Beha’alotcha: Two Types Of Questions

Miriam’s Mistake

At the end of Torah portion Beha’alotcha, Miriam is punished for speaking lashon hara (lit. “evil tongue”) about Moses. Looking at what she actually says, it doesn’t seem that outrageous. She simply asks a question relating to Moses’ separation from his wife Ziporah so that he can retain a state of ritual purity before receiving prophecy. Miriam is herself a prophet and does not separate from her husband, so in conversation with Aaron she asks, “Has the Lord spoken only to Moses? Hasn’t he spoken to us too?” (Num. 12:2). Is that not a reasonable question?

Rabbi Eliyahu Eliezer Dessler (1892-1953) explains that there are two types of questions. One is asked out of a genuine desire to learn the answer. The other is asked as a negative insinuation; the questioner isn’t curious but rather wants to express his or her own disapproval. In this case, Miriam doesn’t ask out of innocent curiosity but rather to show her concern that Moses is neglecting his wife. Her intentions may be good, but her speech isn’t necessary or helpful, and she is punished with the skin disease tzaraas and separated from the camp for seven days. This may seem like an overly harsh punishment, but because of Miriam’s elevated level of righteousness and position of great influence, she is held to a higher standard. “For whom the Lord loves, he rebukes.” (Prov. 3:12)

Let us all take great care that everything we say is for the good!

Image: Zipporah, detail from Sandro Botticelli’s “Youth of Moses,” c. 1480

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