By Rabbi Elly Krimsky
As another school year comes to a close, we begin to say our goodbyes. Small children tearfully depart from their teachers, while students a bit older run out of school eager to embrace the summer’s greater freedoms and better weather for outdoor activity. Rashi even describes the departure of the Israelites from Sinai in this manner and criticizes them for it. Parents, of course, have far different reactions.
The terror of the threat of “the Principal’s Office” is also absent outside of school. Yet, when reading the story of thelashon hara about Moshe at the end of the parsha, I keep thinking that our greatest leadership triumvirate – Miriam, Aharon and Moshe – were summoned to the Principal’s office.
The scandal at the end of the parshah begins with two guilty parties but seemingly concludes with one. Miriam and Aharon speak ill of Moshe, “about the Kushite woman he took” (Bamidbar 12:1). Hashem take offense at the slander against His greatest prophet, this most humble man who ever lived (Ibid. verse 3). In the next verse HASHEM asks to speak to all three siblings at the Tabernacle. Then He calls Aharon and Miriam and they came forth and chastises them about the words, describing how Moshe is different from everyone else. Verse 9 describes Hashem’s anger at them (plural). Next verse describes Miriam’s tzora’as (physical skin condition due to transgression) and Aharon’s identifying it (it needs to be identified and diagnosed by a Kohen). Aharon then beseeches Moshe not to ‘lay this sin upon us’ and somewhat confesses (verse 11-12). Moshe prays for Miriam as she is sequestered outside of the camp for a week and the nation waits for her (verses 15-16).
This is a complicated passage. There are many textual questions. the somewhay central challenge that won’t be addressed here is what exactly did Miriam say? Who is this Kushite woman she references? There are 5 characters: Miriam, Aharon, Moshe, Hashem and the children of Israel. All are well known, and their respective personalities are well established by now. We have a model for discipline (imagine instead of going in and out of the Tabernacle they are called, l’havdil, to the principal’s office.) We have a primary source pertaining to the ubiquitous transgression oflashon hara, slander or evil speech. The Torah also provides in a more indirect way a venue to convey the true greatness of Moshe. Here, perhaps more than anywhere else in the Torah, we are given a glimpse into his greatness. We’ve seen his childhood, the values with which he conducted himself in Egypt; his reluctance to lead, his deference to his older brother. We’ve encountered his honesty in Pikudei; his pastoral skill in Shmini and Acharei Mos. In the next few weeks we will see some of his frustrations (which began this week) and his challenges.
Any one of these topics is worthy of exploration. I choose to try to uncover Aharon’s role. He is clearly involved. While he is as much identified with the slander as is his older sister Miriam, the Hebrew basically states, “and (she singular) Miriam and Aharon spoke about Moshe…, which is telling and quite odd. Let’s not forget Aharon’s involvement in the Golden Calf, where he seemingly was exonerated. Is this a similar case? What was Aharon’s involvement and why did he not receive the same punishment as his saintly older sister?
Ibn Ezra (verse 1) submits that Aharon’s role was somewhat secondary; either that Miriam instigated it or that Aharon’s role was passive as he remained silent. Ibn Ezra asserts that Aharon was indeed punished along with his sister but does not specify the specific consequences he faced. The text does not indicate at all that Aharon developedtzora’as. Perhaps just being ‘called out’ (or called into the Principal’s office so to speak) was enough of an embarrassment. Imagine Aharon is full ecclesiastical garb being chewed out by the Almighty!
Rashi seems to agree with this rendering. He opines that since the text mentions Miriam’s name first, she was the ring leader. Ibn Ezra and Rashi also disagree if Moshe was present during the dressing down. Ibn Ezra, always faithful to the written word, suggests that while HASHEM addressed Himself to Aharon and Moshe, there is no indication that Moshe was excused. Rashi, who is more prone to include Midrashic elements in his commentary, suggests that based on a precedent learned from Noah, we do not praise someone in their presence. As such Rashi concludes that Moshe was not present during HASHEM’s words to Miriam and Aharon.
It is interesting to note the following Midrash (Sifrei, B’haaloscha 105): Rabbi Yehuda Ben Beseira declared anyone who suggests that Aharon was afflicted with tzora’as will need to make a heavenly accounting for such a statement. This is tied to a similar warning to anyone who tries to claim that Tzlofchad (the deceased father of the daughters who petitioned Moshe for possession of his ancestral land) was the gatherer of wood who was executed in the wilderness (based on the Gemara in Shabbos 96b, where R. Akiva opines that the gatherer was indeed Tzlofchad). This means there were probably opinions stating that Aharon was equally punished.
I would also suggest that I believe it was extremely painful for Aharon to have to diagnose his sister’s spiritual disease; it pained him to serve in his professional capacity towards his older sister and greatest role model of his youth. Perhaps that was part of his punishment. Mixing one’s personal and professional lives can get complicated.
The Torah did not include this sordid episode to malign Moshe. If anything, its lessons are profound and positive, instructive and consequential.
