On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah: B'haalot'cha: Gossip

Even with good intentions, when we talk about people who are not present, we run the risk of disparaging them, without giving them the opportunity to respond.  Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, discusses one of the themes of Parashat B'haalot'cha: how the words we use affect ourselves and others.

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Welcome to episode 22 of On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by reformjudaism.org. Each week we reflect on more than 2000 years of Jewish wisdom in just about ten minutes with modern day commentary on the weekly Torah portion. Of course we do think that there are plenty of ways to interpret Torah, and we want to hear what you think, so talk to us on Twitter. Our handle is @URJ. Like us at facebook.com/reformjudaism, and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. This week Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism talks about Parashat B’haalot’cha and asks, does even speaking truth sometimes lead to gossip?

This week we focus our attention on Parashat B’haalot’cha, a very hard to pronounce name of this week's portion. And it comes from the opening, b’haalot’cha, as they would light the eternal light at the very beginning of the parashah. But I'd like to focus our attention on chapter 12 of the Book of Numbers, which describes a very, very painful and potentially illuminating narrative between three very prominent siblings in this Torah.

Moses, we know very well. His brother Aaron is the high priest. And their sister Miriam, of course, is called by the Jewish tradition a prophet. So these are three extraordinary individuals, leaders in their own right. And the opening of this chapter says, “vatedaber miryam v’aharon b’moshe.” Miriam and Aaron spoke against their brother Moses.

Now of course, you could say they have lots of reasons to speak against their brother Moses. I mean after all he is the quintessential leader of the Jewish people. He is more prominently featured in every parashah, in every recounting of Jewish history and of biblical narrative. But what is it that actually happens in this moment? And then very, very strikingly, only Miriam is punished for speaking against when it was Aaron and Miriam.

So one of the questions I know for those of us who are blessed with siblings is sometimes why are certain individuals favored by parents? Why is punishment not fairly meted out by parents in given moments? And this really raises the question of why is Miriam-- now of course, if you are looking at this from a feminist lens, you say, how is it possible that Aaron and Miriam would both speak against their brother but only Miriam would be punished? Well, you could say, well that's the biblical maybe leaning towards the fact that she didn't have the standing that Moses and Aaron had.

The portion then goes on to suggest that not only is she punished, she's punished with a very painful affliction. She's actually given a very extreme case of leprosy and is really deeply affected by this. And the narrative goes on to suggest that, in this rivalry, in this moment of speaking against, why is it that she's now not just maybe ignored, maybe overlooked but actually punished?

And miraculously and inspiringly Moses doesn't get into a whole thing with his sister. He sees that she's in pain. He sees that she's suffering. And he simply responds with five beautiful Hebrew words which become the quintessential prayer for healing, “el na refa na lah” Oh, God. Please heal her.

So we have in this text as well a whole question of what does it mean to speak against? Our tradition actually knows what speaking against others, lashon hara, literally it means the evil tongue. And it means that oftentimes we, all people, do this thing called gossiping. Speaking about another person. Sometimes we speak things that we heard about someone else without actually knowing if it's true or not. And it can be not only a toxic factor within a community, it can be absolutely destructive to an individual.

And so the whole question of lashon hara, how is it that we are careful with our speech? And particularly with social media where it's so easy to make a statement that gets echoed, potentially thousands of times and in all different settings, how are we to learn a lesson from Parashat B’haalot’cha, about being careful with our speech? And the tradition even says that when we speak something true about somebody else, it leads to lashon hara. Right? We're talking about someone. And they say, oh you know so-and-so is so wonderful. And they do all these good things. And they said, “yeah, that's true.” But there was this one time I remember. And then all of a sudden the flip is towards all of the negative.

Does that mean we're not allowed to talk about other people? Can you imagine how much less conversation there would be in the world if none of us talked about other people without being in their presence? But it is pretty close to that imperative, that by talking about people when they are not there, we run the risk of being able to disparage, to denigrate, and to harm. Now without giving someone the chance to say you know that's actually not the case. And can I offer you a different way to understand it? Would you please at least hear my voice?

So lashon hara didn't simply get in between these three biblical siblings. It gets between many of us and our siblings and those in our communities. And being careful about speech, is that one of those parts of the Jewish tradition that isn't always lifted up? We think of all the ritual obligations. But just think of how that would consecrate, make holy, our community if we lived and practiced our real understanding of lashon hara’s potential damage. In the case of Miriam and Aaron, it almost destroyed their relationship as siblings. And in our Jewish world and in our wider world, we are every day experiencing all kinds of very harsh speech about others.

So what does it mean to be a person of spiritual depth and of spiritual commitment? It means that we're careful about what we say. And we speak about other people with a sense of kavod. And we also want to make sure to not be purveyors. The ones who share all kinds of things that are in fact not known to be actually true.

So what it is that we learn from this parashah is that first of all, when we are thinking particularly about our most close relationships, that's also where we have to be extremely, extremely careful with our speech. And in the case of these three siblings, it turns out that there was a healing. There was a sense of coming together. The text tells us that Moses was humble, more so than any person on Earth. And in that humility, he doesn't lord his exalted place among the Jewish people over his siblings. He simply acts in a very, very loving and a very appropriate way to say, “el na refa na la” to his sister. You're suffering. I'm your brother. I offer you my prayer and my love.

And I just think there's a beautiful and a very simple teaching for each of us in the myriad relationships that we find ourselves in every day. But the ones that are most precious and most important, and at times most open to harm and to hurt by the callous and careless speech that we might perform.

So b’haalot’cha, the power of words. That's a big word. It's a hard word. But the simple word is how do we use our words to bring healing, to bring blessing, to bring holiness?

Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah. If you liked what you heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at reformjudaism.org and on iTunes, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit reformjudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism, including rituals, culture, holidays, and more.

On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. Until next week, l’hitraot