At the end of this week’s portion, Parshat Behaalotecha, the Torah tells us that Miriam and Aaron spoke about their brother Moshe, in regard to the wife he took (which he subsequently separated from, by G-d’s instruction and command). For the lashon harah, slander they spoke about Moshe, which Miriam initiated, she was subsequently stricken with the affliction of tzara’as, a spiritual illness similar to leprosy and was sent out of the Israelite camp for seven days. During these seven days, Moshe offered a brief prayer on her behalf, so that she would heal, and the people did not journey from their encampment, but waited for her till she was cured from the tzara’as (see Bamidbar 12).
It is difficult for us to understand how the two leaders of the generation – the Prophetess Miriam and the High Priest Aaron – could be blamed for speaking privately, only to each other, of their younger brother Moshe and his separation from his wife. However, the Torah does not attempt to hide this incident from us, but rather gives us full details, and then further commands us to remember this incident well: Remember what Hashem your G-d did to Miriam, on the way when you were leaving Egypt (Devarim 24:9).
Though we cannot fully understand that two such righteous, pure, holy, leaders and servants of G-d were punished for speaking lashon harah, which actually stemmed from their concern for Moshe and his family life, nevertheless, the Torah commands us to know about the incident, remember what happened and learn from it.
The Ramban (Devarim 25:17) powerfully comments, and notes the need for publicizing Miriam’s sin, though we might think it should be concealed to save her shame. On the contrary!
“And so too regarding the incident of Miriam, we were commanded to make it known to our children and retell it to future generations. And even though it would have been fitting to conceal this incident, so as not to speak disparagingly about the righteous (Miriam and Aaron), nevertheless, the Torah commanded us to make it known and revealed, so that the warning against speaking lashon harah would be well known to us. For lashon harah is a grave sin that causes many evils, and people constantly stumble in this prohibition. As our Sages said: everyone sins through the “dust” of evil speech.”
R’ Soloveitchik succinctly summed up the root cause of speaking lashon harah as follows: “If you want to know what lashon harah is, whatever you enjoy when you talk about someone else is lashon harah.”
The Chafetz Chaim (R’ Yisrael Meir Ha’Kohen Kagan of Radin zt’l, 1839-1933) was once traveling from town to town, selling his book on the topic of guarding your tongue. He found himself in the town of Yedvabne, in the Lomza Province, where he spent Shabbos at the home of Reb Feivel, the local shochet (butcher and ritual slaughterer). As the Chafetz Chaim was about to wash for the third Shabbos meal, he overhead R’ Feivel talking to his wife, “Well, what do you think of the nerve of Yossel the butcher? Some day he is going to fall right into the trap of his own lies…” and R’ Feivel continued to speak disparagingly of Yossel the butcher.
Without a moment’s hesitation, the Chafetz Chaim fled the home! When Reb Feivel realized what had happened, he went looking for the Chafetz Chaim. He found the distinguished guest at the home of an acquaintance, having the third Shabbos meal. Reb Feivel perplexed asked the Chafetz Chaim why he had fled and found a new host. The Chafetz Chaim replied that regretfully, he could not stay in Reb Feivel’s home anymore.
“Look,” he said, “If you have a complaint against this butcher, it concerns our religious laws on what is forbidden and what is permitted (to be eaten). You have the ability to summon him to your local rabbi and have it out with him; or you can rebuke him privately, between the two of you; but is it not something to tell your wife! That is evil gossip! Here I am traveling about to sell a volume on the subject of how to beware of lashon harah. How can I allow myself hospitality in a house where sins of this kind are being committed?”
Once Miriam and Aaron spoke of Moshe, their actions influenced others…As our sages teach, why does the story of the spies who slandered the holy land follow the story of Miriam’s slander? For she was stricken over matters of speech, which she spoke against her brother, and these wicked ones (the spies) saw what happened to her, and did not take a lesson from her (see Rashi to Bamidbar 13:2).
Let us ensure that we remember and take a lesson from what happened to Miriam, “so that the warning against speaking lashon harah would be well known to us. For lashon harah is a grave sin that causes many evils.”
Though the Sages teach that everyone sins through the sin of slanderous speech and its “dust,” we should not become discouraged in any area of our divine service – including what is perhaps the most difficult realm of Divine service and interaction between man and fellow man: guarding our tongue. For the Chafetz Chaim would teach: The fact that a human being is unable to become perfect does not mean that he can therefore neglect his duty to be good.