Parsha Bahalotecha June 17, 2006 21-Sivan 5766 Given by Glenn Carr in honor of his daughter Susanna's 14th birthday
From left to right, Glenn, Susanna, and Ytta Carr
Good Shabbos everyone. I’d like to thank Rabbi Weisblum for inviting me to speak this morning in honor of our daughter Susanna’s 14th birthday. I’d like to extend a yasher koach, an early Happy Birthday, and my best wishes for a very meaningful and enjoyable summer to my friend Elliott Goldberg. You are an asset to our synagogue and a source of pride to your parents. Have a great trip to Spain and Israel, and you are welcome to write an essay about your experience in Israel which I will gladly post on the synagogue Web site.
My friends, we celebrated Susanna’s 14th birthday this past Wednesday, June 14. She was well aware of the special meaning of that day to her and to us. She laughed with sheer delight whenever she was reminded of her birthday. Although she has autism, and does not yet have the gift of speech, she simply loves life and is not bashful about showing it. This unconditional love of life can be attributed to her surrounding and her upbringing, the love and care from her devoted and loving mother, my wonderful wife Ytta, her grandparents Ernest and Marilyn Halpern her in Annapolis, my mother Nancy Cohen in Baltimore, her school, and all of you at Congregation Kneseth Israel as her extended family.
Susanna has a natural innocence and purity that will probably be with her the rest of her life. And although she does not speak, she is fortunate in the sense that she is void from the most common and destructive sin – lashon hara, idle gossip or literally "evil of the tongue".
In this morning’s parsha, we see an example of lashon hara with the great Prophetess Miriam, older sister of Moshe Rabeinu. Moses had a very unique and challenging situation regarding his family life and his relation with G-d and the Children of Israel. Because he was in constant contact with the Almighty, he was instructed (by G-d) to remain ritually pure at all times. This meant that he had to separate himself from his wife Zipporah. This was a private and personal matter, which Miriam happened to have learned from Zipporah. Miriam felt that Moses behavior was inappropriate to his wife, not realizing that this was instructed by G-d. She went ahead and expressed her negative feelings about Moses to her brother Aaron, and they both agreed and and collectively showed jealousy towards Moses. Although Miriam was genuinely concerned for her youngest brother, what she did was wrong.
Hashem punished Miriam with tzoraas, or leprosy. Her skin became as white as snow and she was in pain, and expelled from civilization for seven days. She was punished for her action of lashon hara. The great and beloved 19th and 20th century Torah scholar Rabbi Yisroel Meir Kagan, better known as the Chofetz Chayim, wrote volumes on lashon hara. A few of his principles of his writing are based on this incident in this week’s parsha, which I’d like to share with you.
First, the prohibition of lashon hara applies even when the victim of the gossip is not bothered in the least bit. This morning’s parsha immediately references Moses as very humble in the very next sentence after Miriam and Aaron express their displeasure – "v’ha-eesh Moshe aw-naw m’ode" "Now the man Moses was exceedingly humble". "Mee-kol ha-adama asher al p’nay ha-ah-daw-maw" "More than any person on the face of the earth". So it is forbidden to take the approach that I may speak critical of someone else, since I know that it doesn’t bother that person.
Secondly, it is forbidden to take the approach that since you have helped this person in the past, you do not have the right to speak against that person. Your generosity or kindness is not a ticket to idle gossip against that person. In this case, Miriam saved Moshe’s life when he was a baby, but she was still punished.
Thirdly, the prohibition of lashon hara still applies even if you gossip in private to just one trusted person in confidence. It doesn’t make a difference according to halacha if it is gossiped to one person or to a million people. Miriam told this only to her brother Aaron, and their viewpoints were not expressed publicly.
Lastly, if one criticizes a person with a good reputation about his behavior, claiming that the behavior would be proper only if the person was at a higher level; that is another form of loshan hara that the Chofetz Chayim identifies from the parsha. A common phrase used is "who does he think he is doing this or that", which applies to Miriam’s reaction. Miriam thought that Moses was wrong for separating himself from his wife. However, she was wrong because she did not know the circumstances, with Moses level of prophecy and his relationship with Hashem required him to abstain from his marital relationship.
We also see Moses’ immediate reaction of mercy and forgiveness (instead of bitterness), as he immediately prayed for G-d to heal Miriam when she was stricken with leprosy. From this we learn even if someone acts against you and is punished for their actions, one should do all that we can to assist that individual.
In parsha Ki Seitzei, when the laws are taught to the new generation of Jews that are about to enter the Promised Land, the incident with Miriam’s lashon hara is rehashed. Her ordeal is an important reminder to every generation of Israel that life and death are in the power of the tongue. Ramban noted that it was a positive commandment to remember what G-d did to Miriam after she incorrectly spoke out against Moses.
I want to conclude with this antidote. A person is working out in a health club and has a conversation with three other extremely fit persons. The topic of the conversation is the most powerful part of their body. One mentions that his chest and torso are solid, and he has awesome washboard abs. Another person mentions that his arms are like Popeye’s. A third mentions that his legs are like tree trunks. And the wise person in the conversation says, "Fellas, you’ve got it all wrong. Your tongue is by far the most powerful part of your body, as when used improperly could destroy the reputation and soul of your fellow."
I hope and pray that in the not so distant future, that we will all be here to celebrate the Bat Mitzvah of Susanna Abigail Carr. Shabbat Shalom.