“Remember what Hashem did to Miriam on the way, when you were leaving Egypt.” (Devarim 24:9)
Rashi expounds that Miriam was punished with leprosy because she spoke lashon hara about her brother Moshe. Our sages note that if someone speaks lashon hara, they also transgress this positive commandment (mitzvos aseh) of the Torah to remember what happened to Miriam.
Rabbi Yitzchak Pinchas Goldwasser points out the unique nature of the Torah’s warning that the punishment of leprosy is associated with the prohibition of speaking lashon hara. Nowhere else does the Torah spell out the punishment associated with a transgression. We thus understand that there is a special connection between leprosy and the sin of lashon hara, because the punishment is intended to help rectify the aveirah.
At the end of the laws dealing with the impurities of leprosy, Rambam explains that the Torah cautions us to “[b]eware of a leprosy affliction … remember what Hashem did to Miriam” so that we should contemplate what happened to Miriam the Prophetess: She spoke about her younger brother, whom she had nurtured and for whom she endangered her life when she put him in the water. She didn’t disrespect him; she merely erred by comparing him in stature to the other prophets. Despite the fact Moshe himself was not concerned about such lapses – as it says, “Moshe was exceedingly humble” (Bamidbar 12:3) – Miriam was nevertheless immediately smitten with leprosy.
According to Rambam, Miriam made an error in judgment that is the essence of the sin of lashon hara. If one strengthens one’s middah (character trait) of b’tzedek tishpot amisecha – you shall judge your fellow with righteousness – it facilitates the fulfillment of avoiding lashon hara. Rabbeinu Yonah writes that if one sees someone doing something, he should always try to judge him favorably even if it is more reasonable to judge him unfavorably.
Indeed, if the person making the judgment is a spiritual person, he will decide in favor of the individual because he has an eiyin tovah (a good eye) and it is natural for him to judge another individual favorably. On the other hand, one who is removed from Hashem has less appreciation for the need to disassociate himself from sin, and will therefore be less inclined to proffer a favorable judgment.
When the metzora is isolated outside the camp, separated from friends and family and spiritually unclean, our sages tell us he is considered like a dead person. His sole relief and comfort is his spiritual growth – the realization that he must develop his neshama to be able to perceive others in a better light. By internalizing the principle of b’tzedek tishpot amisecha he has the ability to rectify the sin of lashon hara.
When the Ksav Sofer, the rav of Pressburg, was able to prevail upon the Hungarian government to allow their Jewish kehilla to remain an independent structure, he organized a huge gathering of the distinguished heads of Hungarian Jewry. The convention was intended to strengthen the spiritual status of Hungarian Jewry; many great sages and rabbis attended, presenting divrei Torah and halachic discussions.
At the height of the ceremonies, the Ksav Sofer ascended to the podium and announced that upon this momentous occasion, he would like to show all the eminent guests a valuable treasure that he had inherited from his father, dating all the way back to the times of the Bais HaMikdash. He withdrew from his pocket a shekel coin, which he then passed around so everyone could see it for themselves.
The coin was being passed carefully from hand to hand. Suddenly someone called out, “Where is the shekel?” The shekel was indeed gone. The Ksav Sofer rose, trembling with emotion, and could not understand how such a thing had happened.
“I am sure,” he announced, “that the shekel disappeared with no bad intentions. However, it is possible that someone took the coin by mistake, perhaps unwittingly placing it in his own pocket in exchange for another. With my deepest apologies, I ask everyone to check among their coins to see if the shekel inadvertently ended up in his pocket.
Still the shekel was not found. When the Ksav Sofer realized that the first suggestion had not yielded the coin, he announced that each person should check the next person’s pocket to find the shekel.
At that point, an elderly man and noted talmid chacham adamantly protested. He suggested that they wait a half hour to see if the coin would turn up. When the allotted time had passed, the elderly man rose again and requested that they wait another 30 minutes. The crowd was impatient and did not readily agree to this appeal. The Ksav Sofer, however, recognized the gentleman as one of the distinguished disciples of his father and asked the assemblage to accede to his request.
After another 30 minutes had elapsed, the elderly gentleman was losing his credibility. Still, he asked for 15 more minutes and promised that he would not impose upon their time any further.
Suddenly, as the shamash of the Ksav Sofer was removing the tablecloth to shake off the crumbs, the coin fell to the ground. Seeking an explanation, all eyes focused on the elderly gentleman.
The man rose and said, “When I received the invitation to participate in this extraordinary convention, where all the great tzaddikim and gaonim of Hungary would come together, I thought it would be worthwhile to bring with me something that would be of great interest to the gathering. Since I owned a shekel from the time of the Bais HaMikdash I chose to bring the coin with me to show it. However, when I heard that our rebbi the Ksav Sofer also had such a coin, I yielded to his honor.
“When the coin was lost and it was suggested that everyone check his neighbor’s pocket I knew the lost object would be found on my person. That would have caused a great chillul Hashem. Undoubtedly, I could have argued that I too had such a coin, but it would have been to no avail. I therefore tried to avoid that situation and in the interim I prayed that there should be no cause for embarrassment of chillul Hashem. My prayers were answered and the coin was indeed found.
“That is a holy shekel, and I have my shekel in my possession.” The elderly man paused and took out his own coin to show everyone.
When he concluded, the Ksav Sofer turned to the assemblage. “We should thank Hashem that this incident was brought to a successful conclusion and there was no chillul Hashem,” he said. “This teaches us how far one must go to fulfill the mandate of judging every person favorably. Even when all indications would suggest that an individual is guilty, one must find merit.