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   by Jacob Solomon

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Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses, about the Cushite woman he had married… (12:1)

These words introduce the story of where Miriam, Moses’ sister was punished with tzaraat – a Divinely imposed skin condition, for ‘speaking against Moses’. This passage appears to be rather obscure for the following reasons:

  1. The text’s use of ‘vatedaber’ – ‘and she spoke’ is in the feminine singular. As Miriam and Aaron were both involved, one would have expected ‘vayedabroo’ – ‘and they spoke’. Thus the form of the opening verb puts the weight of the offense on Miriam. If Miriam and Aaron were both involved, why does the Torah give special emphasis to Miriam’s role only?
  2. The Torah does not specify what Miriam and Aaron actually said about Moses. What did they say, and why does the Torah not recount the actual words said?
  3. ‘Moses was the humblest of all people’ (12:3). Why does the Torah choose this incident only in which to recount his personal attribute?
  4. Why was Miriam and not Aaron stuck by tzaraat?

The Midrash (Tanchuma 96:13) brings the tradition as to what happened. Since Moses had to be ready to receive the Divine Command at any moment, he had to be ritually pure at all times. This meant that he had to abstain from marital relations with his wife Zippora. This intimate matter was their private business until Miriam learnt about it through a chance remark from Zippora. Miriam’s reaction to that remark was that Zippora had been badly treated, and she passed this news on to Aaron, who agreed with her. They were critical of him because they were prophets as well as Moses, and as they did not withdraw from normal behavior, they saw no reason why Moses should have done so.

The text’s emphasis on Miriam rather than Aaron would appear to be because of Miriam’s reason for getting involved in this matter. Lashon Hara – gossip – often depends on the motivation of the speaker rather than on what actually had been said. For example:

Reuben knows that Shimon buys products whose kashrut is unreliable. There are three reasons why Reuben might relate this to Levi:

  1. Reuben might maliciously want to bring a bad name on Shimon. This is obviously lashon hara.
  2. Kin-at Ha-emet – zeal for the right thing to be done. Reuben might have been genuinely upset that Shimon isn’t more careful about kashrut. Reuben doesn’t intend to malign Shimon. He means to express his annoyance over Shimon’s laxity. This is also lashon hara.
  3. Reuben might want to warn Levi not to eat in Shimon’s house. If this is Reuben’s sole intention, he is allowed to relate the information. (R. Zelig Pliskin, Guard Your Tongue [adaptation of Chafetz Chaim - Laws of Lashon Hara], p.55.)

Reconsider the text in the light of the above Halacha (notwithstanding its having been put into writing in this form at a much later date). Zippora was not held liable for her remark, as she genuinely wanted to warn other people of the consequences of being married to someone who gained prophecy. Following the recent elevation of Eldad and Meidad, she reasonably expected more men to become prophets, and her remark was in the spirit of genuinely warning women of the consequences of marrying those upon whom the spirit of G-d rested – out of her own personal experience. Thus her remark was not out of place.

By contrast, Miriam (unlike Zippora) was a prophetess (Ex. 15:20). She knew from her very different personal experience that even those who had reached the spiritual level of prophecy were still required to conduct their private lives as human beings. So not fully realizing (because of Moses’ humility) that Moses’ spiritual level was much higher than her own, she felt genuinely upset that his family life gave way to his spiritual and public life. That was part of her motivation for bringing the matter to Aaron’s attention – which would have come under kin-at ha-emet, as illustrated above. Because of this, she would have been forbidden to relate the information.

In addition, Miriam may have had mixed motives. People sometimes have a burning desire to relate a piece of ‘juicy’ gossip. The Talmud (Taanit 8a, Arachin 15b) raises the point of ‘Ma hana'ah le-baal lashon’ - what enjoyment does one who speaks lashon hara derive? The Talmud does not actually answer this question, but it just raises it as a criticism of one who speaks lashon hara. What indeed tempts people to transgress this severe sin? The Vilna Gaon on Proverbs 1:23 explains that whenever a person mocks with his words (leitzanut) or just speaks about worthless matters, (devarim beteilim), the talk creates a spirit that goes up to Heaven, and this creates an urge in the soul of the person to do the same again. This is a most powerful urge that does not readily wane. The same is true on the positive side. The Gaon says that this explains why ‘a mitzvah gives rise to another mitzvah, whilst a sin gives rise to another sin’ (Talmud: Avot 4:2). R. Zvi Akiva Fleisher (Website: Shema Yisrael – Sedra Selections argues from here that this comment of the Gaon may well apply to lashon hara as well.

Aaron however had a different outlook to life. The Tamud (Avot 1:12) (see also Rashi to 20:29) testifies to the tradition that he ‘loved peace and pursued peace; loved people and drew them towards the Torah’. Someone with specifically those exceptional attributes at the core of his personality would be unlikely to wish to taste gossip in the first place. Therefore his listening to Miriam’s report was entirely in the spirit of improving the situation for would-be prophets’ family lives. It was the right thing for him to have done…

Thus the same words were discussed by (Zippora), Miriam and Aaron. The reason the story was not quoted in full was because recounting it would mean that the same words would have different values to very different personalities, as discussed above. (In addition, there is also the issue mentioned in the Talmud [Ketuvot 17a] from where it may be deduced that discussing a person’s intimate life is a most heinous offense.)

As King David put it: “He creates… their hearts, He understands all their deeds” (Psalms 33:15). G-d understands the motives of His creations and He judges them according to those motives.



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