“And Miriam and Aharon spoke about Moshe regarding his Cushite wife….” (Bamidbar 12:1)

This is the famous incident in which Miriam was punished with tzaraat, the skin disease discussed in parshiot Tazria-Metzora, for speaking ill of her brother. It is considered the paradigmatic case of lashon hara (damaging speech about another), and the belief that tzaraat is God’s punishment  for it.

Rav Israel Meir Kagan’s book Chafetz Chayim, the book held by most to be the authoritative text on lashon hara, devotes its tenth chapter to outlining the parameters of permissible negative speech about another. Lashon hara leto’elet, reporting someone’s misdeeds so as to protect someone else from harm, is a subject that the Chafetz Chayim does not treat lightly. It is easy to allow ourselves to speak ill of someone with the belief that we are justified in doing so. What were Miriam and Aharon saying about their brother, and was it leto’elet?

Rashi brings a midrash from Sifrei:

…How did Miriam know that Moshe had divorced his wife? Rabbi Natan says “Miriam was at Tziporah’s side at the time that it was told to Moshe that Eldad and Meidad were prophesying in the camp. When Tziporah heard, she said ‘Woe to their wives that they have been touched by prophecy, since they will leave their wives as my husband left me!’ From there, Miriam knew, and she told Aharon. Just as Miriam, who did not mean to disparage Moshe, but did indeed disparage him, all the more so one who does tell tales to disparage their fellow.”

It seems that Miriam said what she did to Aharon about Moshe out of feelings of outrage on Tziporah’s behalf. She heard Tziporah’s anguish, stood with her in empathy and solidarity, and took up Tziporah’s case as her own. Clearly, giving Tziporah an empathetic ear was a caring and supportive act. But what was the purpose of speaking to Aharon about it? Could it have been discussing ways to support Tziporah? To approach Moshe together so as to discuss his decision to divorce his wife, and determine whether or not to find a way to repair the relationship?

The Chafetz Chayim 10, 13 writes:

…If one determines that by telling people that X wronged them financially… that some practical purpose may arise from this; that people might be told, so that what they say may be heard by the culprit, and that they might rebuke him, and so he might return what he stole, etc. it is permissible to tell people and to ask for their assistance in the matter.

From here, we see that the to’elet, the practical reason for speaking about someone’s misdeeds, should be some kind of reparations. Emotional support, or garnering sympathy, do not seem to constitute to’elet. If they did, then most cases of lashon hara would be justified in this way, as the person speaking lashon hara is often morally outraged by what they know about someone else. Venting is venting, not strategizing.

It is important to address the fact that this was Moshe, and that God rebukes Miriam and Aharon (12:8) “Why do you not fear to speak about My servant Moshe?” It is common, when rabbis or other figures of authority are accused of abuse or other wrongdoing, that they or the community invoke laws of lashon hara. Abuse is abuse, no matter who commits it, and when it is committed by a person of authority, it is all the more damaging. Preventing further abuses and protecting the community is certainly to’elet.

Shabbat Shalom!

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