The very end of last week’s parsha records the incident of Miriam speaking lashon hara about Moshe, and the very beginning of this week’s parsha records the incident of the meraglim, who spoke lashon hara about Eretz Yisrael. Rashi explains that the juxtaposition of these two episodes is to teach us that although Miriam was punished for speaking lashon hara about Moshe, the meraglim saw that, yet didn’t take mussar from it [i.e. they didn’t learn from it but instead spoke lashon hara about Eretz Yisrael].
The question, however, is that while Miriam spoke lashon hara about a person, the meraglim spoke lashon hara about land. So who says they didn’t learn mussar from Miriam? Maybe, in fact, they did learn from Miriam not to speak lashon hara about people! And so, why are they taken to task for “not learning from Miriam” and thus speaking lashon hara about Eretz Yisrael? Indeed, the Gemara (Arachin 15) draws a fortiori argument (“kal v’chomer”) that if the meraglim, who spoke lashon hara about “sticks and stones” (i.e. Eretz Yisrael) yet were punished so harshly, then how much more so one who speaks lashon hara about his friend. Thus, it seems evident from here that speaking about Eretz Yisrael is less sinful than speaking about people. So why are the meraglim blamed for not applying the mussar to a less strict context?
My chavruta, Reb Meir Sternberg, suggested that we see from here that when a person experiences a mussar lesson, it may not necessarily be enough to apply that mussar in that specific context, but rather one is to take it to the next level and apply it in a broader and greater way. Granted, speaking lashon hara about Eretz Yisrael may be less sinful than speaking lashon hara about a fellow Jew, but once they saw the mussar lesson of Miriam, and the terrible misdeed that lashon hara is, perhaps they were supposed to take that mussar lesson to the next level and not speak lashon hara about Eretz Yisrael.
Two parshiyot ago, the topic of the sota is discussed, immediately followed by the topic of a nazir. The Gemara (Sota 2a) explains that the connection between these two topics is to teach that one who sees the disgrace of the sota should separate himself from wine, since, as Rashi explains, wine can cause levity, and can lead to adultery (as in the sota’s case). The implication of this juxtaposition would seem to be that a bystander of the sota experience should henceforth become a nazir, as a nazir is restricted from wine.
Now, a nazir is not only restricted from consuming grapes or grape products, but also his hair may not be cut, nor may he become contaminated by a human corpse. But if the concern seemingly is what wine can cause, why doesn’t he just make a regular vow just against drinking wine? Why take on a whole state of “nezirut” which contains more restrictions than just not drinking wine?
Yet, based on the above, we may suggest that when seeing this powerful mussar lesson of the sota, one shouldn’t only take the exact lesson from it, but rather should take it to the next level. The mussar to be learned from seeing the sota is perhaps recognizing the pitfalls of loose behavior and what a lack of holiness can bring, and on the flipside, the importance of being holy. Thus he doesn’t abstain only from wine as a matter of prevention, but he also takes this concept of the disgrace that a lack of holiness can cause, and on the flip side—the imperative of being holy, and sees how he can apply it to other realms of the human experience as a matter of enhancing his commitment to be holy. Hence, he takes on a state of nezirut, which entails a lifestyle uniquely geared towards being holy.
What emerges from here is that both the meraglim and a sota bystander are perhaps to do (or have done in the case of the meraglim) a “double take” by what they experienced. Meaning, there is a twofold expectation. Just taking the exact mussar to be implemented—i.e. taking the mussar to not speak lashon hara against just people, or abstaining from just wine, wouldn’t necessarily be fulfilling the ideal task, which is only fulfilled when they take it to the next level and accomplish the second aspect of this experience, which is applying the lesson in a broader way to reach a greater level.
Indeed, when we learn or experience a mussar idea, or see the glaring truth of the Torah’s values, perhaps we are to take that value and lesson and not only see how we can apply it to our lives in that specific scenario, but also to see how we can take it to the next level, i.e. how we can take the concept and expand its application in any other facet of our lives that may be applicable so that the idea reaches and influences a broader and greater spectrum in our behaviors, interactions and overall daily living.
Binyamin can be reached at [email protected]