Miriam’s critique of Moshe Rabbeinu, presented in Bamidbar 12:1,2, is deemed to be the classic case of loshon hara, speaking ill of another; the story provides a lesson to all of us on how careful we must be in regard to our speech. As Rashi, Bamidbar 12:1 points out, if Miriam, who had no intention to shame her brother, could be so punished for speaking badly about another, how much more careful do we, who may have the desire to shame another, have to be not to speak improperly about another. The challenge still is, though, to find the essential weakness within ourselves that yields this negative behaviour and consequence.
This very same Rashi, if applied in a vacuum without a full understanding of the mechanics that lead to loshon hara, could lead to a conclusion that will not only mis-direct us in regard to loshon hara but also yield aveirot, sins, of a different nature, equally reprehensible. On the surface, it would seem that Miriam’s motivation did not mitigate the impropriety of her behaviour. It would seem that loshon hara is all about the words, not why one is speaking ill of another. There is nothing further from the truth. There are times that one, in fact, is commanded to speak ill of another, such as when this information may be necessary to protect a third party.1 The problem is that there are so many cases when loshon hara is not only permitted but demanded2 that, in almost any situation, a person could develop an argument for why he/she would be permitted to speak ill of another.
The fact is that the story of Miriam does stand for the severity of this behaviour and how we must be careful not to allow our presumed motivation to lessen the concern for the actual speech. Yet the ultimate weakness within ourselves, which leads to loshon hara, lies in the motivations and thought processes that pre-exist the actual speech. To combat loshon hara, the focus cannot be on the actual speech but the process that leads to these words.
Loshon hara, it would seem, does not simply concern the report of certain behaviour but also involves the evaluation that one connects to this behaviour. Actions happen within a certain context and loshon hara does not just consider the action but also the context. For example, if I mention to my friend in shul on Shabbat morning that I just saw Chaim driving in his car, if my friend knows nothing about Chaim, he will understand me to be saying that Chaim is not shomer Shabbat. But if my friend knows Chaim and knows him to be shomer Shabbat, my statement will be understood differently, that I am saying that something must be terribly wrong.
In the first context, we have a case of loshon hara; I am speaking ill of Chaim. In the second context, I am not speaking loshon hara but informing a member of the community of a potential need within the community; I am telling my friend that Chaim has done something that signals a problem. This two prong nature to speech is found in the opening two verses in the story. Miriam first states what Moshe actually did4 and then, in stating that God does not only speak to Moshe but also speaks to her and Aharon, presents an evaluation of this behaviour based upon a certain context.
To Miriam, based upon her understanding of the context, Moshe was wrong in acting in this manner and thus, her statement, with its negative perspective, was loshon hara. Miriam was actually judged based upon her incorrect evaluation of the context of Moshe’s behaviour. Rashi, Bamidbar 12:8 explains Miriam’s culpability; simply Miriam should have known better. Based upon her knowledge of Moshe, she should have recognized that Moshe have had a good reason for his behaviour even if Miriam could not understand or even recognize it. Based upon her recognition of Moshe as the servant of Hashem, Miriam should have furthermore recognized that an attack on Moshe of this nature would also involve an implied critique of God Who chose Moshe to be His servant. Miriam’s mistake was in her thought process. She should have recognized that perhaps she really didn’t know what she was talking about.
Herein lies what is often the root of loshon hara. Living demands of us to observe life and to make evaluations upon these observations. It is from these evaluations that we must determine how to act which includes determinations on what to say. Loshon hara is ultimately one of the great caveats that dictates to us that we must be careful within this process. While we must attempt to do as best as we can, we must also recognize our limitations and truly consider the context within which we make any decision. Miriam’s weakness lay in a simple lack of understanding of her situation and a fact that she not only did not consider but also did not even contemplate – that Moshe’s prophecy was qualitatively different not only than hers but than everyone’s. How was she to know?
Rashi informs us that there was actually sufficient information for her to be wary about her conclusion. Perhaps she could not have understood that Moshe’s prophetic abilities were qualitatively greater than hers but she should have at least recognized that Moshe must have had a good reason for his behaviour even if she couldn’t see it. Does everyone deserve the benefit of this doubt? The simple answer is, of course, no – but a recognition of our own human fallibility is always demanded of us. We must always attempt to see the correct context of an action – and recognize the inherent weakness in that process for it demands decisions from those who are fallible – ourselves.
1. Perhaps the best way to illustrate the significance of this need to sometimes speak ill of another is by making reference to the issue in Jewish Legal Ethics regarding the application of solicitor-client privilege. There are times when, it would seem, the Halacha would demand of a lawyer to speak up notwithstanding the possible violation of this privilege. See, further, Rabbi Alfred S. Cohen, “On Maintaining a Professional Confidence”, Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society 7:93 and Rabbi Michael J. Broyde, “The Practice of Law According to Halacha”, Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society 20:5. Our issue is not how this conflict is resolved in the realm of Jewish Legal Ethics but rather, I refer to this issue to point out that the need to sometimes speak what on the surface may be described as loshon hara is so powerful as to raise this issue. We can, often, make a severe mistake in not speaking.
2. Of course, technically, this permitted speech would actually no longer be loshon hara.
3. Again, of course, this statement is still an oversimplification of the case. There could still be other worthwhile reasons for me to express this information to my friend. Similarly, in the following discussion concerning the second context, there could still be many reasons for me to refrain from informing my friend of Chaim’s driving. Determining proper speech often demands intense intellectual investigation.
4. There is a disagreement amongst the commentators about what Moshe exactly did. Rashi presents the more dominant view, in line with the Talmud, that Moshe separated from Tziporah, his wife. Others, such as the Bchor Shor and Ibn Kaspi, applying a more literal reading of the verse, state that Moshe took a second, Cushite, wife.
5. See, interestingly, Ibn Ezra, Bamidbar 12:2.