Concerning Lashon Harah
We have already seen the passage that describes Miriam speaking ill of Moses because of his black wife (Numbers 12:1). It is a passage that presents some difficulties.
How can we possibly imagine that the prophetess Miriam – who saved Moses and stood at a distance to see what would happen to him (Exodus 2:4; Sotah 9b) – could speak ill of her brother, the father of the prophets, concerning his black wife, and furthermore that she was punished for it? Miriam was undoubtedly aware that Moses had separated himself from his wife in order to attend to public matters, and particularly to speak with the Holy One, blessed be He. To that end, Moses’ prayers were very short, as evidenced by the fact that in praying for his sister (who had been struck by leprosy and was as white as snow), Moses was content with simply saying: “Please, L-RD, heal her now” (Numbers 12:13). This is because he had to continuously annul severe judgments. If he separated himself from his wife, it was therefore not for his honor, but for G-d’s. Moses was ready each time that the Holy One, blessed be He, desired to call him. Why then did Miriam speak ill of him?
We recite in the Shabbat morning service that Moses rejoiced in the gift (the Torah) that he was given, for “You called him a faithful servant.” In other words, the joy and happiness that Moses experienced were not due to the fact that he was a great prophet and had brought the Children of Israel out of Egypt, but rather because he was called the faithful servant of his Master, as it is written: “Not so is My servant Moses. In My entire house he is the trusted one” (Numbers 12:7). Due to his immense humility, he felt that he was G-d’s servant for the Children of Israel. He also had the merit of speaking with G-d on many occasions, and he rejoiced in clinging to his Creator’s attributes: Mercy, leniency, etc (Shabbat 133b). That was the primary source of Moses’ happiness. In a certain way, we may say that he was rich because he was satisfied with his lot (Perkei Avoth 4:1).
As for Miriam, she was one of Israel’s seven prophetesses (Megillah 14a). It was Miriam who led the women and transmitted to them the instructions that she heard from Moses her brother. She heard Hashem’s voice speaking to him, and it was because of her that the Israelites drank from the well during their journeys in the desert (Taanith 9a). In fact it was Miriam who separated the women from the men at the Song of the Sea (Exodus 15:20). Endowed with so many virtues, how could Miriam speak ill of Moses?
The reason is that when Hashem created adam (man) He said, “I will make him a helper corresponding to him” (Genesis 2:18), which our Sages interpret as meaning that if a man is worthy, she will be a help for him; if not, she will be against him (Yebamot 63a). We see by practical experience that when a Jew strives to intensify his Torah study and fear of G-d, his wife in general aids him, even if she is not fully observant. Hence if he is worthy, he will be helped. However if he is not worthy and does not aspire to live a life filled with holiness, she will make him suffer, even if she is fully observant. This is why King Solomon said, “I find more bitter than death the woman” (Ecclesiastes 7:26).
As a result, since Moses was the leader of the generation – a Tzaddik, the foundation of the world (see Proverbs 10:25), with the Divine Presence speaking from his throat (Zohar III:232a) – his wife Tzipporah certainly helped him to constantly elevate himself until he arrived at the greatest of levels.
Aaron and Miriam asked: Did Hashem speak to Moses just to prevent him from having relations with his wife? Did He not speak to us as well? Nevertheless we continue to elevate ourselves, even though each of us is still married. Thus if Hashem speaks face to face with Moses [see Numbers 12:8] and he does not cease elevating himself, it is clear that with Tzipporah’s help he could have attained even more sublime levels.
Nevertheless, it was essentially due to his humility that this man, this Ish (a title of greatness) Moses, found grace in Hashem’s eyes and could elevate himself to such an extent. Thus the goal of Miriam and Aaron was not to speak ill of him, but on the contrary to highlight his wife’s assistance, thanks to whom he elevated himself. Furthermore, they said that Moses should not have separated himself from his family, just as they had not done.
