The Torah in this week’s Parsha records that the prophetess Miriam spoke with her brother Aaron about Moses’s personal life. Because Moses could be summoned by G-d at any point, he needed to separate from his wife Tzippora, so he could always be in a state of purity, and he would perforce be ready to speak directly to G-d. The Torah tells us, in a seemingly puzzling fashion, “Miriam spoke with Aaron about the Kushite wife that Moshe took to be his wife. And they said, ‘did only Moses speak to G-d, didn’t we also speak to G-d?’ And the man Moshe was very humble–more so than everyone else on the face of the earth.” Miriam subsequently gets afflicted with the spiritual disease called tzaraas, and is forced into a seven-day quarantine. Moshe then prays for her saying, “G-d, please, heal her now.” Remarkably, this event with Miriam is so significant, the Torah later tells us in Deuteronomy 24:9, “Remember what the Lord, your God, did to Miriam on the way, when you went out of Egypt.”
There are so many profound lessons in these words. We learn about the importance of humility. We learn that a prerequisite to leadership is humility. We learn about prayer, and we learn about Lashon Hara. And to be frank with you, my hundreds and hundreds of readers, I am exhausted, and am not going to expound about all of these lessons right now. But let us look for a moment at what exactly was wrong with what Miriam did.
The Rambam, as quoted in an article by Rabbi Yissochar Frand writes, “…and concerning this matter we are warned in the Torah. ‘Remember that which HaShem your G-d did to Miriam on the road’. The Torah is saying, contemplate what happened to the prophetess Miriam. She spoke about her younger brother who she loved and helped raise. She had endangered her own life to save him from the Nile. She did not speak maliciously about him. She just erred by equating his greatness to that of other prophets (who do not separate themselves from their wives). And Moshe was not bothered by any of her comments, as it is written ‘And the man Moshe was extremely modest’. And nevertheless she was immediately punished with Tzaraas. How much more so, how great a punishment will be coming to those wicked fools who frequently speak great and wondrous (criticisms).”
Miriam didn’t really do anything that egregious. But despite this fact, it still constituted Lashon hara, slanderous speech, for which she was severely punished. The entire nation had to stop traveling for seven days. Rabbi Frand explains that this is as if to say, stop and think for a moment about why you are stopped. Think about why you are delayed. Because Lashon Hara is so powerful, and so profoundly damaging. This is likewise why we have a commandment to remember this incident, so throughout the generations we won’t be inclined to forget about the horrific damage caused by negative speech.
There is a story told that one time someone went to a holy sage and asked how to atone for the fact that he spoke negatively about someone else. The sage said take this feather pillow, cut it open, and release all the feathers, and come back tomorrow. The next day, when the Lashon Hara perpetrator came back to the sage he told him, “Rebbe I did what you said. Did I receive my atonement?” To which the holy sage said, “now, go gather every single feather that had been in the pillow.”
We have no idea about the power of our words, both for the good, and tragically, for the bad. When we speak negatively about someone else, well intentioned or out of malice, we cause irreparable damage. The scope of the negative impact might never be known to us in our lifetimes.
Let us reflect on this lesson of Miriam, and go out of our way to avoid the dangers of negative speech.
Because the reality is that sticks and stones can break our bones– but names can destroy us.