Remember What God Did To Miriam
Adapted by Dov Karoll
Take heed in the plague of tzara'at, that you observe diligently, and do according to all that the priests the Levites teach you: as I commanded them, so you shall observe to do. Remember what the Lord your God did to Miriam by the way, after you came out of Egypt. (Devarim 24:8-9)
The Ramban (in his list of commandments that the Rambam omitted from his Sefer Ha-mitzvot, #7) says that these verses constitute a positive commandment, namely, to remember what happened to Miriam so that we distance ourselves from speaking lashon ha-ra (evil speech). The Ramban finds it inconceivable that there not be a specific injunction in this regard, even though the Behag, Rambam and others did not count it as one of the 613 biblical commandments.
In his Torah commentary (Devarim 24:9), the Ramban adds an additional element. Aside from teaching a mitzva, the above verses enunciate a strong warning. Although Miriam was a righteous woman and prophetess, and although she loved her brother and spoke about him only in private, she nevertheless received a serious punishment for her evil speech. The fact that she was punished despite these mitigating factors should serve warning to all of us to avoid lashon ha-ra.
Lashon ha-ra is problematic on three levels:
- It can damage the person spoken about, whether physically, financially or by causing him tza'ar, pain and suffering.
- It is spiritually bad for the person speaking, as it displays a lack of regard for the other person.
- It is destructive for society to have people denigrating others for their own gain, and thereby making people suspicious of each other.
The Ramban emphasizes the third motif in our verse. However, if this is the message the Torah is trying to impart, why was it given in such a way that only the Ramban figured it out? What else is contained in this verse?
One could explain that Miriam's sin relates to the unique standing of Moshe. Perhaps lashon ha-ra alone would not have merited this special mention. God emphasizes in His rebuke of Miriam,
My servant Moshe is not so, for he is the trusted one in all My house. With him I speak mouth to mouth, manifestly, and not in dark speeches; and the similitude of the Lord does he behold: Why then were you not afraid to speak against My servant Moshe? (Bemidbar 12:7-8)
Accordingly, the Rambam counts the uniqueness of Moshe’s prophecy as the seventh in his list of the thirteen articles of faith (Mishna commentary, introduction to Sanhedrin chapter 9).
I am troubled by this verse, asking us to remember Miriam's punishment every year. Miriam was such a positive personality: she displayed extreme devotion in protecting Moshe, she was the one singing parallel to Moshe at the sea, and Chazal say that in her merit the Jewish people had the well accompany them for forty years in the desert. Despite all this, what we are asked to remember her for is this one failure. How can this be? Why should this be?
The answer is not an easy one. People often think of a scale on which we are judged, where as long as you are more or less alright, you will do fine. As long as you have more points on the positive side than on the negative, you have nothing to worry about. The Torah is telling us that this is not enough. Even one failure can be critical. One needs to strive to abide by God's word totally and completely, in all one's actions, and not just be on the right path in some general sense. We learn from Miriam the importance of every action, and how important it is to remain focused on our service of God.
There is also a more positive correlate. We generally say that the reward for good deeds is greater than the punishment for bad ones. As such, every action taken in the right direction, every fulfillment of a mitzva, merits tremendous recognition from God. May we merit in this time period to make the most of all our actions, coming closer to God. As the midrash says: If you open for Me an opening the size of the eye of a needle, I [God] will open for you an opening as wide as the entrance to the Temple. May we merit to open that small opening to allow God in.
(Originally delivered at seuda shelishit, Parashat Ki Tetzei 5761 .)