In the age of the Internet, we know just how powerful words can be. Beyond our speech, there are so many mediums through which words are shared today. Facebooks posts, newspaper articles, texts, blogs and WhatsApp messages. A Tweet of only 280 characters can inspire, empower, humiliate, or destroy.
Words can make or break a relationship, get us hired or fired, connect or distance, impress or horrify, heal or hurt.
And, no matter what, they can never be retrieved. They can be forgiven but are never really forgotten.
In this week’s parasha of Beha’alotecha, Miriam the Prophetess, sister of Moses and Aaron, reappears after a many-week hiatus.
The last time we heard from Miriam was on the banks of the Red Sea, back in the book of Exodus. After the Jewish people experienced the miracle of the Splitting of the Sea, Miriam led the women in song and dance in praise of God:
“Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took her drum in her hand, and all the women went forth after her with drum and with dances. Miriam spoke up to them, ‘Sing to God for He is exalted, having hurled horse with its rider into the sea.’” (Exodus 15:20-21)
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz comments on the surprising description of Miriam as the sister of Aaron. We would have expected her to be mentioned as the sister of her more well-known brother, Moses, leader of the Jewish nation. He suggests that perhaps through this association, the Torah is shedding light on Miriam’s leadership. Appointed by God, Moses was always separate from and somewhat above the rest of the people. He grew up in the palace of Pharaoh and spent many years off in Midian. It was hard for the Hebrew slaves to relate to and identify with him.
But Miriam, like her brother Aaron, rose up through the ranks of their friends and neighbors. People connected to her and to her words; they gravitated toward her leadership; they sought out her counsel; they appreciated her wisdom. They literally “went forth after her,” on their own, without any directive.
From earlier stories of Miriam, we learn of her assertive nature. As a young child, she keeps a watchful eye on her newborn brother Moses, when he is placed in a floating basket in the reeds of the Nile river. Miriam observes his fate from afar, and, when she sees the daughter of Pharaoh open the basket and find her brother, Miriam takes the initiative to approach and brazenly suggest that perhaps she can find a Hebrew woman to nurse the baby.
What courage, what self-confidence, what audacity it must have taken for a young Jewish girl to face the princess of the oppressive and subjugating nation of Egypt! And yet Miriam speaks up for the sake of protecting her baby brother and in hope of giving her mother an opportunity to spend whatever precious moments she could with her son.
It is no surprise, therefore, that the midrashim further develop these character traits in Miriam. The Talmud (Sota 12a) tells how it was Miriam who confronted her father, Amram, after he separated from her mother, Yocheved, during the time of Pharaoh’s harsh decree that all male newborns be thrown into the river. Miriam told her father: “You are worse than Pharaoh, for he only decreed against the males, but you are preventing the birth of both males and females!” And with that Amram reunited with Yocheved and encouraged all other couples to follow suit.
Other midrashim also tell us that Puah, one of the two midwives commanded by Pharaoh to kill newborn babies, was, in fact, none other than Miriam. Who else would have the gall to disregard the word of the all-powerful king of Egypt and to speak to him without flinching?
Miriam was indeed a woman of courage and a woman of words. She was a prophetess who spoke the word of God. She was a daughter who spoke up to her parents. She was a sister who engaged the princess of Egypt, she was a midwife who was unafraid to both defy and lie to the king and she was a leader who led her people in song before God.
She uses her words to inspire, demand, comfort, suggest, deny, create and praise.
But in our parasha, something goes wrong.
Miriam uses her words to talk badly about her brother Moses and to speak harshly about him behind his back. According to the commentator Rashi, she tells Aaron that Moses has inappropriately separated from his wife, Tzipporah, and does not live a normal, married, intimate life together with her.
Miriam’s intentions were pure. She had always wanted the best for Moses. She looks out for him, protects him and facilitates pivotal events in his life. And now she is worried about and wants to help his marriage. She cannot fathom why he thinks he must abstain from sexual activity with his wife. “Was it only to Moses that God spoke? Did He not speak to us as well?” (Numbers 12:2)
But Miriam is mistaken. God has to appear and tell her that “Not so is My servant Moses; in My entire house he is the trusted one.” You might all be prophets, but he is not like you. He is different. “Mouth to mouth do I speak to him, in a clear vision and not in riddles, at the image of God does he gaze. Why did you not fear to speak against My servant Moses?” (12:7-8)
Rav Mosheh Lichtenstein once commented that there is an inherent danger in the personality of someone like Miriam. Often it is the person who is willing to take risks, be assertive, speak up and say what he or she wants who then sometimes discovers that a boundary has been overstepped or a line has been crossed.
We need to think carefully before we speak. We need to gauge each situation for what it is. We need to make sure that our reaction is appropriate, that our words are carefully chosen, and that they are delivered in the right way.
And even when we have the best of intentions, as Miriam most certainly did, sometimes it might still be wrong to speak up. Sometimes our words and our thoughts are best kept to ourselves. Especially when they are not whispered to one’s brother, but recorded on the internet forever.
Kohelet 3:7 tells us, “There is a time to be silent and a time to speak.”
It takes a wise person to know the difference.