Our sedra is one of the turning points of the Torah. It is from the middle of our sedra onwards that sees a flurry of sins; from complaining about the journey and about the manna to that of Miriam and Aharon, and it continues into next week’s sedra with the sin of the spies and the ‘mechalel shabbos,’ only to be followed in the next two weeks by the Korach rebellion and the hitting of the rock which prevented Moshe from taking us into the Land of Israel. What we are going to examine is the episode at the end of the sedra which sees Miriam seem to speak ‘lashon hara’ against Moshe and be given tzara’as as a result. In fact, it from here that the midrash learns that tzara’as comes for lashon hara (Sifri Devarim 24;9). One of the things Moshe warns Bnei Yisrael before his death is to ‘remember what HaShem Your G-D did to Miriam on the way when we went out of Egypt’ (Devarim 24;9), and the Ramban puts this mitzvah to remember Miriam’s sin and its consequences as one of the Torah mitzvos which he felt the Rambam had left out of his list of the 613 Torah mitzvos (Ramban on sefer hamitzvos shichechas mitzvos asei 7). Moreover, the midrash says that the commandment is not to merely mentally remember, but to verbalise the relevant parts of this episode of Miriam, and many read the pasuk in Devarim as one of the ‘six remembrances’ printed in the siddurim after Shacharis. So it is a rather worthwhile topic to discuss! There are two main issues here. Firstly, why exactly was Miriam’s speech a sin? Let’s elaborate…
Perek 12 details that Miriam told Aharon that Moshe took the step of separating from his wife to receive his prophecy, whilst Miriam (being a prophetess herself) knew that she did not have to separate from her spouse to receive prophecy. It was this seemingly derogatory speech that saw her punished. Rav Dessler asks, however, that if you look at the psukim, all Miriam seems to be doing is asking a question; she asks (12;2) ‘Is it only Moshe to whom HaShem speaks, it is also with us [so why must he separate from his wife when we did not need to]?’ Where is the derogatory speech; she is only asking an innocent question? Rav Dessler answers with a principle that we all know very well. There are two types of questions; one is a genuine question with a genuine will to know the answer, whilst the other type is a statement in disguise - it is a question to which the questioner does not want to know an answer whatsoever, they just want you to know that they are not happy with something. [‘why do you never do as I say?’ is a good example; the questioner is not looking for an answer; he just wants to convey his unhappiness].
This is shown perfectly in the distinction between the questions of the Chacham and Rasha of the four sons in the Pesach haggadah. On the surface, they seem to be asking the same question of ‘what are all these laws?’ but to the Chacham we answer with halachic information whilst to the Rasha we give a sharp and stern answer. Why? Because it is clear that the Chacham is asking the first type of question; a genuine thirst for knowledge, and so we give him a genuine answer. But we see that the Rasha is asking the second type of question - he does not want to know any answer, but rather just wants us to know that he does not care about ‘your laws,’ and so we give him a harsh answer. And perhaps this is why when the gemarra notes our doing certain things on seder night for the sole purpose of encouraging the children to ask, does the gemarra use the phrase ‘so the children should recognise/notice and ask’ (pesachim 115b). The gemarra is telling us that we are to be encouraging the first type of question, a genuine one, which entails the child first perceiving what occurred, then asking genuine questions on the basis of what they have seen. Moreover, another example of this second type of question is in our sedra. The erev rav section of the Bnei Yisrael start unduly complaining about a lack of meat in their diets, using the phrase (11;4) ‘who will feed us meat.’ The Targum introduces this with the words ‘the erev rav asked a question’- this is obviously not a genuine question - it is a veiled attack, and as such the second type of question. Coming back to our topic, Rav Dessler says that is was this second type of question that Miriam asked; she was not asking totally genuinely; she wanted to convey her disapproval of Moshe’s actions; it was not a ‘mere question.’
