Torah Reading for the Week of June 1-7, 2014
“The Wild Horses of Hearsay”
By Rabbi Yehuda Hausman, AJRCA Professor of Rabbinics
“Who brings a tale takes two away.” So goes an Irish proverb.
Gossip is like that. I share one tale with a friend, and this friend shares a second tale with me. Often it doesn’t end there. Dirt is piled upon dirt; the proverbial molehill becomes a mountain.
In this week’s portion, Beha’aalotecha, the Torah records the saintly characters of Miriam and Aaron – Moses’ siblings – swept up in the winds of disreputable chatter.
“And Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had married: For he had married an Ethiopian woman. And (then) they said: Has the Lord spoken only with Moses? Has He not spoken also with us?” (Numbers 12:1,2)
Note the progression. First Aaron and Miriam complain about Moses’ relationship with his wife, and then they complain about Moses’ relationship with God.
The conversation may very well have continued had they not been interrupted by an irate God: “And the Lord spoke suddenly unto Moses, and unto Aaron, and unto Miriam: ‘Come out, you three, to the Tent of Meeting…” (12.4)
Such is the power of gossip, without a swift or sudden interruption, without a voice from Above or within that says, ‘Enough!’, gossip will carry on.
A final thought. It is somewhat of a mystery just what it was that Miriam and Aaron found bothersome in regards to Moses’ wife. The Torah seems to want to spare us specific details, yet our commentators, as is their custom, attempt to flesh out the unsaid.
Some are of the opinion that the conversation was about Moses being a neglectful husband (Rashi, Hizkuni). Others suggest it was about Moses’ decision to marry a non-Israelite wife (Ibn-Kaspi, Shadal). A third approach imagines that they went as far as discussing his wife’s unattractiveness (Ibn-Ezra).
Whatever the truth, there is a certain irony in the Torah trying to spare us the details of Miriam and Aaron’s exchange, and we in our curiosity trying to flesh out the scandal. When it comes to gossip, legend abounds. A thread of hearsay can become a patchwork of conjecture or outright fabrication. In this, too, there is a valuable lesson.