I was once visiting the Shiva home of someone whose mother had passed away at an old age. The children were discussing her last days, as she was lying unconscious in the hospital. There was no way of communicating with her as she was unconscious and the children were following the various numbers on the EKG and other monitors that were there. Knowing their mother liked a specific genre of classical music, one of the children played that music in the background and said: “I really think she will get better.” Suddenly, the EKG numbers stabilized, and the mother situation got better and better. The next day, a family friend came in, looked at her and said: “I don’t think there is much hope, I don’t think she will make it.” Shortly thereafter, the situation deteriorated and the mother passed away. Few stories that I have heard in my life exemplified to me the Solomonic dictum, “Death and life are in the hand of the tongue” (Proverbs, 18:21). It also proved to me that it does not take intention for speech to be harmful.
In Parashat Be’ahalotcha we read about Miriam and Aaron speaking negatively about Moses. “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses regarding the Cushite woman he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman”(Bamidbar, Chapter 12). We are then told about the severe punishment of Tzara’at given to them. Imagine that. The same Miriam who looked out for Moses when he was a baby in a basket floating on the Nile River, the one who clearly loved him, speaking about Moses. There is no doubt Miriam had no bad intentions.
Why was she speaking about him then? Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe gives a beautiful explanation to this, reflecting all the way back on what had happened in Egypt. When Miriam heard that Moses had separated from his wife Tzipora due to his high level of prophecy, she recalled what happened back in Egypt, when Pharaoh mandated all Jewish males be thrown into the Nile. She remembered how her father Amram separated from her mother, Yocheved. After all, why be together if the children born then are thrown into the Nile. The Midrash says that Miriam convinced her parents to get back together and Moses was then born. When Miriam sees Moses separated from Tzipora, be it for the most legitimate reasons in the world, she is besides herself. The child that was born from the opposite kind of thinking, cannot take this very same path. She does not want to approach Moses directly and cause any friction between Moses and Tzipora and she goes and discusses the matter with Aaron her brother. What was her sin then? We know that Lashon Hara which is said Leto’elet, in a constructive way, is permitted. Yes, the Chafetz Chaim goes through the various conditions which make something a Le’Toe’let, but it seems like Miriam was on this path, so what was her sin?
Commentaries have varying opinions on this. Maimonides believes their sin was assuming Moses’s prophecy was on the level of other prophets. Rashi believes it was the harshness with which her words were said, but all agree that it was not a simple version of gossip.
What is clear is that when we speak, our words have power. We don’t need to have negative intentions or say something outright negative for it to be harmful. There is a great deal of awareness today surrounding the issue of bullying, with an underlying assumption there where there is bullying, there is a bully. We have a culture of allies vs. bystanders, bullies vs. friends, sometimes failing to recognize that the kindest of words can be hurtful and damaging.
What is true on the negative is even truer on the positive side. Our words can make a huge difference. There is a famous story about Thomas Edison, who came home one day from school with a letter. “The school gave me this letter and said no one other than you can read it,” he told his mom. His mom opened the note and tears came to her eyes. “The school said you are too smart and there is no one in the school smart enough to teach you, we will need to hire you a private tutor.” And that is what happened. Edison went on to become one of the world’s greatest scientists. Years later, when his mother passed away, Edison was going through his mother’s things. He suddenly saw a note and started crying. He saw that letter from the school. It said “your son is not smart enough and we can’t keep on having him in our school.”
I recently read in the book of Rabbi Yitzchak Zilberstein (le’chanech besimcha) a story about a well-known rabbi from Israel who got a call from his child’s principal. When hanging up he told his son he wanted to take him out for ice cream, following very positive reports. This kept on happening, until one day the father was away on a trip and the mother picked up the phone, the principal was on the line. He called her into school and told her about her son’s mischief. She then understood what was happening. The child grew up to be a bright and very accomplished young man. This is the power of our words.
There needs not be a bully for someone to be bullying. If there is information people find intimidating or hurtful, it doesn’t really matter what our intentions are. This is something which is a constant struggle, yet holds endless options in inspiring and making this world a better place.