This week’s portion ends with a disheartening story, one that Jews are reminded to recount every day of their lives. The great prophetess, Miriam, sister of Moshe and heroine to a nation, spoke lashon horah (gossip) about her brother Moshe, “regarding the Cushite woman he had married. And Hashem heard.” (Numbers 12:3)
She was upset at Moshe’s righteous reaction to his omnipresent Divine communication, which had him separate from an intimate matrimonial life. “(Miriam) said (to Ahron), ‘Was it only to Moshe that Hashem spoke? Did He not speak to us, as well?”(ibid v.3)
After harsh rebuke from the Almighty for the audacity to speak against her brother Moshe, the world’s greatest prophet and most humble man, Miriam was punished with leprosy. Her skin turned white as snow. But Moshe was not daunted by her remarks. His unyielding concern for her welfare proved itself as he fervently prayed for her immediate recovery and looked for Divine direction for the next step of penitence.
“Hashem said to Moshe, ‘Were her father to spit in her face, would she not be humiliated for seven days? Let her be quarantined outside the camp for seven days, and then she may be brought in.”(ibid v.14)The Talmud in Tractate Bava Kama, infers a logical supposition: if a father’s wrath would result in a seven-day quarantine, surely (kal v’chomer) G-d’s wrath should effect a fourteen-day punishment. However, an integral component of Talmudic exegesis states that a law that is derived by a kal v’chomer (a fortiori conclusion) can be only as strict as the baseline law from which it is derived, and not go beyond it. Therefore, even as a consequence of G-d’s reprimand, surely more potent than a father’s rebuke, would also warrant only be a seven-day punishment.
For example, if assault warrants a 30-day prison sentence, the logic of kal v’chomer cannot help us deduce that the crime of murder would warrant the death penalty. It can only meet the level of the baseline premise. Thus, if assault warrants a 30-day prison sentence, surely, or kal v’chomer, murder would warrant a 30-day prison sentence. For a longer sentence you would need a direct command.
However, while Divine chastisement should warrant a harsher ban, nevertheless, since Hashem used a fatherly analogy, Miriam was spared and only excommunicated for seven days. The question is why did Hashem use the parental analogy and thus limit the punishment to seven days? If there was a slight to the Divinity, then why not immediately use the Divine analogy to inflict a harsher punishment? What did Hashem want in mitigating the reprimand by asking, “If her father would spit in her face, would she not be humiliated for seven days.”?
William Howard Taft, the 27th President of the United States, did not have a record as chief executive without distinction, though it was beclouded by the bitter political factional quarrel that ended his presidency after one term.
He was sitting at the supper table with his family one evening, and, as children sometimes do, his son directed a disrespectful remark toward him.
Mrs. Taft looked at her husband and exclaimed, “I am sure you will not let that pass unpunished!”
Taft replied, “If he directed the remark toward me as President of the United States, I will let it pass as his Constitutional right. However, as a father to his child, I will surely deal with this abuse!”
Perhaps Hashem, in reprimanding Miriam as a father and not the Divine Presence, sent us all a message about the pain of lashon horah. Lashon Horah is considered a terrible sin. The Torah has no less than 31 warnings concerning that crime, and it is incumbent upon Jews to remember the story of Miriam as a daily reminder of the difficult test we face in our encounters and our oral reactions to them.
However, Hashem did not want to rebuke Miriam as Master of the Universe. He did not use the severity of the rebuke of the Divine Presence to ban her from the camp for fourteen days. Instead, he used a parental analogy, “If her father would spit.” His rebuke did not come as a King but rather as a Father, hurt and dismayed about how one of his children talked against a sibling.
If we fail to avoid speaking lashon horah because of the pain that it inflicts upon our fellow Jews, I will give you another reason. Worry about the pain we inflict upon our Father in Heaven when we talk ill of his children. Think about how a parent cries when he sees his children quibble, and then remember that it is also Our Father in Heaven who hears how we talk about our sisters and brothers.
Dedicated in memory of Irving I. Adelsberg by the Adelsberg Family — Reb Yitzchok Isaac ben R’ Gedalia o”h 12 Sivan
Copyright © 1997 by Rabbi M. Kamenetzky and Project Genesis, Inc.
The author is the Associate Dean of the Yeshiva of South Shore.