The consequences of bad speech


In this week’s portion, Beha’alotecha, we find a number of interesting narratives: Aaron’s instructions on lighting the Tabernacle Menorah on a daily basis; initiation of the Levites into the Tabernacle service; description of the Passover offering; the establishment of a “second Passover” to be observed by those who were ritually unclean during the original time of the festival; the Israelites’ travels, led through the Sinai wilderness by a cloud during the day and a pillar of fire at night; special trumpets used for special occasions; Moses asking Jethro, his father-in-law, to join him on the road to Canaan (Jethro turns him down); the Israelites complaining about the lack of decent food and too much walking!; the establishment of 70 elders to help Moses adjudicate the many issues that came up; and, finally, Miriam and Aaron speaking against Moses. It is this last item that is about to get more attention.

The verse reads: “Then Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married.”

We don’t really know what they said about Moses and his wife – many and varied interpretations try to fill in what is missing. (Similar to when Cain and Abel were in the field, and they had words, and Cain rose up and killed Abel.) What we do know is that this was a case of lashon hara – slanderous talk, which is a bit different from when we make negative comments about someone else’s pasta – known as lakshon hara – but that’s another story.

The laws of lashon hara prohibit us from acting in a defamatory way – i.e., speaking negatively about someone, repeating what someone says about someone else, even just listening to “bad talk.” It is also understood that lashon hara is to be avoided even if what is said is true!

Rambam (Maimonides) explains that lashon hara can be understood as words that can hurt, and words that can damage. The Chafetz Chayyim (Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan) warned that even if there is the slightest chance of our words harming someone in any way, we should avoid saying them. A twist on an old adage is: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words WILL forever hurt me.”

This notion of misspoken words is so serious that the rabbis have delineated five categories of destructive speech:

Rechilut – words that cause disputes

Lashon hara – harmful speech that may be true

Motzi shem ra – harmful speech that is not true

Ona-at devarim – speech that causes pain

Avak lashon hara – speech that borders on lashon hara.

So, we understand that speaking lashon hara is a dangerous undertaking, to be avoided at all costs. Miriam messed up, and had to face the consequences of her words, the severe punishment of being afflicted with leprosy and thus being sent out of the camp for seven days.

Miriam had been a bastion of strength – she stood by the banks of the Nile when Moses was placed there by his mother, and led the women in song after crossing the Red Sea. It is also said that a well followed the Israelites throughout their travels as a testament to Miriam and all she stood for. And yet, for saying whatever she said, which she probably should not have said, she got whacked with a pretty stiff punishment. What gives?

Perhaps this is teaching us that God does not punish according to an Excel spreadsheet, where this act gets this punishment and that act gets that punishment. God seems to judge us by our own, personal actions. We are judged according to our presumed abilities and potential.

In our story, God expected Miriam to act on a higher plane of behavior. What may have been acceptable from an average Israelite was not acceptable from Miriam.

A well-referenced analogy points out that a stain on a plaid shirt may be hardly noticeable; on a white shirt, for sure.

In a way, we might say that Miriam was not acting “presidential.”  

May the light of the Torah continue to shine its light of wisdom upon us, and upon all humankind.

ETHAN ADLER is rabbi of Congregation Beth David in Narragansett.