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Beha’alotecha – Small, Yet So Big

The renowned composer and singer R’ Shlomo Carlebach once gave a concert in the famous Arkhipova synagogue in Moscow. He related that he noticed in the audience an elderly man whom he recognized as an eloquent and inspiring speaker. Rabbi Carlebach approached him and asked if he would share a few words. The elderly man refused, and he offered the following explanation for his refusal: God gave us two safeguards for our tongues, a set of teeth and a pair of lips. In his old age his teeth had fallen out and he had subsequently given up speaking since he would not risk public speech without the security his teeth could offer.

The Torah does not usually dwell on sins. Even the worship of the Golden Calf, likely the worst violation recorded in the Torah, is not dwelt upon. The consequences were what they were, and we moved on. However, regarding a matter related in this week’s Parsha the Torah is not willing to let go. “Remember that which the Lord your God did unto Miriam, on the way, when you were leaving Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 24:9)

The verse in Deuteronomy is recalling the episode related at the end of our Torah portion, which tells of Miriam’s conversation with Aaron concerning their brother Moses and his separation from family life. As a result Miriam was stricken with tzara’at, the leprosy-like disease, for seven days.

Elsewhere the Torah tells of a blasphemer who cursed God, which was a terrible sin. The consequences were prescribed and no further mention is made of it. The Torah records the episode of the woodchopper who insisted on continuing with his log splitting work on Shabbat, a grave violation of a supreme Jewish value. The consequences were given and this event is not recalled later. In our Parsha, however, we have a relatively minor infraction. Miriam and Aaron are concerned for their brother and they discuss him amongst themselves. God is outraged on behalf of Moses and he admonishes them for their dismissal of Moses’ great stature as a prophet who is unlike all other prophets. We could expect that Miriam, stricken with Tzara’at, would sit outside the camp for seven days, as she did, and that would be the end of it. The Torah doesn’t need to mention it again, much less admonish us to always remember this story. As we’ve seen, however, the Torah not only brings it up again again, but also demands that we always remember it.

Let’s review the story. Miriam and Aaron were guilty of slander. Theirs was not the most egregious form of slander; they didn’t write an op-ed in the Times and they did not send out a tweet defaming Moses. They spoke to each other about their brother, and they were critical of his lifestyle, specifically criticizing the way in which he had removed himself from family life. They were concerned for him, but they were also judgmental of him. Miriam, a prophetess herself, spoke of Moses as though she were his equal in prophecy, and God had to remind Miriam that Moses was in an entirely different league of prophecy.

Why does the Torah even record this event? Here is the thing. The Torah records this seemingly minor infraction not because speaking about Moses was worse than speaking about any other member of the nation. All people are equal before God. Rather, the Torah repeats this and bids us to always remember this because it is so common, because it is so easy to slip and make the same error. The Torah wanted us to remain aware that judgmentalism, and even minor forms of slander are offensive to Torah values and counterproductive to harmonious communal life. The big deal the Torah makes of this is due to the fact that we don’t view it as a big deal. It is like second hand smoke that lingers in the air. We grow so accustomed to it that we barely notice it.

Our sages state that when it comes to slander everyone is guilty of engaging at least in the “shadow of lashon hara.” Outright slander is possible to refrain from with a little bit of forethought. More subtle forms of slander are more difficult to repress, and it requires far more caution before saying or writing something. An example of a shadow of lashon hara, or, as the sages refer to it, the “dust” of lashon hara, is complementing someone’s efforts when that complement is bound to elicit belittlement from another person. If you want to see this in action say something complementary about Donald Trump to a group of New Zealanders. I’ll give you a dollar if someone doesn’t feel compelled to refute the complement or respond with something less than complementary about Mr. Trump. The speaker meant no harm. She only wanted to complement. But we need to carefully consider the outcome of our speech, even when we speak favourably. The speaker is guilty of such dust of slander since his words were the cause of subsequent slander.

The Artscroll siddur records six mandatory remembrances after the daily morning service. Many people recite this every morning along with the Rambam’s 13 principles of Jewish faith. Among those remembrances is the verse bidding us to recall that which happened to Miriam in the wilderness. Some of the remembrances we are obligated to recall because they are momentous, major events or themes in our history and heritage. This is an exception. We are bidden to remember because of how small we perceive the issue, and because we are so prone to overlooking it without constant reminders.

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