This week’s Torah portion retells the story of Miriam criticizing Moses. “Miriam spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married.” (Numbers 12:1) We learn elsewhere, in Exodus, that Moses’ wife is Zipporah who is a Midianite. Here it suggests that she is dark-skinned and therefore perhaps from Ethiopia. Regardless she is not an Israelite. Was this the basis of Miriam’s criticism of her brother Moses?
Their brother Aaron now joins the critique and he and Miriam offer more harsh words, “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us as well?” (12:2) Were they jealous of their brother Moses? Did they want to lead the Israelites as well? Did they believe, as Judaism does, that everyone and anyone can have a relationship with God? This criticism appears well founded.
Nonetheless, the medieval commentator, Rashi, suggests an alternative explanation. He imagines Miriam criticizing her brother for neglecting his wife. Moses is singularly devoted to his mission and on call for God at all hours of the day and night. Miriam therefore worries about her sister in law’s well being. She worries about her brother’s marriage and family. This is a fascinating comment from a man who in addition to his day job wrote a line-by-line commentary to the entire Bible and Talmud. I wonder how Rashi had time for his family. Is the best teaching offered by the very person who falls short of fulfilling its words? Miriam reminds us, no job is more important than family.
Nonetheless it is Miriam who is punished and stricken with leprosy. Aaron is left alone to plea for his sister, “O, my lord, account not to us the sin which we committed in our folly.” (12:11) The rabbis draw a parallel between this disfiguring disease and gossip. They suggest that it was not what Miriam said but the manner in which she spoke the words. The tradition is clear. Even if the words are true they should not be spoken unless absolutely necessary and then only in private. Critique becomes gossip when it finds its way into the public domain.
The rabbinic insight is clear. Gossip is as disfiguring as leprosy. A Hasidic story relates that just like a feather cast to the wind, such words can never be collected. Once gossip is shared it can never be withdrawn. The damage to a person’s reputation might never be undone. Beware of what is posted and texted! Moreover gossip disfigures the gossiper.
This might very well be the greater of the rabbis’ teachings. Like a disfiguring disease a person’s character unravels when he or she gossips. The rabbis remind us that gossip not only damages the person about whom we talk but also belittles the person who speaks such words. Gossip damages everyone—even and including the person who listens.
And so we pray for all the times we resorted to gossip to entertain. We pray for all the moments we gossiped in order to give ourselves a greater sense of self worth. We pray for all the minutes we inclined our ears to the gossip that others shared. We pray with Moses, “O God, pray, heal her.” (12:13) Heal us!