Skip to main content

Harmful Feathers, Harmful Words

A Hasidic story.

One day a man heard an interesting, albeit unflattering, story about another man. (Let’s call the first man Steve and the second, Mike.) It was an amusing tale and so Steve shared it with others. He told lots and lots of people. Everyone found the story entertaining. Steve reveled in the laughter.

Soon Mike noticed that people gave him strange looks as he passed by on the street. He quietly wondered why. “Was it his hair style?” (Ok, I have made some changes to the original version.) Then he noticed that people frequented his store less often. Soon he discovered the unkind words people were saying about him. He asked a friend what they were saying. He could not believe his ears. He soon found out the source of the tale. It was Steve!

Mike confronted the Steve, complaining that he had ruined his reputation by repeating this one, unflattering episode. Steve tried to make excuses that it was such an entertaining story and that it always got a laugh. “But now,” Mike stammered, “Everyone just laughs at me.”

Steve was overcome with remorse and ran to his rabbi (let’s call her Susie) to seek counsel. Steve approached the rabbi and explained the situation. “How do I fix this? How can I repair Mike’s reputation?” The eminently wise rabbi offered a curious suggestion. “Go get a feather pillow and bring it to me.” Steve asked, “A feather pillow? Do they even sell those at Bed, Bath & Beyond anymore?” “This is not the time to make jokes!” Susie exclaimed. “Go, buy the pillow.”

Steve traveled throughout the greater New York area in search of such a pillow. He wondered how this was going to fix the problem. Still the rabbi offered a solution, and he was anxious to repair Mike’s reputation. A week later, he finally found the pillow on Amazon and texted the rabbi about his success. Susie texted him back, “Meet me in the center of town, at the corner of Main and Wall Streets. Don’t forget to bring the pillow.”

Steve thought to himself, “This keeps getting stranger.” The next day arrived, and he eventually found the rabbi standing on the corner, looking beautifully rabbinic. “I see you have been successful,” she said. “Now what?” Steve asked. “Cut open the pillow and empty out the feathers.” Steve did as he was told. The feathers were soon carried away by the wind, flying up and down the street. People stared in amazement and took out their cell phones to post pictures of the beautiful feathers, shimmering in the streetlights.

“Now, Steve” Susie said, “Go gather up each and every one of the feathers.” Steve stammered, “That’s impossible.”

“And that’s exactly my point,” Rabbi Susie quietly, but firmly, offered. And Steve stood there quietly watching the feathers being carried away by the wind.

Who knows where they might fall? Who knows who might gather up a feather or two and place it in their pockets? “Look at the feather I found one evening on Main Street,” they might one day say when they wish to entertain their friends.

And that is exactly the lesson about gossip and the words we speak about others. Once they are told they can never again be gathered up. They are like feathers floating on the wind.

The rabbis teach that even flattering, true words spoken about another can cause harm. Although their prohibition is difficult to observe their counsel is too important to ignore.

A misplaced word can injure. An errant word can create a wound that is impossible to heal.

This week’s Torah reading speaks about leprosy. On the surface this would appear to be disconnected from gossip. And yet we read that Miriam is afflicted with leprosy when she spoke against her brother Moses. The rabbis therefore reasoned that a gossip is likened to a moral leper. They become disfigured by the misplaced words they speak.

Their words are carried away by the winds.

Who could imagine that such a light feather can cause so much harm?