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This week’s parsha, Beha’alotcha, ends with a famous scene of sibling conflict (Bamidbar/Numbers 12:1-15). After what must have been a harrowing number of years since Aharon greeted his brother Moshe on the latter’s way back to Egypt to begin petitioning Pharaoh to free the Israelites, the Torah lets us in on some of the discomfort felt by Moshe’s two siblings, and their relative second-class status. Aharon and Miriam’s complaints focus on Moshe’s wife, and the fact that she is a Cushite. Their deeper concern is quickly revealed, however, to be the fact that Moshe has a closer relationship to Hashem, at least publicly, than they do.
The scene plays out like a soap opera – two siblings gossip about their brother; Hashem – playing the role of a parent – hears the gossip, and demands that all three step outside (of the camp); after rebuking them, Hashem singles out Miriam, and she is stricken by leprosy; finally, Moshe, at Aharon’s request, prays on Miriam’s behalf and her punishment is lessened.
There are a number of questions this passage raises, of which I want to focus on two: Why are they jealous? Why is this the one instance of gossip singled out for mention in the Torah?
I think this passage can teach us about the human vice of jealousy. Even though Aharon and Miriam undoubtedly had important roles to play, as High Priest and prophetess (and the one who sustained the Israelites’ water supply, according to legend), respectively, they still succumbed to a lapse in judgment, and resented their own brother for being the figurehead of the people. This is highlighted by the text in that it both follows a period in which Moshe asks Hashem to kill him rather than continue to lead the people (11:15), indicating that being a leader might not be so glamorous, and by interspersing the following verse in this very story: “and the man Moshe was exceedingly humble, more than any other man” (12:3, translation mine). While this can strike the reader as Moshe gloating (especially if one believes that Moshe is the author of the Torah), I see it more as the story driving home the contrast between the failed leadership of Aharon and Miriam at this time, and the more ideal leadership of Moshe, even if the preceding exasperation Moshe felt about leading shows him in a fallible light as well.
This is probably why this instance of gossip was the archetype the Torah chose to focus on, as it represents the instance of the most powerful members of the community acting very much like any person might. This story, therefore, should not be seen as a drama comparable to a soap opera, as it highlights the destructive nature of slander, a theme picked up by the rabbis in their famous understanding that the Second Temple was destroyed due to baseless hatred (Babylonian Talmud, Yoma 9b), often increased in a community by slander. Unlike the Biblical account, where a simple, but powerful, prayer from Moshe was enough to smooth things over, in the rabbis’ time as well as our own, slander and a lack of empathy can have drastic consequences, unraveling the bonds that ought to hold a society together.
Slander as a vice
Can ensnare even