“And Miriam and Aaron spoke about Moshe regarding the Kushis woman he took, for he took a Kushis woman.” – Bamidbar 12:1
Miriam spoke disparagingly about Moshe Rabbeinu. Because of this, she contracted tzaras, and for seven days she was sent outside the camp of Israel.
Rashi explains how these events unfolded. Miriam had been standing next to Moshe’s wife, Tziporah, when they heard that two men were prophesying in the camp. Tziporah exclaimed, “Woe to the wives of these men! Now their husbands will separate from them, as my husband did from me.” When Miriam heard this, she went to Aaron and said, “We are also prophets. We don’t separate from our spouses. Why should our brother Moshe be different?”
For this statement, Miriam was punished. Rashi concludes from this incident that if Miriam, who didn’t intend any harm to Moshe, was so severely rebuked, surely one who intends to disparage his friend will be punished.
This Rashi is difficult to understand. What was Miriam’s transgression? She witnessed her brother doing something that in her estimation was wrong. She didn’t go blabbing the news all over town. She went directly to spiritual giant, the Kohen Gadol, Moshe’s brother Aaron, to ask for his advice. If she was correct and Moshe was acting improperly, then Aaron would validate her assessment. If she was wrong, he would correct her. Her intentions were pure. Her actions were discreet. Where was her wrongdoing?
The answer to this question is based on understanding what the Torah considers slander. The Rambam explains that the definition of lashon hara is “Words that hurt, words that damage.” Whether damaging a man’s reputation, harming his career, or spoiling his standing in the community – they are words that cause harm.
There are, however, times when lashon hara is permitted. If someone speaks for a constructive purpose and that speech meets exact Torah guidelines, then it is a mitzvah. In that case, the report isn’t considered disparaging. Quite the opposite, since we are obligated to protect our fellow Jews from harm, sometimes we must inform others of what we know. But that is the point: Torah law defines what constitutes slander and what is a mitzvah. The line between the two is often very thin.
The Chofetz Chaim writes that for the telling of disparaging information to be permissible, a person must have first-hand knowledge of the facts, and there can be no room for misinterpretation or for error. If there is another possible explanation that shows the act in a different light, then he is forbidden to speak.
This seems to be the answer to Rashi. Hashem rebuked Miriam and Aaron both, saying, “Why did you suspect my servant, Moshe? Moshe was on such a lofty level that you should have realized what he did was justified and proper. You should have judged him favorably. Because you judged him incorrectly, you mistook his intentions and determined his actions to be improper. He is my servant, loyal and obedient, pure and untainted. You should have realized that he is in a different league than any other man, and you should have judged him favorably.”
That was Miriam’s transgression. She miscalculated. Everything she did after that was correct, but it was all based on her error. Her mistake was in her initial assessment, which then led to her to slander her brother unintentionally. But unintentional slander is slander nevertheless.
This Rashi teaches us a vital concept. How many times do we hear people say, “This isn’t lashon hara; it’s l’toeles [for a constructive purpose],” or, “About a person like him, it’s a mitzvah to talk.” And they are correct. If according to the halacha this is “a constructive purpose,” or if by Torah standards this man is a rasha, then it is a mitzvah to repeat what happened. But if not, it’s a sin. And that’s the question – is it or isn’t it?
And so we have to ask ourselves how certain we are that what we’re saying meets the Torah’s definition of a “constructive purpose.” Do we know what the Torah’s requirements are to consider a person a rasha? And even more, how many times is our conclusion deeply colored by our own hurt feelings, or by a grudge that we bear, or some other bias blinding us to the truth?