Lashon Hara: Violated when Alone?
Rabbi Moshe Ben-Chaim
Reader: My question pertains to Lashon Hara. I understand that if you are speaking against another person to someone else, that is Lashon Hara. My question is, what if someone has hurt you so deeply and caused such grief because of lies and theft and you speak out when you are alone [to vent]? I know G-d hears all, but is it also considered Lashon Hara when expressing your pain without an audience?
Rabbi: You committed no sin if you spoke privately. As Rabbi Israel Chait stated, Lashon Hara is where—by sharing a corrupt picture of another person or distorting truths—one person distorts another person's perception of reality, be it about of people or about facts. There must be an audience in order to commit this sin.
Nonetheless, you intelligently ask if degrading speech per se expressed when alone is harmful. Although not Lashon Hara, verbalization even while alone is damaging as you do not contain your aggressive expression. Speaking in private, you allow yourself to get one step closer to the actual sin.
It is also advantageous practically that one contains their speech, even when in private:
“Do not say something that cannot be heard, for in the end it will be heard” (Ethics 2:4).
Rabbeinu Yona comments:
“As a person must guard and be careful from the possibility. Hence if you have a secret, do not tell it even to someone whose soul is bound to your soul [confidant]. And don't say, "[It is] impossible that this thing be heard, as there is no stranger among us to transport these words." 'And in the end, everything is heard.' Even between you and yourself, do not make it heard to your ears, as the rabbis, may their memory blessed, metaphorically said (Berakhot 8b), "Do not talk among the walls, for the walls have ears." And about this, King Solomon—peace be upon him—said, “For a bird of the air may carry the utterance, and a winged creature may report the word” (Koheles 10:20).
“Birds will carry your words” and “walls have ears” must be understood; both make no sense literally. As birds don’t speak, and walls don’t hear or speak, how will one’s evil speech reach others, bringing harm on oneself? There’s only one possibility…
These metaphors identify man’s lack of restraint. Man has such a yearning to degrade others, such a burning lack of control, that this psychological disposition is viewed as if “birds and walls will hear and carry his words.” Ethics, and King Solomon’s beautifully crafted metaphor convey this self-destructive part of human nature, where ego’s desire to degrade others is so irresistible that it outweighs the ultimate self-destruction generated by our spoken words. King Solomon scripted this metaphor to warn man against harming himself. For although speaking privately cannot hurt us, venting our ego and aggressive speech privately incites our emotions, making us weaker to control ourselves when others are in our presence, when our damning speech will come back to bite us. The inevitability of our egos to harm us is depicted as “listening birds and walls.” If we don’t exercise self-control, we doom ourselves as if the birds and walls are telling others.
But we must distinguish between egoistical degrading speech, and your case of simply crying out due to oppression. Your case is akin to the Jews who groaned due to the oppressive Egyptian bondage: “The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried out” (Exod. 2:123). Those Jews did nothing wrong. Their cry was not premeditated, but a natural, uncontrollable response to pain. The same can be said of your cries.