The power — and importance — of words
Aaron and Miriam are speaking to each other. They criticize their brother for having married a Kushite woman. God becomes angry at their speech and calls them to the Tent of Meeting. He chastises Aaron and Miriam and tells them that there has never been anyone like Moses who gets to talk to God “mouth to mouth.” He reminds them that the status of Moses as a prophet is unlike any other, even if they themselves have the gift of prophecy. They do not compare to their brother. Miriam is stricken with leprosy, and Aaron immediately takes responsibility for the words that he had used. And despite the fact that Miriam’s criticism was directed at him, it is Moses who prays with God to heal his sister with the classic short prayer el na refah na la. Ironically, it is his critic Aaron who requests that Moses intercede on Miriam’s behalf. Due to his prayer, and despite God’s anger, Miriam is eventually healed, although she is still required to be outside the camp for seven days with her illness. Out of respect for Miriam, the camp does not move until she has healed and returned.
The great Torah commentator Rashi said that the reason that Miriam was critical of Moses was not because his wife was a Kushite, but rather because Moses had separated himself from his wife due to his work as a prophet. When two men, Eldad and Medad, begin prophesizing in the camp, Moses’ wife Zipporah tells Miriam that she hopes that these men will not separate themselves from their wives as Moses has done. That is why, according to Rashi, Miriam and Aaron compare their prophetic status to that of Moses and criticize him, because although they are prophets, they would not separate themselves from their families because of it.
But even if we hold by Rashi’s explanation of the circumstances leading up to Aaron and Miriam’s criticism of Moses, the fact remains that Miriam and Aaron are heavily critical of their brother Moses. And according to our commentators, because Moses was too humble or patient of a man to confront his siblings, it was up to God to stand up for Moses.
The Torah is teaching us with this event that words are powerful things. They have the ability to hurt as the words of Aaron and Miriam did. Words also have the ability to heal as the words of Moses did. Words can be used to undermine and denigrate, but they can also be used for holy purposes and to elevate. Words can confuse and words can teach. Words can divide and words can unite. Words can be used to anger God or obtain forgiveness.
The choice the Torah wants us to make in our own use of words is very clear. We are to recognize the importance and power of the words we speak and be guided accordingly. Our words are to be used for holy purposes. It does not matter if the person speaking is a high powered leader/prophet or common “riffraff” as the complainers among the people ae referred to in this portion.
Three times a day when we recite the words of the Amidah we begin by asking God to open our lips so that our mouths can sing God’s praise. When we conclude the Amidah we ask God once again to help us with our speech, this time by guarding our tongues from evil and our lips from speaking guile. Thus, even through our prayer we are reminded that our words can have both holy and unholy purposes. And while our natural tendency may be toward unholy purposes at times of difficulty, the recitation of the words causes us to pause before we open our mouths and assure that the words we use are not for unholy or mean-spirited purposes.
We can and will be judged by the words we choose to use whether in conversation, oration or in social media postings. If we are not sure if what we are saying is appropriate or even the way we are saying it is proper, perhaps we can answer a simple question. Are we trying to hurt or are we trying to heal with our words? The answer to that question will hopefully guide all of us.
Rabbi Yaier Lehrer is the spiritual leader of Adat Shalom in the North Hills.