A story is told that an older man went to see the Chofetz Chaim. He realized that his time to leave this earth was coming soon, and he wanted to put his affairs in order. He told the Chofetz Chaim, “All my life I was a merchant. People would come into my store, and I’d chat. I told stories about this one, stories about that one. I know it wasn’t right and certainly I felt bad at the time, but I just couldn’t help myself. Now I want to do teshuvah. Rebbi, please tell me how to do teshuvah.”
The Chofetz Chaim answered, “I wish I could help you. But I don’t know how.”
“Please!” the man cried. There has to be some way!”
“I wish I knew of one. But I don’t.”
“Please! There must be something I could do.”
The man came back a second day and a third day until finally the Chofetz Chaim said, “You want to do teshuvah? Here is what you need to do. Go to the center of town and buy a cartload of pillows. Then, take each pillow one by one, and strike it against the flagpole until it opens up.”
The man realized that the Chofetz Chaim meant that he had to suffer great embarrassment. But he understood that it was the only way. He said, “I’ll do it.”
And he did. He went to the marketplace, bought a wagon full of pillows, and took them, one by one, and smacked them against the pole. One smash! Another smash! The pillow ripped open and the feathers went flying. The man took another pillow, and another pillow, and smacked them, more and more feathers went flying about.
People started to notice. Before long a crowd had gathered. They began cheering and mocking the man, as feather after feather went flying throughout the town. As they laughed and mocked, tears began to form in the man’s eyes; the embarrassment was incredible. The whole town saw him making a fool of himself, bursting pillow after pillow until he emptied the cart. With tears still streaming down his face, he went back to the Chofetz Chaim exhausted and weary, but knowing that he had done teshuvah.
And he said, “Rebbi, I did it. I did teshuvah. Thank you so much.”
The Chofetz Chaim looked at him and said, “You did teshuvah? If you really want to do teshuvah, go gather all of those feathers.”
“What does Rebbi mean, ‘Gather the feathers?’” the man asked. “They flew here, there, and everywhere. The wind took them.”
“Exactly,” said the Chofetz Chaim. “When you told Yankel about Berel, and he told someone else what he’d heard, each word spread. From this one to that one, like feathers in the wind. And just as you can’t gather feathers in the wind, you can’t gather back your words.”
If you really try to do teshuvah, maybe Hashem will allow you to help the public, and somehow atone, but you have to recognize that when you spoke those words, they spread and are very difficult to clean up.