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Beit Midrash Torah Portion and Tanach Beha'alotcha

Why Was Miriam Punished?

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Miriam speaks lashon hara about Moshe and is punished with tzara’at. One of the main principles of the laws of lashon hara is that it is permitted to say lashon hara for a constructive purpose (thus says Rabbeinu Yona, Shaarei Teshuva 3:221, and others). That is to say, it is permitted to say lashon hara in order to prevent harm.
This principle is seemingly contradicted by our parsha. Miriam spoke against her brother Moshe, and was punished with tzara’at. It is logical to assume that Miriam’s intentions were for the good (apparently, to evaluate why he separated from his wife and to examine how it would be possible to repair the matter). If this is so, why was she punished? The Rambam explains, and at the end of Tumat Tzara’at (chapter 16):
The Torah warns about this matter, stating "Be careful regarding a tzara’at blemish…Remember what Hashem your God did to Miriam on the way", meaning, contemplate what happened to the prophetess Miriam who spoke against her brother: She was older than him; she raised him; she risked her life to save him from the sea; and she didn’t speak disparagingly of him purposefully. Rather, she erred by comparing him to the rest of the prophets, and he was not even particular concerning this, as it states, "And the man Moshe was exceedingly humble". Nonetheless, she was immediately punished with tzara’at. One can certainly make an inference regarding the foolish wicked people who speak extensively about great and wondrous matters.
In other words, it is true that it is not right to separate from one’s wife, this is not proper behavior for all people. Even a great rabbi must live with his wife. Even great prophets needed to live with their wives. However, Moshe Rabbeinu was exceptional. He was the "Father of the Prophets", Avihem shel HaNevi’im. He is the only one in the entire world who has a different restriction. Miriam did not discern this and was therefore punished.
We can learn from here regarding all constructive lashon hara: On the one hand, it is permitted (and even a mitzva) to say lashon hara for a constructive purpose. On the other hand, there are a number of principles that it are important to be mindful of, and only with them will it not be classified as lashon hara.
The Chafetz Chaim writes there are seven conditions that must be fulfilled in order for lashon hara to be considered constructive. We will mention two of them:
Third point. If, in his estimation, it is possible to engage him directly and achieve productive results, he must speak directly to him, before he publicizes the matter to others.
Many times, it can be constructive, but it is possible to solve the problem a different way. There is no need to say lashon hara. Take for example, a teacher in a school that the parents claim gives too much homework and is too hard on the students, or, for that matter, any other issue. Sometimes, in exceptional cases, there is no choice, and one must approach the principal. However, many times it is possible to speak directly with the teacher. If it is possible to solve the problem through the teacher, it is prohibited to approach the principal with the issue. Similarly, a journalist must consider if there is an actual need for all the information he is writing, or if it is possible to achieve the same result with less information.
Another principle:
Fourth point. One should be exceedingly careful that the entire story should be true, without any lies mixed in.
This condition seems simple. Of course, one needs to tell the truth. But in reality, this is a complex condition.
Facts or interpretation? Oftentimes, we do not know something with absolute certainty, and it is just our own interpretation. If it is impossible to clarify the truth further, it is permitted to state the occurrence, but one must mention it is their own interpretation and they are unsure of what actually happened. One must be careful not to say things in a way that they could be construed as factual.
Truth, but not the whole truth: The Chafetz Chaim emphasizes that sometimes one must mention not just what happened, but also positive points if there are any. Meaning, we must be vigilant not to cause the listener to have solely a bad impression, when it is possible to see the situation from a different perspective, and when awareness of additional details could lead to an alternate interpretation of events.
However, it seems that the matter goes even further. The Rosh (in Orchot Chaim) writes, "It is the manner of people to hide the good and to expose the bad". People are accustomed to show the bad, but not to mention the good things. When we say bad things about someone else, we must also relate positive things about them. For example, if one says about a teacher that she has discipline problems, one also must mention her good qualities, "She is a very dedicated teacher, loves her students etc.". When one neglects to mention these details, despite their irrelevance to the specific matter at hand, it creates a skewed picture of the subject in the eyes of the listener. The listener sees a person who is entirely negative. One needs to note positive attributes, too, in order to present a true picture. By implication, even if we have said the entire truth that is related to the event, if we do not say the additional truth that portrays the person in a positive light thereby offering a more complete picutre, at the end of the day, we have conveyed erroneous information.
Miriam the prophetess was a greatly righteous woman and yet, she sinned with lashon hara despite her noble intentions. On the one hand, sometimes one needs to say lason hara for a constructive purpose (for example, sharing details for a shidduch and the like). However, one must be particular with the correct conditions for constructive lashon hara, that we should not damage God forbid, but we should repair and purify.
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