It appears that Miriam and Aharon were having a conversation, comparing their experiences to that of their brother. Many of the commentators note that Miriam’s transgression was not slander or tale-bearing, or negative speech, but rather, assuming that Moshe was like them, that he was a regular prophet, as they both were. Hashem’s little chastising monologue identified Moshe as unique among the greatest, rather than necessarily disciplining the two holy siblings. Rabbeinu B’chaye proposes that no one else heard it; that their conversation was in total privacy. This is why the Torah declares (verse 2) that Hashem heard, indicating that no one else did (Abarbanel feels that Moshe was actually present, that’s why the whole stress on his humility).
This exercise makes my head spin. There is much ambiguity. Let’s review. We are unclear about:
· What exactly was said?
· Who said it?
· What was Aharon’s role?
· Is the Isha Kushis Moshe’s wife Tziporah or another woman (we did not discuss this)?
· Who heard it?
· If it was critical or merely pointing out facts, thereby implying the negativity? (avak lashon hara in halachic parlance)?
· Was it lashon hara or not appreciating Moshe’s distinction among all the prophets?
· Who was punished?
· Who was present when Hashem made His statement about Moshe?
Sounds like we have more questions than answers! But there is also a parallel list of facts we do cull from this passage.
· Moshe is unique among the prophets.
· Miriam’s transgression paled in comparison to her greatness. She emerges with greater homage.
· Moshe and Aharon demonstrate sibling love and how to pray.
· HASHEM models discipline for us, even among the most sainted of human beings.
What can we learn from all of this?
First of all, let’s not pretend we do not engage in lashon hara. What Miriam and Aharon stated was so benign compared to what we hear daily and what we read on blogs and online. I can’t review all the laws of proper speech right now, but they may be the most relevant area of Halacha to all of our lives. Aharon’s role may have simply been listening and accepting (I addressed this last week) what his holy sister had said. I am a believer in the immense value of the internet; but that is not a hechsher (rabbinical approbation) on all of it. I do not believe we throw the baby out with the bathwater. But those who use the internet must be more vigilant in these laws, not less. One “forward,” “like,” or “re-tweet” can destroy.
As most of us know, a rabbi in Riverdale came under fire last [year] in a New York Times expose for behavior that while atypical and perhaps unconventional in today’s day and age does not appear to be illegal or forced upon anyone. It seems that he has complied with the requests of his supervisors and adhered to the terms of his contracts. No one debates all the good he has accomplished, which is simply unquantifiable after 3 decades. Good people can debate the appropriateness and wisdom of his avocations and his conduct. I’m not even sure what is gained by perpetuating the discussion, unless one is a congregant or a board member of the synagogue. He is their rabbi, and as such, he answers to them professionally. But I was recently told that people are sharing, forwarding and ‘liking’ information about law enforcement initiating an investigation, which only means that they are willing to look into the matter to explore if any crimes were committed. To suggest that one hopes something contemptible or illegal will be found, when, to the best of my knowledge, none has been, is despicable and is shameful. Flooding the internet and people’s minds with information that is untrue, unconfirmed or unnecessary, can be a very serious halachic transgression, metaphorically likened to murder. Those who are engaging in this behavior cannot even apologize because the damage is too great.
As Americans we are familiar with our freedoms and rights. But as Jews, we are enshrined with responsibilities. Yes, very specific cases such as confirmed issues of public safety, must trump the possibility of literally destroying a man, a family and a shul. But this is only when verified, when there are no other alternatives and when you yourself must possess and/or disseminate the information. Rabbis and public officials have chosen a life in the public eye; but that does not mean they wear targets on their backs and have somehow lost the benefit of the doubt. Where is the mitzvah to destroy people? We live in a society that, thank God, is getting much better at protecting victims. As a comedian lamented, when the head of the CIA can’t even keep his emails secret, we have to assume very little is private.
Most people in our society who commit crimes and fall astray from propriety bear the consequences. Politicians, athletes, celebrities and members of the clergy are not above the law. We have a mandate to protect others. But there is no mitzvah to destroy someone because you don’t agree with their ideology or they make you uncomfortable. You can choose to disassociate with them. If you have reason to believe they pose a danger of some kind, you must address the matter responsibly with those who can offer tangible solutions. But that does not sanction wanton destruction. Innuendo and rumor are not reasons to kill.
I believe the passage about Miriam and Aharon’s transgression is meant to be ambiguous. It teaches us that even though Miriam and Aharon’s conversation was private – it was only meant to seek out information, and was about a cherished loved one whom they would never intend to hurt – damage is done and punishments are doled out. We are even to remember daily the tzora’as of Miriam. All for what can be easily justified.
Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach tells a story about a concert he gave in the famous Arkhipova synagogue in Moscow. He noticed in the back row an elderly man who used to be a brilliant, eloquent and inspiring speaker. He approached the saintly man and asked him to share some of his wisdom. The man refused. He told Rabbi Carlebach that HASHEM gave us two guards to our tongue: our teeth and our lips. He was old and his teeth had fallen out. He was therefore unwilling to speak, because his security system was compromised. A wise man indeed!
originally appears on YUTorah