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PROPHETABLY SPEAKING
Part one of three in a series on proper speech

by Mendel Starkman    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

When was the last time you robbed a store at gunpoint? Hopefully, no one reading this article has. If someone had, they would surely be able to describe the event in great detail. They would remember exactly when and where it took place.

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When was the last time you robbed a store at gunpoint? Hopefully, no one reading this article has. If someone had, they would surely be able to describe the event in great detail. They would remember exactly when and where it took place.

However, what would you respond if you were asked when was the last time you spoke lashon hara (negative or slanderous speech)? Not only would most people not remember what situation caused them to speak slanderously, but they probably would not even be able to tell you when it happened. Lashon hara is a very grave sin. Yet, it is often overlooked and trampled upon due to our lack of awareness.

We are told to "remember what Hashem did to Miriam, on the way when you were leaving Egypt" (Deuteronomy 24:9). The episode to which this commandment refers takes place in this week's Torah portion. By analyzing this event, and why we are told to remember it, we can learn a very important lesson.

At the end of the Torah portion, Miriam instigated a conversation with Aaron and they were discussing the fact that Moses had separated from his wife, Tzipporah. Moses was a great prophet and always had to be on the spiritual level to receive prophetic revelations. He had separated from his wife to remove a level of physical connection to this world. This way, he would always be pure and ready for a prophecy. Once Miriam and Aaron had spoken, Hashem's presence descended in a cloud and prophetically explained that Moses was greater than any other prophet, so they could not draw any comparisons. Hashem questioned how they could speak against Moses, and immediately Miriam was stricken with the skin-disease known as tzaraat. The wrongdoing here seems to be related to lashon hara, which makes the tzaraat appropriate. (Tzaraat was often a punishment for the sin of lashon hara). However, this entire episode demands explanation.

There is an important concept that must be applied to all the episodes in the Torah. When we speak about the characters in the Torah, we must understand about whom we are speaking. These holy people were prophets. In order to become a prophet, a person must have reached an extremely high spiritual level. Before a person can reach this level, he must undergo tremendous spiritual growth. He must perfect his character traits and excel in Torah. It takes a lot of work and growth to be able to achieve prophecy. Aside from the prophets, even the common people of those generations regularly experienced blatant miracles including the revelation at Mt. Sinai. The entire generation lived on a high spiritual level and with a strong connection to Hashem. Because of this, we cannot measure these distinguished people with the same yardstick that we would use for ourselves. It would be both incorrect and illogical to assume that such highly spiritual people would falter in basic sins.

While on the surface, the Torah may seem to describe that they had done something very wrong, often there is only a nuance of misdeed which, for people on their level, is considered to be much worse of a crime. Unfortunately, we are often too quick to lay blame and to pin negative character traits on these holy generations, without sufficient basis. Before laying blame, it is crucial that we look to the sages and commentators for insight into what really took place.

The story with Miriam is a case in point. On the surface, it would seem that Miriam spoke lashon hara about Moses, and this is why she was punished with tzaraat. All the commentators agree that what Miriam spoke involved only a nuance of sin. However, Rabbi Isaac Sher, a leading rabbinic personality of post-World War II, explains it on an even deeper level. Miriam and Aaron were discussing Moses' separation from his wife. They were not speaking negatively about Moses. Rather, they were trying to learn whether or not they should follow his lead. On the one hand, they were also prophets like Moses, so maybe they should take a lesson from his actions and also separate from their spouses. On the other hand, maybe Hashem never commanded Moses to separate. Maybe Moses came up with the idea to separate by himself and Hashem agreed that this was a proper course of action. However, if Moses had not taken the initiative, Hashem never would have commanded him. In this case, Moses' action was unique to him and could not be applied to other prophets. Aaron and Miriam were involved in this spiritual discussion because they wanted to create a closer connection with Hashem.

Because they were having this discussion about Jewish law, they merited a revelation from Hashem, who would teach them the proper law. This itself is proof that no lashon hara was spoken, because Hashem would not have appeared to sinners. Additionally, they merited to have a law in the Torah taught because of them. Hashem explained that Moses' level of prophecy was greater than any other, so they could not determine their actions based on his. He was correct in separating from his wife, but no other prophet ever had to.

The only complaint came from a related issue. Moses was on such a high level, he always followed Hashem and did not make up anything on his own. Because of this, they had no right to inquire into his actions and claim that he separated on his own accord, with Hashem agreeing later. Instead of speculating, they should have simply asked Moses what to do. Since they did not, Miriam's initiation of the discussion was considered to have slightly negated from Moses' honor. This was categorized, for someone on her high spiritual level, as lashon hara, and she was punished accordingly.

The emphasis of the story has completely changed. Simply understood, we would have blamed Miriam for speaking outright lashon hara. However, Miriam and Aaron were on too high a level for us to assume that they blundered in such a basic sin. Only by looking to the commentaries do we see that this was not lashon hara at all. The only complaint was that they should have realized this matter was beyond their scope and asked Moses directly. By not doing so, they were considered to have negated from Moses' honor, which was classified, on their level, as lashon hara. There is a tremendous difference between the simple understanding and the real explanation. It is crucial to examine every Torah story this way. We must let the commentaries guide us through what really happened before we point our fingers at these righteous people.

The Chofetz Chaim, the author of the definitive work relating to the laws of lashon hara, says that we have a mitzvah to verbally remember this story, and how Miriam was stricken with tzaraat. There is a strong, personal message that we can learn from this episode. Miriam was speaking about her brother whom she loved, helped raise, and endangered herself to save when he was floating in a basket in the Nile. She was speaking privately with Aaron, and not in public, so Moses would not be embarrassed. Moreover, Moses was not upset that they were speaking like this. Yet, all of Miriam's deeds and accomplishments did not protect her, and she was still stricken with tzaraat.

We should take lesson from this, and be especially careful with what we say about others. Let us be more aware of what we say, and then if someone were to ask us when we last spoke lashon hara, we would hopefully be able to answer them that, at least recently, we had not.

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This article is the second installment on "Proper Speech" by Mendel Starkman. You may want to read:

Of thee I speak - Second installment on "Proper Speech"

Special thanks to Noam Grossman for his help with these articles.

Mendel Starkman, a native Atlantan, is studying at the Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim in New York.

You are invited to read more Parshat Beha'alotcha articles.

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