Yet in some way this constituted Lashon Harah, for Miriam did not speak directly to Moses. Instead, she spoke before her brother Aaron, and as we know, Moses’ wife Tzipporah was also with them. If she and Aaron did not respond, it was because they had no intention of relating the conversation to Moses. By mentioning the fact that Hashem had also spoken with her, Miriam truly demonstrated her pride. This was in contrast to Moses, whose humility was legendary. Thus the criticism that Miriam expressed in pride is also termed Lashon Harah, even if she had only good intentions regarding her brother. Miriam was struck by leprosy in order for everyone to draw a lesson from it (Tanhuma 96:13) and to realize the gravity of Lashon Harah, even if said with the sole intention of helping the person in question, and even if does not bother him in the least.
Another explanation may be offered for what Miriam said. In affirming that Hashem spoke to them as well, Miriam seemed to be saying that it due to their merit that Moses reached such a high spiritual level, almost as if she were stating: I waited for him by the river. It was I who took him from Batiah and brought him to nurse with a Jewish woman [who turned out to be Moses’ own mother, Jochebed]. You too Aaron, you rejoiced when you went out to meet him, as it is said: “When he sees you, he will rejoice in his heart” [Exodus 4:14]. You agreed that he should be your leader, as well as the leader of all the Jewish people. Since Moses lived in Midian for 60 years, the Children of Israel did not recognize him [Ramban and Rashbam on Exodus 2:23]. It was therefore because of you and I that he ascended to the level of being the leader of the generation. It was through us and because of our merit that Hashem spoke to Moses! If we elevated him without having to separate ourselves from our families – yet we still maintained our high spiritual level – why must he separate himself from his wife and act differently than we do?
The Holy One, blessed be He, responded to Aaron and Miriam: It is true that you both elevated him, however there is no connection between the fact that he became the leader of the generation and the fact that he separated himself from his wife. He attained such a degree of humility primarily because he exerted tremendous effort in refining his character traits. His wife certainly helped him, but now that he has acquired the virtue of humility, he needs nothing more from her, and there is nothing that she can teach him.
One who begins a mitzvah, he is told to complete it. Yet one who abstains from doing so will end up burying his wife, the Talmud teaches (Yerushalmi Pesachim 10:5). Why such a severe punishment (Sotah 13b)? What sin did the wife commit such that her husband did not finish a mitzvah that he started?
The explanation is that if one begins to perform a mitzvah, this is an indication that he is upright and being helped from Heaven to begin undertaking it. It is therefore incumbent on him to finish it, for otherwise he disgraces it by leaving it incomplete. If he does not really complete it, his punishment will be severe. Actually, if he begins a mitzvah, his wife will help him to perform it. In the event that he does not finish it, his wife will no longer be there to help him, for he will have buried her. This is what we saw earlier: If a man is not worthy, his wife will be against him. In our case, his wife will bring accusations against him in the Celestial Court, for she will have died because he did not finish performing his mitzvah.
As a result, it is forbidden for two individuals to speak Lashon Harah about a third, even if good things are also spoken of him. This is a case of undesirable reprimand, brought about by pride and which can lead to Lashon Harah. This is what our Sages call Avak Lashon Harah, the dust of Lashon Harah (Bava Batra 164b).
When the spies saw that Miriam was struck with leprosy (since she has spoken Lashon Harah against Moses), they should have drawn a lesson from it. They should not have spoken ill of Eretz Israel, the land that Moses longed to enter in order to perform the mitzvot that depend on it (Sotah 14a). Since they did not draw this lesson, they were severely punished by not having a part in the World to Come (Sanhedrin 108a), for they spoke ill of a land in which we can perform numerous mitzvot, such as the selection of a king, the bringing of first fruits, the construction of the holy Temple, and wiping out the memory of Amalek from under Heaven (Sanhedrin 20b). In this way they demonstrated that they were opposed to the Divine Presence dwelling among them, preferring instead the presence of Amalek, the incarnation of pride. Thus they were opposed to G-d’s Name and the Celestial Throne being complete, something that would only happen after Amalek’s memory was erased.
The spies are called heretics because they denied the mitzvot (Sanhedrin 99b). All this was a result of their pride, their desire to be princes of the Children of Israel. The spies did not think of their offspring’s fate in the desert, for one who is arrogant never thinks of others, and the Holy One, blessed be He, cannot live with such a person (Sotah 5a).