By Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky
This week the Torah uses two of Judaism’s greatest prophets to teach us a lesson that is applicable to every Jew that walks the face of this earth. It teaches us about lashon horah – evil talk. It chides, not two low level subordinates for speaking against their leader, rather it admonishes none other than Moshe’s siblings, Aharon and Miriam. Miriam expressed concern to Aharon about a certain aspect of her brother’s manner, yet Hashem felt it was inappropriate. So Hashem reprimands Moshe’s siblings: “Hear now My words. If there shall be prophets among you, in a vision shall I, Hashem, make Myself known to him; in a dream shall I speak with him:Not so is My servant Moses; in My entire house he is the trusted one. Mouth to mouth do I speak to him, in a clear vision and not in riddles, at the image of Hashem does he gaze. Why did you not fear to speak against My servant, against Moses?”(Numbers 12:6-8). Obviously Miriam’s concerns were unjustified for a man of Moshe’s stature. But in the course of the rebuke, a phrase seems superfluous. What does the Torah mean by repeating the expression, “against My servant, against Moses”? Shouldn’t it have said, against Moses, my servant or my servant, Moses. After all there was only one party involved Moshe.Rashi elucidates: “against My servant,” even if he was not Moses, and “against Moses” even if he was not “My servant.” The Torah seems to make a clear warning against slandering either Moses the servant or Moses the man. What is the difference?
My grandfather, Reb Yaakov Kamenetzky told the story of the Chafetz Chaim and another Rabbi who were traveling together in Poland. As guests at an inn, they were served a fitting meal. Upon finishing their supper, the proprietress inquired about the quality of the service and the food.
“Excellent,” replied the Chafetz Chaim. The other rabbi nodded in agreement and then said as an afterthought, “the soup could use a bit more salt.”
The Chafetz Chaim turned white. The moment the hostess left the table he turned to his travel partner. “What have you done? All my life I have tried to avoid lashon harah and now I regret this entire trip!” “But what did I say?” pleaded the other Rabbi. “All I mentioned is that the soup needed a bit of salt. Otherwise I was as complimentary as you!” Don’t you understand? There is a poor Jewish widow that is the cook. Right now the owner will complain to the cook who may deny that she did not salt the soup, then there may be a fight. The widow may lose her job! And if you don’t believe me, come to the kitchen and see what is happening!” True to his prediction they entered the kitchen and saw the hostess admonishing the cook. Only the intervention and continued compliments of the rabbis calmed the ire of the hostess and the cook retained her position. The Torah teaches us an important lesson in considering about whom we speak. Some of us worry about speaking about Hashem’s servants. But the Torah clearly chastises those who speak against Moses, even if he were not “my servant”! Everyone has a capacity in life and deserves the utmost regard no matter how high or low they are on the social scale.
The Chofetz Chaim, the great sage who “wrote the book” that details the laws of Lashon Horah, used to say, “If you say that the rabbi cannot sing and that the cantor cannot learn, that is lashon harah. But if you say that the chazzan cannot sing and the rabbi cannot learn, that is murder! Hashem declares, “I do not approve whether you speak about my servant in the capacity of a Moshe, or a Moshe in the capacity of my servant!” Whether in the capacity of a rabbi or that of a simple Moshe, every Jew has feelings. Whether they are considered “servants of Hashem” or are regarded as just a simple “Moishe,” we must be careful of what we say to them, and about them. For the crime of lashon horah is an equal opportunity wrongdoing.