(Courtesy: Rabbi Yosef Benarroch)
At the conclusion of this week’s Torah portion of ‘Behalotekha’ the unthinkable takes place. Aharon and Miriam the brother and sister of Moses speak slanderously about their brother the great leader of the Jewish nation. Their slander is met with a harsh punishment with Miriam being afflicted with leprosy. The basis of their slander is contained in a most ambiguous text. The opening of the section reads as follows, ‘And Miriam and Aharon spoke against Moses because of the Kushite woman he had taken’ (Bamidbar 12:1).
As readers of this text we are left asking quite a number of questions. Who was this ‘Kushite’ woman? Why did Moses feel compelled to take another wife? To add fuel to the tabloids our Rabbis tell us that the woman was very beautiful. The truth is this was quite a juicy story. It had all the makings of front-page news. The leader of a nation, G-d’s closest confidant, the hero of the exodus, taking another woman, at his age, the Paparatzis must have been having a heyday.
This news must have been buzzing around the entire camp. In modern times we demand to know everything about our leaders. What was so wrong about Miriam and Aharon wanting to get to the bottom of this ordeal? Why not find out who this woman was, or at the very least find out why Moses felt it necessary to take another wife (remember according to Biblical law this was permitted)?
These question open up a very real and relevant discussion for all of us. In a world where media probes so closely into the lives of public figures and broadcasts it to us in newspapers, television and the Internet, we would all do well to explore the legitimacy of this phenomenon. Through this story in the Torah and the subsequent commentaries on it, Jewish wisdom has much to say about the topic.
There are many explanations to this episode. Today I wish to share one of the many approaches with you. In the first place other peoples private lives are really none of our business. More than that our Rabbis in ‘Ethics of our Fathers’ offer a very important guideline in our relationship to others. In Chapter one they state the following, ‘Yehoshua the son of Perahya would say, establish for yourself a Rabbi, acquire a good friend, and give others the benefit of the doubt’ (Ethics of our fathers 1:6).
Judaism encourages us to always give others the benefit of the doubt. The Talmud (Shavuot 30a) based on the verse ‘in righteousness you shall judge your neighbor’ (Vayikra 19) understands it to be a biblical command. Elsewhere our Rabbis explain that those who give others the benefit of the doubt will receive the same from heaven (See Talmud Shabbat 127).
Our commentaries qualify these statements and explain that they refer to an average person. For most of us who fall into this category of meritocracy we should give the benefit of the doubt. But in regards to a righteous person the question doesn’t even get started. In the case of a righteous person we are obligated to always judge favorably.
It is precisely in this regard that Aharon and Miriam failed. One of the commentaries ‘Ibn Caspi’ says the following, ‘Miriam and Aharon criticized Moses for taking another wife because they were ignorant of his motives in doing so. They did not take into account Moses superior wisdom and that what they could not understand was plain to Moses.’
In other words, explains ‘Ibn Caspi’, we are talking about an exceedingly righteous person. They had no right speculating and jumping to conclusions. If anything they should have trusted Moses and given him, at the very least, the benefit of the doubt. It is for this reason that they were punished in this matter. No one is above the law, but someone with such an impeccable track record like Moses was deserving of more than what they gave him. For this they were punished and rightfully so.
Maimonides in his code explains that judging other favorably by giving them the benefit of the doubt is one of the qualities of a Torah scholar. In his code he says the following, ‘A Torah scholar’ should always give others the benefit of the doubt. He should speak favorably about others and not say anything negative about them. He should be one who loves and pursues peace. (Deot 5:7).
The late Hasidic master Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berdichev took this principle one step further. He explained that if our tradition requires us to give even one individual the benefit of the doubt, then how much more so are we required to judge an entire community in the same way. A story is told that one year as the Jews gathered in the synagogue just before the beginning of ‘Kol Nidre’ on ‘Yom Kippur’, Rabbi Levi Yitzhak took a candle and began to search under the benches of the synagogue. The people were in shock sensing that perhaps the Rabbi had confused the holiday of ‘Yom Kippur’ with Passover. They asked the Rabbi what he was looking for to which he responded ‘a drunken Jew’. He then turned to the congregation and said, ‘I am looking for a drunken Jew and I am unable to find him’. At that moment he looked up to heaven and offered the following words to G-d moments before the sacred Day of Atonement was about to begin, ‘Dear G-d you have commanded your holy people to eat and drink excessively before Yom Kippur (it is prescribed in Jewish law that on the eve of Yom Kippur we should eat and drink more than usual). Had you given this command to the Cossacks there is no doubt that they would have used the opportunity to eat like gluttons and drink to their hearts desire. Had you given them the command the streets would have been filled with drunks. And now dear G-d look at your holy nation. You have commanded them to eat and drink and yet I have searched everywhere and I have not found even one drunken Jew. Instead they are all dressed in white and have gathered in the synagogue to ask you forgiveness. Master of the universe please forgive their transgression immediately and inscribe them to a year of health and blessing’. Indeed Rabbi Levi Yitzhak lived by his words. He found merit in the entire community.
There is much we can learn from the mistake of Miriam and Aharon and certainly there is much we can learn from the words of our Rabbis and the actions of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak. In a doggie doggie world where gossip is everywhere and has become so routine in our lives we would do well to rethink this subject. So much of what we read in newspapers, see on TV and hear on the radio fuel our curiosity and allow negative speech to be such an integral part of our lives. We don’t even think twice about gossiping about others. But we are what we speak and if it is negativity that we speak then we become negative people, and by extension negative things attach themselves to us. Our Rabbis explain that even though we cannot see it we must all posses two mouths, one in which we pray, praise, and speak words of Torah with, and another in which we judge unfavorably and speak slanderously with. It is inconceivable that the same mouth can do both.