05/24/2013 10:15 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Numbers 8:1-12:16: Wounding Words: The Dangers of Gossip

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As an educator, I am reminded daily of the dangers of gossip. There is a steady stream of young girls and boys who visit my office pleading for help as the victims of the hurtful words of others. Left unchecked by adults, teachers and parents, the perpetrators will continue their verbal assaults, leaving their peers with internal bruises while developing harmful behavioral patterns.

In this week's parashah (Torah portion), we see how serious the issue of gossip is in the Torah. In a dramatic scene, God rushes down from the heavens in a pillar of cloud, making it known to Miriam, Aaron and the entire Israelite community that, no matter how seemingly unimportant, gossip will not be tolerated, particularly when it comes to leaders.

Most of us would say that Moses, Aaron and Miriam, born of the same mother, are a "dream" team. Like the Kennedys or the mythical Avengers, each of Yocheved"s children was a leader in his or her own right. Together this great sibling trio led the Israelite community from slavery to freedom and into a deep and lasting relationship with God. But like other families, this illustrious group had its share of challenges.

Our Torah reading offers us a painful, but lifelike, glimpse into the sibling relationship of Moses, Aaron and Miriam. After years of desert-wandering (much like a long family car ride), Miriam and Aaron angrily voice contempt for their brother Moses. As God listens in on their conversation, we learn of Aaron and Miriam's disapproval of Moses' marriage to a Cushite woman. Moses' siblings continue by asserting that they deserve the same authority and recognition as their younger brother: "Has Adonai spoken only through Moses? Has God not spoken through us as well?" (Numbers 12:2).

In response to this ugly episode, God calls all three together, rebukes the two gossipers and inflicts Miriam with a skin disorder known as Tzara'at, leaving her covered in white scales, requiring her to leave the camp for seven days of quarantine.

Various rabbinic commentators suggest that Miriam is singled out for punishment because she initiates the gossip. This claim is based on the fact that Miriam's name appears before Aaron's in this vignette, with the opening sentence reading "va'tedaber" (second-person, feminine singular), "And Miriam (and Aaron) spoke" (Numbers 12:1).

God's judgment seems harsh and unbalanced. Does Miriam's mistake merit a skin disease and being cast out of the community for an entire week? What about Aaron? Why is he not punished for engaging in this sinful act? While these questions linger, it is clear that our text is sending a strong message about the dangers of gossip. It is, in fact, one of countless warnings in our tradition against what the rabbis term as lashon ha'ra, "evil speech" or gossip.

There are no less than 31 commandments that relate to it in the Hebrew Bible. For example, Proverbs teaches us that life and death are "in the hand of the tongue" (18:21); the Psalmist implores us to guard our lips from evil and our tongues from "speaking guile" (34:13); and the Talmud cautions us that the tongue is such a powerful weapon that it should be locked away, kept hidden from view beyond the protective walls of the mouth and teeth, lest it be misused (Babylonian Talmud, Arakhin 15b).

We all know how hard it is to refrain from gossip, particularly in moments of anger, pain, frustration or exhaustion. But our Torah reading reminds us that we need to be vigilant in monitoring our own speech and helping others do the same. If we are created in God's image, as our tradition insists, then we must dedicate ourselves to formulating an appropriate communal ethic of speech.

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