Beha’alotcha 5779 – Was That Really Fair

By: Larry Tobin

This week’s Parsha, Beha’alotcha, is filled with many topics and many messages. Such a diverse Parsha, to be suitable for a D’var, must be limited in scope. I have chosen to focus on complaints and Lashon Hara (idle gossip). Although the slave nation that left Egypt witnessed one miracle after another, far be it from them not to complain. Rather than thanking G-d for the miracle of Manna, they instead grumbled that they wanted meat. They grumbled, but didn’t blame Moses for the non-fulfilment of their desires. Don’t get me wrong. Grumbling against G-d is a dangerous practice for which the complainers paid dearly. When meat, in the form of a flock of birds, was provided to the grumblers their gluttony was rewarded with severe intestinal problems.

Compare this to the gossip of Miriam and Aaron. Moses married Ziporah. Miriam and Aaron complained about the marriage and wondered how Moses could have entered into a forbidden marriage. Why didn’t he marry from among his people?  But this was not a prohibited marriage. Ziporah’s father was a Midianite and, therefore, a descendant of Abraham. The marriage was perfectly legitimate. Miriam is stricken with leprosy and Aaron is allowed to waltz away scot free. Is this really fair? Far be it from me to question G-d’s judgment. Everything G-d does, I believe, has a purpose. Often, I cannot understand the purpose. This appears to be the case here.

Several attempts have been made to justify the differential treatment of Miriam and Aaron. Miriam, it has been argued, was the instigator with Aaron merely agreeing to her position. But isn’t the nature of gossip that it takes more than the spreader of gossip to constitute gossip? Doesn’t there also have to be a receiver? If the receiver goes on to spread the gossip, or accept its content, hasn’t the intermediary party also committed a wrongdoing? Isn’t the true vile aspect of gossip that it can have a far- reaching negative impact? There is a famous story about a man who spread gossip against his Rabbi.  The man eventually sought forgiveness from his Rabbi. The Rabbi told him to tear up a feather pillow and shake out the feathers. The man told the Rabbi that all had been accomplished and asked if he was now forgiven.  The Rabbi advised him that one more thing remained to be done. All of the feathers had to be retrieved and returned to the Rabbi. The man complained that this was impossible. The Rabbi acknowledged this and informed the man that such was the nature of gossip. Once disseminated, gossip spreads and can never be fully eliminated.

That Miriam was punished, therefore, seems appropriate. But once again, what about Aaron? Aaron, you will please recall, was the High Priest. He had daily duties that had to be performed on behalf of the Jewish people. If Aaron was stricken with leprosy and had to be removed from the rest of the people, how could he perform his Priestly duties? This rationale is sometimes given for the sparing of Aaron from punishment. I am, however, troubled by this argument. Perhaps Aaron should not have been stricken with leprosy as the result would have been detrimental to the entire nation. But why couldn’t he have received some other punishment that would not interfere with his duties?

Some argue that Aaron’s punishment was having to see his sister stricken with leprosy. This may havebeen worse than if he himself had been Divinely punished. Although there may be some merit to thisnotion, it appears to me to still fall somewhat short. If Miriam stands as an example to teach people that Lashon Hara (idle gossip) is greatly frowned upon by G-d, then shouldn’t all gossipers be subject to punishment? Compound this with the fact that the gossip was against Moses whom G-d spoke to directly and instructed directly and the transgression becomes even greater.

One last argument that is advanced stands out as, perhaps, the strongest. It is noted that when the transgression is brought to light, Miriam says nothing. There is no sign of contrition. Aaron, on the other hand, pleads to Moses to pray to G-d for Miriam’s recovery. Moses then asks G-d to heal Miriam and Miriam is healed.  This, some argue, was an act of contrition on the part of Aaron that served as an atonement for his wrongdoing. Aaron, please note, did not plead for himself.

Whether or not you accept any of the arguments advanced for the differential treatment of Miriam and Aaron– whether or not you believe that Miriam was treated fairly in comparison to Aaron— what is clear Is that idle gossip is destructive and should be avoided. How to avoid gossip? I guess the easy way is not to start the gossip. But another effective tool is to make it clear that you are not interested in listening to gossip when approached with gossip. And, at the very least, don’t spread it further.