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Posted on June 12, 2020 (5780) By Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein | Series: | Level:

Were her father to spit in her face, would she not be humiliated for seven days?

A major lesson of this episode is that tough love is sometimes the only way to go.

Many of us assume that a tzadik is self-effacing, and wears a constant smile, radiating tolerance and non-judgmentalism. Our parsha tells us otherwise. What Hashem required of Miriam in her public disgrace is meant, in part, to instruct us about the stance we should take towards people over whom we have some authority or influence.

In a word, the Torah tells us here that we should use make the power of our authority felt – not excessively, and always purely le-shem Shomayim. But it should not be shunted aside, remaining unused. For this reason, Chazal[2] pithily criticize a Rabbinic scholar who is universally beloved in his town. “It is not because they think he is of exceptionally fine character, but because he does not take them to task regarding heavenly matters.” Similarly, they tell the talmid chacham to instill fear in his students.[3] Rashi expands upon this: He should honor each and every one – privately. In public, his bearing should be one of inspiring reverence for his position.

While even a nasi is allowed to show forbearance, and not insist on the honor that is his due,[4] this is only if they have not disparaged him. If they have, he should not forgive them – at least not until they have demonstrated public contrition, such as Miriam’s public humiliation here.

Finding the balance is not a simple matter. Some attempts are clearly wrong. A father or rav who flatters his child or student excessively often does so out of self-interest. The rav hopes that his popularity will result in attracting more students; the father wants to spare himself the pain and trouble of dealing with uncomfortable situations.

Or, the father may have a surfeit of misplaced love for his son. That love is an instinctual one, shared with the love we see animals show for their offspring. It is not the higher form of love that the Torah asks of us. That love aims to provide our children with the greatest gift possible – the acquisition of yiras Shomayim, and the meriting of Gan Eden. The proper approach is to primarily show them an abundance of love, so that the child will accept the teaching of his father or rebbi. He must be prepared, however, for the Plan B if that fails: to use the force of his authority, and to selectively display anger, in the hope that this might help his charge to accept his mussar.

Miriam’s treatment illustrates this. She was guilty of a single instance of a very borderline variety of lashon hora – spoken only to her brother – while the majority of humanity is guilty of far worse kinds of evil speech. They go about their business undisturbed, while Miriam’s single instance brought a Divine dressing-down upon her. Hashem demonstrated His love for His people by conducting Himself towards Miriam with tough love, to keep the nation on a more elevated level.

The text omits any reference to any harsh response to Aharon, who also participated in the lashon hora.[5] We would think that a male should be treated more severely than a female. We can explain the difference in the way they were treated in the following way.

Aharon was a lover of peace, and a pursuer of peace.[6] This means that he often suppressed lashon hora and tale-bearing in the community. If he uncharacteristically would stumble on occasion, he was entitled to a bit of slack for generally campaigning against its evils.

Miriam’s nature, on the other hand, was far more inclined to freer speech. (Chazal link her to the midwife Puah – so called because she cooed and spoke to the just-delivered babies.) She was a more forward type, as demonstrated by her calm manner in approaching Paroh’s daughter and offering a suggestion about the care of the foundling baby Moshe. Miriam the tzadekes had to fight her way to her righteousness. A lapse in her resistance to lashon hora could quickly get her back to where she started from – to her old inclinations. Hashem intervened because of His love for her, to ensure that the incident would not turn into an even greater spiritual snare.

Perhaps had Aharon been similarly punished, the rest of the people would have gotten the message. Perhaps this is why the story of the meraglim is juxtaposed to our episode.

  1. Based on Meshivas Nafesh by R. Yochanan Luria (15th cent.
  2. Kesubos 105b
  3. Kesubos 103b
  4. Kesubos 17a
  5. Chazal, however, are of two different opinions about this in Shabbos 97a.
  6. Avos 1:12