People make mistakes. The fact that a person has made a mistake, as such, is not necessarily a reason for punishment. Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Teshuva 5:4 clearly states that punishment must be a result of the reality of bechira, free choice, and the fact that someone chose specifically the path of ra, evil.1 It must be the result of some culpable, character flaw, not just that someone made a mistake, evaluated a situation incorrectly and came to a erroneous conclusion.2 This recognition creates a challenge for one attempting to understand various episodes presented in Sefer Bamidbar including, of course, the story of the Meraglim.3 We can understand the cognitive mistake that they made but what was the character flaw that led to this mistake and for which they were culpable and punishable? That is a much more difficult question to answer, especially in light of the illustrious stature of these individuals.4
Perhaps the most difficult challenge of this nature that faces us within this Sefer is actually encountered in the episode the precedes the Story of the Meraglim, that is the case of Miram.5 We cannot doubt the righteousness of Moshe’s sister; in fact, it is essentially in recognition of Miriam’s virtuous status that the nation waited for her to conclude her days of separation before traveling in the desert.6 The question must then be asked: what was Miriam’s aveira, sin? The well-known, simple answer is that she was guilty of speaking loshon hara, negatively about her brother, Moshe – but does that make sense on its own? Is it easy to contemplate that a woman of Miriam’s piety would speak loshon hara? A purview of the laws of loshon hara would seem to even give strong reason to justify Miriam’s behaviour. It could easily be contended that she was speaking to her brother Aharon with the intent of solving what she perceived to be a problem in the relationship between Moshe and his wife, Tzippora. If there was a perceived purpose in her talk with Aharon and it was all with a good intent, why would this speech even be classified as an aveira? To answer simply, that the fact that Miriam was punished obviously must show us that her purpose and/or intent was not truly this good, only strengthens the original question - how can we even assume that someone like Miriam did not have such good intent and purpose? She was mistaken, though, about this perceived problem in the relationship between Moshe and Tzippora, it was sanctioned by God – but is such a mistake deserving of punishment? What was Miriam’s character flaw that led to the mistake and the consequences from God?
Rabbi Avishai David, Darosh Darash Yosef, Shelah I and II presents the views of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik on the question of why Miriam was punished. The Rav contends that Miriam’s mistake was in her lack of understanding of the level of segulah, special uniqueness. Miriam evaluated the situation without the recognition that Moshe as prophet was in a category of segulah and thus she complained to Aharon about Moshe and Tzippora’s marriage. Simply she saw a quantitative difference between Moshe and other prophets7 but she did not recognize it to be actually a qualitative difference. But this would seem to be a cognitive mistake; why would it thus be punishable? The inability for Miriam to perceive this qualitative distinction must have reflected a character flaw. There can be no doubt that she spoke to Aharon with good intent and purpose but if she would have evaluated the situation between Moshe and his wife correctly, she would have recognized that the situation was necessary and not a problem. The punishable problem, though, was in her evaluation and the character flaw within her that led to it.
Before continuing to consider what may have been this character flaw that led Miriam to her incorrect evaluation, it may be first interesting to note that the Rav concludes that this must also be the punishable problem in the story of the Meraglim. Rashi, Bamidbar 13:2 informs us that the reason that the story of the Meraglim follows the episode with Miriam is because the spies should have learned from what happened to Miriam not to repeat the same mistake in their undertaking. The simple way that this connection is understood is that both stories concern loshon hara and the spies should have learned from what happened with Miriam not to speak it, specifically about the land. But how is the one case comparable to the other in this regard; they would seem to concern totally different circumstances and facts? The Rav thus explains that the mistake of the Meraglim was also in the realm of segulah. They did not understand the special unique status of this land and its relationship to God and the nation of Israel. From what happened to Miriam they should have learned about this status of segulah and corrected within themselves the similar character flaw that also led Miriam astray.
What, though, was this character flaw? What is the character flaw in an individual that would lead a person to misread segulah? It was obvious to Miriam that what Tzippora told her was a problem that needed correcting. What was the one factor, though, in which she was mistaken? Moshe, the segulah status of Moshe. She didn’t recognize that her evaluation was based upon facts which she did not fully understand – and she should have at least recognized this. Maybe she did not understand this segulah level of Moshe, maybe she needed God to explain it to her – but she should have recognized that her evaluation that Moshe did something wrong was also problematic. She should have had enough recognition of Moshe, and awe of Moshe, that she should have doubted her conclusion. What Tzippora told her should not have led to a conclusion but a question. This was the character flaw in Miriam and it was a similar one that led to the downfall of the Meraglim. Their evaluation led to a conclusion not to enter the land – but this land was a gift from God. They should have had enough recognition of God, and awe of God, to have formulated their problem into a question, rather than a conclusion and missed evaluation.
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht
1 I actually have difficulty with the generic translation of ra as evil but that discussion is beyond the parameters of this Insight.
2 This is not to say that there are no negative repercussions for a mistake and that a mistake, in and of itself, cannot lead to painful consequences. While the connection between the earthly parameters of cause-and-effect and the Divine realm of reward and punishment is a matter that has eluded the greatest minds including Moshe Rabbeinu (see T.B. Berachot 7b), in a world of cause-and-effect mistakes can have negative repercussions, even potentially harmful ones. The Meraglim did not just face the negative repercussions of their mistake; they were punished.
3 Bamidbar 13:1-14:10
4 See, for example, Rashi, Bamidbar 13:3.
5 Bamidbar 12:1-16.
6 See Rashi, Bamidbar 12:15. Note how Rashi implies that it was God Who made the decision to wait, further substantiating this idea.
7 To maintain that Miriam actually believed her level of prophecy to be equal to that of Moshe, given all that Miriam saw in regard to Moshe’s unique relationship with God is simply too much of a stretch. She didn’t understand that these distinctions did not just mean that Moshe was more of a prophet but rather that he was in a totally different category.
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