Beit Midrash

  • Torah Portion and Tanach
  • Beha'alotcha
To dedicate this lesson

Why Was Miriam Punished?


Rabbi Yosef Tzvi Rimon

Sivan 5775
Miriam slanders Moses and is punished with צרעת. One of the main rules regarding the laws of slander is that it is permissible to slander to bring benefit (so wrote Rabeinu Yona , Sharei Teshuva, Chapter 3, and others). In other words, it is permissible to slander in order to prevent harm.
This is seemingly difficult in our Parsha. Miriam speaks about her brother, Moses, and is punished with צרעת. Seemingly, Miriam’s intentions were good (i.e. to investigate why Moses separated from his wife and to see how this situation might be rectified.) And if this is so, why was she punished? At the conclusion of the צרעתimpurity Maimonides writes:
And on this issue the Torah warns and says "Beware of the affliction of צרעת…remember what
G-d, your G-d, did to Miriam on the way. Indeed, he says "Observe what happened to Miriam the prophetess who spoke against her brother. She was years older than him, raised him on her knees and put herself at risk to save him from the water. She didn’t speak against him, but only erred by comparing him to other prophets, when he himself was not punctilious about these things as it is written ‘And the man Moses was exceedingly humble." Yet, even so she was immediately punished with צרעת. All the more so for foolish, evil people who speak exceedingly."
In other words, separating from one’s wife is wrong for Moses, as it is wrong for everyone. No matter the degree of one’s greatness, he must learn to live with his wife. Moses – the father of prophets – however, was an exception. He is the only one who is bound by a different restriction. Miriam did not grasp this, and so she was punished.
From here we learn about slander which may be beneficial: it is permissible (and even a commandment) to say something seemingly slanderous, but which can be defined as not slanderous, as long as it is beneficial to someone else. In these cases, there are several guidelines that one must abide by with great precision and diligence to enable one to seemingly speak ‘slander’ yet not identify the talk as slanderous.
The Chafetz Chaim writes that there are seven conditions whereby it is permissible to slander to bring benefit. Here are two of them:
The Third Detail. If one assumes it may be beneficial if he speaks to the individual himself, he has to speak to him himself before publicizing it to other people.
Many times, we are really talking about slander which brings benefit, but there is another way to solve the problem. There is no need to slander.
For example, a teacher in a school, about whom the parents complain that she gives too much homework and is too hard on the students. Or a different complaint. At times, in exceptional cases, there is no choice but to approach the principal. However, many times it is possible to speak directly to the teacher. If the problem can be solved through the teacher, it is forbidden to approach the principal.
So too, a journalist has to think if there is a need for all the information he is writing, or can the same results be reached in terms of repairing the harm with less information.
Another rule:
The Fourth Detail . Take extreme care, that the whole story is true, and there is absolutely no mixture of falsehood.
This condition seems simple. Obviously, we have to say only the truth. But this is a very complicated condition.
Facts or interpretations?
Often, we may not know the entire story with certainty and, some of what we are relating is, in fact, our interpretation. If we cannot clarify the truth more, then we are permitted to say what happened, but we have to say that it is our interpretation and we are unsure of it. But we have to be careful not to say things that will seem like the truth.
The truth but not the whole truth: The Chafetz Chaim emphasizes that at times we need to not only say what happened, but also to relate any good points that may exist. In other words, we need to be careful that we don’t bring the listener to think only bad when it is possible to view the situation in a different way as well, and it is our duty to let the listener/s know that there are other aspects to the story that can be interpreted differently.
Indeed, it seems that it is even more than that. The Rosh (Orchot Chaim) writes "it is the way of man to hide the good and reveal the bad." People are used to highlighting the bad, and to avoid saying things that are good or complimentary. When we say bad things about someone, we also need to highlight his good points. For example, if we say that a teacher had discipline problems, we also need to say the good things: "She is a very dedicated teacher who loves her students, etc". When we do not relate these details, despite them not being related to the specific matter at hand, a different image is painted in the eyes of the listener. He sees a person who is completely negative. We need to know to also say positive things, in order to give a true picture. In other words, even if we say the whole truth related to an event, if we do not say an additional truth which shows the person in a positive light, then at the end of the day we have given over a distorted picture.
Miriam the prophetess was very righteous and yet she sinned with slander despite her good intention. At times we may need to slander to bring benefit (e.g., details for a marriage proposal, etc.) however, we need to be strict about the proper conditions so as not to ruin, G-d forbid, but rectify and purify.

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