you, to help lift them up?
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Parsha in Passing

Last week we were introduced to the condition of the metzora, the person struck with the biblical disease of tsara’at, a physical skin rash representing spiritual impurity. This week, the narrative progresses to explain the purification rituals for someone who has healed from this condition.

The ceremony for a metzora, conducted by a kohen, involves two birds, water from a spring held in a clay pot, cedar wood, a scarlet wool strand, and hyssop.

Another form of tsara’at can affect a house, manifesting as reddish-green stains on its walls. The kohen examines these stains, and then has up to nineteen days to decide whether the home can be cleaned or whether it must be torn down.

The Torah then discusses other sources of ritual impurity, such as the bodily discharges in men and women which require purification through immersion in a mikvah.

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Parsha Principles

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Lashon Hara: When you hear a rumour, in am or pm, know that you must not believe ‘em.

Lashon Tov: With phrases positive and so bright, they speak of kindness and bring delight.

Recovered Metzora: Once confined, for being unkind, now
newly cleansed in body, soul, and mind.

The Mikvah: Take a person in a state that needs mending, with water’s touch feel purity ascending.

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Parsha Practical

In the same way that lashon tov - speaking well of others - can uplift and empower, positive self-talk also holds a transformative power in our personal lives. It’s a gentle reminder of our innate worth and potential, especially in moments of doubt or challenge. Positive self-talk isn’t counter to humility, and it’s not about denying our flaws or mistakes; instead, it’s about acknowledging our strengths and the capacity for growth and resilience within us.

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Words have a profound impact on our inner world as well. Just as words can create realities, the language we use with ourselves can shape our perception, influencing our actions and the ways in which we interact with others. Engaging in positive self-talk is a form of self-love and respect, and you can start this practice with a daily affirmation that we are each empowered to grow, learn, and contribute positively to our communities.

One powerful verse from Tanach that encapsulates this message is from Mishlei 18:21, which says, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits.”

What we say to others and, most importantly, to ourselves, holds great power! We should use our words wisely.

  • What is something kind you can say to yourself right now?

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Parsha Playoff

Let’s play “Compliment Tag!” This is a game that encourages positive talk among players. One person starts by picking a positive word to describe another player, like “thoughtful” or “brave.” The complimented person then selects a different positive word for someone else in the circle. The game continues, with each person offering a new compliment, avoiding repeat words! To increase the fun, introduce a 10-second time limit for each turn. The game ends when everyone has received at least one compliment!

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Parsha Philosophy

Rabbi Sacks shares a beautiful insight about the power of lashon tov. Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakkai praised his disciples, highlighting their unique strengths and qualities in a way that encouraged and elevated them to even greater heights. This form of lashon tov wasn’t just about making them feel good; it was about helping them see their potential, and therefore grow into it.

Rabbi Sacks says that while many sages discussed the dangers of harmful speech, we shouldn’t overlook the incredible power of positive speech. He suggests praising others sincerely and thoughtfully to lift them and help them thrive. This isn’t just about being nice; it’s a deep part of the mitzva to love our neighbours as much as we love ourselves.

  • How can you help lift the people around you with positive speech?
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Parsha Parable

A Biblical Tail

Here’s a story that might ring a bell… or a hee-haw!

Once upon a time, there lived a king named Balak. King Balak was fearful because the Jewish people were approaching his land during their journey through the desert, and he thought they were too strong for him. He couldn’t defeat them with an army, so he came up with a different plan.

The king called upon a man named Bilaam, who was known to have the power to bless or curse others with his words. King Balak wanted Bilaam to curse Bnei Yisrael, hoping that would make them weak! Bilaam agreed, but decided to speak with God first. And guess what God said? God told Bilaam that the Jewish people were blessed and he must not curse them! Bilaam told King Balak this, but the king asked again that he curse them. This time Bilaam agreed.

 And so off he went on his donkey. On his way, Bilaam’s donkey saw an angel blocking the path, invisible to Bilaam. The donkey tried to avoid the angel, making Bilaam very angry with her, but then God let Bilaam see the angel, who reminded him only to speak God’s words. And so it came to pass that when he opened his mouth to curse the Jewish people, only kind words and blessings came out.

“Hey! I told you to curse the Jewish people!” Balak yelled. But no matter how hard he tried, Bilaam could only find beautiful blessings in his heart! Perhaps God was teaching Bilaam and the king that not only is it better to use your words for good, but it’s probably not a good idea to make plans to curse people, either.

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Parsha Ponderings

What Could You Say... someone who you truly do not like, to empower them and even send them positive vibes? Is such a task possible? And why might this still be important? (We aren’t talking about someone evil, just someone you have friction with).

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Parsha Puzzle


Which type of animal is an integral part of the purification process? Can you suggest why? (See below for the answer)

This Week's Parsha Puzzle Answer:

Birds. The Gemara (Eruchin 16b) states that this is appropriate because of the chattering and chirping noises birds make, since tsara’at is caused by lashon hara.

This question has been adapted from Torah IQ by David Woolf, a collection of 1,500 Torah riddles, available on Amazon.

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Covenant & Conversation Family Edition

Written as an accompaniment to Rabbi Sacks’ weekly Covenant & Conversation essay, the Family Edition is aimed at connecting teenagers with his ideas and thoughts on the parsha.

With thanks to the Schimmel Family for their generous sponsorship of Covenant & Conversation, dedicated in loving memory of Harry (Chaim) Schimmel.

“I have loved the Torah of R’ Chaim Schimmel ever since I first encountered it. It strives to be not just about truth on the surface but also its connection to a deeper truth beneath. Together with Anna, his remarkable wife of 60 years, they built a life dedicated to love of family, community, and Torah. An extraordinary couple who have moved me beyond measure by the example of their lives.” — Rabbi Sacks

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