At the end of this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Behalotcha, we are given some insight into the workings of the house of Amram and Yocheved. While their three children Moses, Aharon and Miriam were each famous and well known in their own right, the Parsha recalls an incident in which Miriam, in particular, speaks ill of Moshe’s wife Tziporah to Aharon.
The Torah records that Miriam was speaking to Aharon about Moshe’s private relationship with his wife. While the exact words are not disclosed in the text of the Torah, they were severe enough to cause Miriam to be afflicted with Tzoraat (divinely imposed skin condition) and cause her to need to leave the camp of Israel to sit in isolation for seven days. This divinely ordained disease causes the afflicted to break out into white spots making them need to be quarantined for seven days before being rendered clear of the disease by the Kohen (priest) and able to re-enter the camp.
While modern family dramas are usually saved for great TV viewing, it’s not uncommon to see everyday relationship dynamics become fraught when a family member gets in the way. Author Jeff Kluger has written many books about the power of siblings– his most notable is The Sibling Bond. Brothers and sisters clearly shape who we are. As Kluger recently wrote in Time Magazine:
From the time they are born, our brothers and sisters are our collaborators and co-conspirators, our role models and cautionary tales. They are our scolders, protectors, goads, tormentors, playmates, counsellors, sources of envy, objects of pride,” says Kluger.
While I sometimes think that it would be nice to have seven days of isolation to myself to do my own thing, being isolated in the dessert was no laughing matter and was certainly not a holiday. The camp of Israel could move on, leaving the leper outside the camp where they remained at the mercy of the desert climate including snakes, scorpions, lack of water and food.
And while the punishment seems quite dire, the message to Miriam, and society as a whole, was clear: gossip and the associated damage it causes can tear us apart. It’s been said, knowledge is power. Unfortunately, many people like to spread damaging information or intimate details about others, whether true or not. This is what is called gossip. It used to be that people called gossip: “dishing the dirt.” Whatever it’s called, gossip hurts others, maybe people do it in order to feel good about themselves and perhaps to feel like they have power over others.
The Parsha reminds us of how careful we have to be. In fact, it reminds us that the old children’s chant of ”sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” could not be further from the truth.
While many people are eager to hear gossip, the descriptors that people use to describe how they feel after they have been gossiped about include sad, unhappy, disappointed and hurt.
However, the actions of Miriam were completely out of character. We can see through the Torah that she had often looked out for Moshe and had protected him while he was in the sea of reeds in a basket and ensured his safety in the Palace of Pharoah while he was brought up by Batya. These actions were not reflective of Miriam’s desire to hurt Moshe, but rather out of concern for his wellbeing. While she did not mean to harm Moshe, such chatter was seen as inappropriate and potentially harmful. And that is why she was struck down. It reminds us how careful we have to be with each and every word that comes out of our mouths.
This story resonates with me now that I have two sons and a beautiful baby daughter, thank G-d, as I would hate for them to speak ill of each other even inadvertently (not that any of them are speaking that much at the moment!).
I hope that this ancient story with its timeless message of taking care of one’s speech and being careful about talking with others resonates with you as it did with me.