Parshat Beha’alotecha (5771)

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Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses regarding the Cushite woman he had married – Numbers 12:1

There is a well known fable of a father and son who were travelling to market with their donkey. As they walk alongside the animal a passerby says to them, “You fools, what is a donkey for but to ride upon?” – So the father told his son to ride on the donkey.

They had only travelled a few paces when they pass a group of men, and this time one of them shouts out: “Look at that lazy youngster; he lets his father walk while he rides.” – So they switched places and the father rode.

Shortly afterwards two women pass by and make another sharp comment: “Shame on that lazy lout to let his poor son trudge along.” – So they both got on the donkey.

The next comment was not long in coming: “Aren’t you ashamed of yourself for overloading that poor donkey of yours?” – So they both got off the donkey.

The son looks in confusion at his father for a while, unsure what to do next, and then has an inspiration: “Father,” he says, “why don’t we carry the donkey!?

Ah, criticism of others – so easy to give and so hard to receive, yet how often do we dole it out without thinking twice about its effects on the one criticised? How often do we even make sure to have all the facts before we criticise – yet when it happens to us we say, “Why didn’t they bother to get their facts straight first?”

In this week’s Torah reading we have a classic example of this: Moses’ sister Miriam is punished with leprosy for her criticism of him. She was (understandably) concerned about what she felt was his unacceptable behaviour (separating from his wife), and she made this known to Aaron in one of those “family discussions” – when you try to fix a sibling’s problems! What Miriam did not know, and could not have known, was that Moses had separated from a physical relationship with his wife on G-d’s direct command, in order to be constantly in a heightened state of purity ready for Divine revelation at any moment, night or day.

The Torah relates this story to us for a reason – not to tarnish the memories of Moses’ siblings – but to warn us the dangers of jumping to conclusions, of being critical of others without knowing all the facts, and of tale-bearing about others – what we call Lashon Hara. (You need only look to Europe and the immense damage currently caused to the Spanish agricultural sector by false accusations about E. coli for a good example!) Miriam and Aaron were very holy people, yet they too fell prey to this behaviour.

Talking negatively of others is described in the Talmud (Arachin 15b) as follows: Lashon Hara kills three: the one who said it, the one who listened and the one about whom it was said.

Recent research has proven that talking negatively about another person actually physically causes us to see them differently. Students at Northeastern University in Boston have shown that our brains are trained to be much more focused on people whom we have heard bad things about. They did this using what is called “binocular rivalry,” where volunteers were shown two images simultaneously, one for each eye. They then measured which image the brain gave dominance to and focused on longer. Interestingly any images of people about whom they were told negative comments were focused on by the brain and eyes more than the other “neutral” images. In other words when we hear Lashon Hara about someone our body reacts physically to that information. The reason for this is unclear, but they suggest that the extra focus our eyes give to “bad” people is some sort of defence mechanism to remind us to steer clear of them.

This project was done using very light criticism of people – imagine the damage we cause when we talk about others in strongly negative terms!

Each of us knows the hurt we feel when we hear negative criticism, rumours or gossip about ourselves or our loved ones; what we need to do is ensure we never do that to others. Instead let us focus on talking positively, with encouragement and genuine interest in how others are doing. To quote the industrialist Charles Schwab, “I have yet to find the man, however exalted his station, who did not do better work and put forth greater effort under a spirit of approval than under a spirit of criticism.”

Shabbat Shalom

Rabbi Zalman Lent

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