Be-ha’alotkha—Garbage Talk

Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married (for he had indeed married a Cushite woman); and they said, “Has the LORD spoken only through Moses?  Has he not spoken through us also?”  (Num. 12:1-2)

Miriam, the deliverer of Moses (Ex. 2:4ff) here becomes Miriam, the belittler of Moses.  Her act and Aaron’s is characterized by the Jewish ethical tradition as lashon ha’ra (literally “evil speech,” though in many contexts it’s a synonym for “gossip”).  This subject has been parsed at length by Rabbis and teachers; here are three things that occurred to me in relation to this text.

Even if it’s true.  Of course, it’s wrong to tell lies about people.  But the text tells us that Moses had indeed married a Cushite woman. (Though it tells us little else.  Is this Zipporah?  Was she a Cushite?  What’s a Cushite [in this passage] anyway?)  True statements are still lashon ha’ra when they are personal and used to besmirch.

Ignorance.   The Torah’s silence about the Moses’ situation regarding his wife is instructive in this sense: lashon ha’ra often takes place in a vacuum of ignorance, with many pertinent facts unknown.  Despite our ignorance, we rush to judgment.  Or more often, instead of outright judgment, we rush to . . .

Innuendo.  So what if Moses married a Cushite?  They don’t say.  There’s simply an unspoken sneer, a silent hint, that this act is unseemly.  How else do we go from the personal to the public question of who has final (human) authority among the Israelites?

In commenting on this passage, Nehama Liebowitz talks feelingly of how envy is at the root of much gossip.  She notes the corrosive effect of envy on our aspirations and ideals, how it seeks to “minimize any symptom of human greatness.”

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