That is one issue regarding Miriam’s sin. The second issue lies in defining this episode more accurately. What exactly were its causes? The cause of Miriam’s problem was that she thought that Moshe basically had the status of any other prophet, and as such should have stayed with his spouse just like Miriam and Aharon did. Her mistake is informed to her in the ensuing psukim, in which HaShem makes clear to Miriam that Moshe is unlike any other prophet, and as such has a new and unprecedented level of prophecy with its own laws and consequences - one of which was the separating from his wife to have a constant ability to communicate with HaShem. Thus, HaShem tells Miriam ‘your prophecy is via dream, but Moshe’s is not like that’ (12; 6-7). And it is in this vein that the Rambam has two separate articles of faith for belief in other prophets and belief in Moshe Rabeinu’s prophecy, for they were at completely different levels of clarity and closeness. This is what the Rambam (hil. Tzara’as 16;10) and Ramban (sefer hamitzvos) both say. As both implicitly point out, this means that technically Miriam did not speak lashon hara (as Rashi 12;1 ‘vatedaber’ notes too); she did not intend to speak negatively of Moshe, and her mistaken words were solely based on an inaccurate assumption of Moshe’s prophetic level. But if she technically did not speak halachic lashon hara, why did she then get normal punishment of lashon hara and why is the commandment to remember her sin is supposed to move us to be careful not to speak lashon hara (Ramban and Rashi above)? It is because the root of Miriam’s actions was the putting of the mouth before the eye [not perceiving reality clearly], which is the same base as any given forbidden speech (R’ Tatz).
In short, we see that the root and cause of Miriam’s sin was a failure to see accurately; she did not perceive Moshe’s level of prophecy accurately enough before she spoke against him. We see this principle in the other main event of lashon hara in the Torah as well, namely that of the spies. Megillas Eicha, which we read on Tisha B’Av [the day of tears visibly started when the spies sinned on that day] is arranged according to the letters of the alef beis, with one exception; the letter peh is put before the ayin. Why? The gemarra Sanhedrin (104b) says that this is to convey that the spies ‘said with their mouths (peh) what they did not see with their eyes (ayin).’ In other words; they put their mouths before their eyes - when they went into the Land of Israel they saw funerals in each city, and rather than realising that it was a chesed of HaShem that the locals should be focussed on the funerals rather than on these suspicious new ‘guests,’ they reported that the land is one that ‘devours its inhabitants’ (13;32 and Rashi there). Moreover, rather than focus on the spiritual qualities of the land, they focussed on its physical qualities and were worried about the strength of its inhabitants. Again, the idea is to have a clear perception of reality as opposed to blurred vision which ultimately ended with lashon hara.
Our perception of reality in life tends to change; often we see what we want to see, which essentially means that we are seeing a reflection of our desires. Dayan Abramski pointed this out via a pasuk in next week’s sedra. The spies report that the inhabitants of the Land of Israel were giant; ‘we were in their eyes like grasshoppers and so we were in their eyes’ (13;33). Why the repetition? Dayan Abramski answered that it is only because they saw themselves as mere grasshoppers in comparison to those giants that the reality became that indeed they were seen as grasshoppers. It was their blurred and mistaken vision that shaped their reality in the first place. Another prime example is that of Korach; the gemarra says (pesachim 119a) that is was Korach’s masses of wealth that shaped his attitude and ultimately caused his downfall; another example of blurred vision and distortion of focus and priorities in life. Tying this back in with Moshe Rabeinu, Chazal (yevamos 49b) revel to us that Moshe’s prophecy is compared to seeing through a clear lens, whilst other Jewish prophets only had a cloudy lens. Rav Dessler explains that the difference is qualitative in that when one sees through a cloudy lens part of what they see is a reflection of themselves, whilst Moshe could see none of his own reflection in his prophecies. The point is that Moshe was empty of any pride (ego) whatsoever (Bamidbar 12;3), and thus he could receive a completely objective prophecy without inserting any of his own notions into HaShem’s message. The other prophets had a bit less anavah and thus had a tiny vestige of their own notions in their prophecies and they were thus less objective than that of Moshe. Thus, the other prophets had a harder job of interpreting their prophecies and finding out what HaShem really wanted. In short, the theme is the focus upon the ability to perceive reality objectively and correctly, not adding one’s own preconceived notions into the picture.
We’ll end with a story. During the Second World War there was a real fear in Israel that the Germans would manage to conquer the Holy Land too. The Ponovezher Rav was walking with a friend in Bnei Brak, when he pointed to the tallest hill and declared ‘you see that hill? I am going to build a Yeshiva on top of that hill and Jews from all around the world will come to it.’ His friend responded ‘Ponovezher Rav, are you dreaming?! The Germans are closing in every day and you speak about building a yeshiva.’ Retorted the Ponovezher Rav ‘I am dreaming, but I am not asleep.’ And so it happened, the Ponovezh yeshiva was built in Bnei Brak, and today has over one thousand students. This was a correct perception of reality, albeit from a special person on a level which we might not be up to, but can emulate in our own individual ways.
Have a great Shabbes,

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