In Numbers 12, the concluding chapter of this week’s Torah reading, we find the Torah’s clearest account of lashon hara, which literally translates into English as evil speech There we are told, in verse one:
“Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had taken as his wife; he married a Cushite woman!”
In the narrative that follows, Miriam is punished for defaming this Cushite by being stricken with leprosy, which turns her skin totally white. Aaron, while identified as a co-conspirator with his sister, is seemingly unpunished. Moses, who is described in this story as the humblest of men, offers the first biblical prayer for healing when he pleads with God to heal Miriam: “El na, rafa na la.” “Please God, please heal her.”
While from our 21st-century perspective, many people — including me in previous divrei Torah on this parsha — have focused upon the racism implied in Miriam’s statement, I choose this year to focus my attention, and yours, upon the sin of lashon hara, evil or defamatory speech, which I believe is not only the focal point of this story in Numbers 12, but also lies at the core of the cancer of hate that plagues our world in the 21st century.
There are numerous traditional midrashim, such as Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer (53:5), attributed to a first-century C.E. rabbi, that broaden the issue from Miriam’s defamation of Zipporah in our parsha this week, to anyone and everyone who is different from us, by rhetorically asking: Was Zipporah a Cushite? Or is the issue that just as a Cushite is different from others in terms of skin color, Zipporah was different from all other women by her words and deeds?
This midrash refers back to the story, earlier in Exodus, where it was Zipporah, not Moses, who fulfilled the mitzvah to circumcise their son.
We also find parallels to the dangers we face from slanderous speech today in the words of the Chofetz Chaim, Israel Meir Kagan, a great early 20th-century Lithuanian rabbi. His work remains one of the great sources of Jewish ethics.
One of the most salient of his teachings that remains so relevant for us today is: ‘‘It is forbidden to speak defamatory words against another, even if it’s absolute truth. If there were, in one’s words, an admixture of falsehood, even the more so, for the speaker of lashon hara transgresses the commandment found in Leviticus 19:16: ‘Do not go tale bearing among your people.’”
Other biblical condemnations of slanderers are found in Exodus 23, Psalms 34, 52, 101, and 120, and many tractates of the Talmud.
For example, in Bava Metzia (58b) we learn that “anyone who humiliates another in public, it is as if he were spilling blood!”
Maimonides makes a similar point in his Mishna Torah section on repentance, where he includes the slanderer among those who are denied a place in the world to come.
I list these references — and there are so many more — to make the point that if our tradition continually makes reference to the sin of slander and defamation, it was obviously an issue, one that continually appears in every generation and in every place. While I believe that it is human nature to “put others down as a way to lift ourselves up,” Jewish tradition, in condemning lashon hara in such explicit terms in every age, is warning us continually of the danger such action poses to not only the slanderer and the slandered, but to human society as a whole.
One of the dangers I see in our contemporary world is that the negative, slanderous nature of our politics here in America, in Israel, and in democratic nations around the world is turning many good people from participating in our democracy. The truth is that too many good people are avoiding leadership in government and even in our volunteer communal institutions because they don’t want to open themselves up to verbal abuse and attacks.
In a prayer found in tractate Brachot and attributed to Mar Ben Ravina that has come to be placed at the end of every Amida prayer in every Jewish prayer book for more than a millennium, we ask God to “guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guile and to pay no attention to the slanderers.”
May we go forth on this Shabbat Beha’alotcha — a word that means to lift up — and vow to lift up the level of our verbal interactions and use our God-given free will to emulate the humility of Moses. May we use our tongues to utter prayers of healing rather than as weapons of slander or as a medium for the spreading of gossip.