The Torah tells us that the nation of Israel camped in the Sinai desert from the beginning of the month of Sivan in the first year from their exodus from Egypt until the 20th of Iyar of the second year. Now finally, after 11 months and 20 days, the people of Israel begin their journey to the Land of Israel. The way looked unobstructed and promising, but as soon as they set off on their journey the delays begin, one of which is told of at the end of this week’s parsha.
The Torah tells us that the righteous Miriam spoke lashon hara about her brother Moshe and was punished with tzara’at (leprosy). The people of Israel were delayed for a week in their journey to the Land of Israel, until Miriam was healed. From this story we learn, first of all, how much the righteous of the generation should be respected. Through their righteousness, their entire generation merits special Divine influence and we owe them much gratitude. And so, in Miriam's honor, the travels of the entire nation were delayed by a week. But beyond the first lesson, the Torah is also teaching us about the severity of the sin of slander. Because of this sin Miriam was stricken with tzara’at and as a result the journey to the Land of Israel was delayed.
Yet, we need to delve deeper into this lesson. Because we may ask the question: Why delay an entire nation on its way to the land of Israel because of the sin of one individual? Moreover: In the Book of Devarim, on the eve of entering the land, we are commanded to remember the sin of Miriam "Remember what the L-rd your G-d did to Miriam on the way out of Egypt". This remembrance is also one of the six remembrances recited daily at the end of Shacharit.
And here, too, we must delve deeper: Why are we commanded for generations to remember the sin of one individual? The rest of the remembrances deal with general issues, such as Shabbat, the giving of the Torah, the war against Amalek, so why here are we also remembering one person’s specific sin?
It seems that the Torah wants to teach us that the sin of speaking lashon hara is not only destructive for the one who speaks it, but that it has a decisive effect on the entire nation and to our right to dwell in the Land of Israel. The people of Israel have no right to exist in the Land of Israel if we do not guard our tongues.
In order for G-d to dwell among us, we need to make room for the Shechinah, and when there is lashon hara, there is no place for G-d. This is true of an individual, of a married couple who want the Shechinah in their home, and true of Klal Yisrael who want the Shechinah to be able to reside in the Land of Israel. The condition for the prescence of the Shechinah is guarding one’s tongue.
Many times the evil inclination whispers to us that since it is very difficult -nearly impossible - for a person not to slip and say lashon hara ever, it is better to just despair in advance and give up the mitzvah of guarding one’s tongue. In response, the Chafetz Chaim brings a parable of a person who was allowed to enter a safe for a limited period of time and take as much silver and gold as he wished. But because he will not be able to take everything, should he just give up and not take anything? Certainly not!
On Shabbat and at the Shabbat table one should be even more careful to guard their tongue, and not bring up topics that may lead to lashon hara.
The same is true of guarding one’s tongue and all of the commandments of G-d: every time a person overcomes his evil inclination and does not sin he receives endless reward, so even if we fail and speak lashon hara from time to time, there is no reason not to earn the huge reward one can get for every time he does succeed. There is a wise saying which says that "Excellence is the enemy of very good " - sometimes the desire to be excellent and perfect causes a person to despair and not be the “very good” that he could have been.
Another tactic of the evil inclination is to find exuses why in this case it is permissible to speak lashon hara. In this week’s parsha Miriam had all of the good reasons to speak ill of Moshe: First of all, she was his older sister and only because of her was he born. The Midrash relates that Moshe’s father Amram divorced his wife Yocheved because of Pharaoh's decree to kill all male babies, and only due to Miriam’s words he remarried her. Miriam had claimed that he was worse than Pharaoh who sentenced the male babies to die, but by him divorcing his wife, he was also preventing the birth of females. Amram was convinced and returned to his wife and thus Moshe was born.
Miriam was also the one who guarded Moshe when he was a baby and was placed in a basket on the Nile. Even when she spoke lashon hara about Moshe divorcing his wife, she did so out of love for both Moshe and his wife, Tzippora. Moreover: Miriam felt "deja vu". She saw Moshe repeating the same mistake that his father made – to separate from his wife - and she thought that just as she was able to save the situation the first time, she could now spare Moshe from making the same mistake.
In addition, when Miriam spoke about Moshe, she did not do so publicly but only to her brother Aharon, and neither was Moshe angry about what she said. But in spite of all of the above, we see that Miriam made a mistake and was severely punished, because in lashon hara there are no excuses. Just don’t slander! (Of course, there are cases where it would be permissible and even a mitzvah to tell others such as about an abusive person, etc.)
Moreover, there is a special prohibition on slander on Shabbat. Even non-Shabbat related talk is forbidden on Shabbat as we learn from the verse "and speak a word" - that your speech on Shabbat should not be like your speech during the week. Shabbat is a holy day and speech is a holy activity, so on Shabbat and at the Shabbat table one should be even more careful to guard their tongue, and not bring up topics that may lead to lashon hara.
In the State of Israel there are always burning issues. The state is important to all of us and we may express an opinion on any and all of these issues. If the good of the state is really important to us, then it is worth remembering that if we speak lashon hara about Eretz Yisrael then we are harming the state and driving away the Shechinah, and if we guard ourselves from speaking lashon hara, and use our power of speech to encourage people, speak words of faith, and study Torah, then we can bring great blessing to the entire nation of Israel.
Rabbi Shlomo Sobol is the head of the Barkai Rabbinical Organization and the rabbi of the Shaarei Yonah Menachem community in Modi'in