Watch What You Say

In this week’s parasha, Ki Teitsei, in the midst of a description of rules about what to do about leprosy, the proper treatment of slaves, and lending money to fellow Israelites, we find this verse that seems to be out of context:

“Remember what the Lord your God did to Miriam on the journey after you left Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 24:9)

What is it that God did to Miriam? She was punished with a form of leprosy because she spoke disparagingly about her brother Moses in public (Aaron, who also gossiped about Moses, was oddly not punished). It’s not precisely clear why this reminder about the perils of evil speech is found in this location in the Torah.

Rabbi Isaac Kook suggests that we are reminded about Miriam’s sin in this particular context because the seriousness of her punishment reflects the grandeur of Moses:

“The Torah relates (Numbers 12:1-15) how Miriam spoke against her younger brother Moses for neglecting his wife. Miriam felt that the fact that Moses was a prophet was not an excuse for his behavior. ‘Is it only to Moses that God speaks? Does He not also speak to us?’…Far worse than her sin of slander, Miriam erred in her evaluation of the nature of Moses’ prophecy. Had Moses been just a regular prophet, Miriam would have been correct in her criticism. But in fact, Moses’ prophetic vision was on a higher plane than common prophecy. Moses’ vision was not distorted and murky, but crystal-clear, As a result, the Five Books of Moses are on a higher level than the other books of the Bible. No prophet may challenge or contradict Moses’ prophecies. It is for this reason that we are admonished to remember Miriam’s punishment for speaking against Moses. By recalling her mistake, we are reminded to appreciate the unique nature of Moses’ prophetic vision.” Rabbi Abraham Isaac Ha-Kohen Kook

Nachmanides (also known as the Ramban, 1194-1270, Spain and Israel) links the recollection about Miriam’s sin to what he defines as a positive commandment in the Torah to use appropriate speech when talking about others. Ramban praises Miriam’s righteousness, but suggests that this one act severely diminished her:

“‘If you wish to guard yourself against being stricken with leprosy, do not speak slander.’ This is Rashi’s language. And in my opinion this actually is a positive commandment, like ‘Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy’ (Exodus 20:8); ‘Remember this day, in which you came out from Egypt’ (13:3); ‘Remember what Amalek did to you’ (25:17) – which all are commandments. If so, this verse, too, is like those, it being an admonition against speaking slander. He commanded by way of a positive precept that we remember the great punishment that God inflicted upon the righteous prophetess who spoke only about her brother upon whom she had bestowed her mercy and whom she loved as herself. And she spoke nothing wrong to his face, but only in private, between herself and her holy brother Aaron. Yet all her good deeds were of no avail to her!”

Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb (American Rabbi, former head of the Orthodox Union) also pursues the idea that Miriam’s sin reminds us of the damage that can be done by the irresponsible use of words, not only spoken by sent electronically:

“Recalling Miriam’s misdeed is especially valuable today. Nowadays, through the power of electronic instant communication, words can be sent to millions of people in microseconds. If these words are negative, they can harm individuals instantly, without even the possibility of recourse or recall. Not a day goes by when we do not receive emails or read Internet reports which damage reputations of individuals, without due process and without the remotest possibility of defending themselves. Imagine if emails were limited to complimentary statements and words of praise. Imagine if the blogs and websites were replete with stories of human accomplishment, altruism, and heroism. It would be a happier world for sure. And it would be a world closer to that which the Almighty intended.”

Without doubt, the use of electronic media has made hurtful speech an even more potentially dangerous and damaging act. For one thing, what we say electronically can be circulated to countless more people than the spoken word, and it can happen in the time it takes to press the “send” key on a computer. Beyond that, sending an e-mail is an impersonal act, a communication done without having to face the other person. For some, that may make it possible to say things they might not otherwise say to someone’s face. While that can be empowering for the person who has trouble communicating with someone they may find intimidating, it can also be dangerous. The restraint we feel when talking with someone face-to-face may not be present when we send an e-mail to the same person.

Choosing our words carefully and with sensitivity to the feelings of the people we are addressing is an especially relevant message at this time of the year as we prepare to celebrate the New Year. As we go about a personal “inventory” of our deeds and behaviors, as we scrutinize how we act toward others, we should elevate the way we speak to a high level of self-assessment and scrutiny. While it’s unlikely that we’ll suffer leprosy for committing an act of hurtful speech, the pain and embarrassment that improper speech could cause others, including what we say electronically, would be much worse.

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