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  • Writer's pictureJosh Scharff

Parashat Beha'alotcha - Using our Words for Good

Updated: Jul 12

Parashat Beha’alotecha is full of action. The levites are ordained and prepared for their role as attendants in the mishkan; the Israelites offer their first Passover sacrifice after the Exodus; the two great horns that will call the the chieftains to meet, mark holidays and new monts are minted; the Israelites complain bitterly about their lack of meat and fresh vegetables in the desert. While these are all incredible sources to consider, I want to focus on the last episode of this portion. 

Unlike the fraught sibling relationships of Genesis (blessings stolen, brothers sold into slavery to name two) Moses, Aaron and Miriam’s stands out as cooperative, collaborative and successful. In this portion we see one of the rare examples of this relationship breaking down. It begins with Miriam and Aaron taking issue with the fact that Moses has taken a new wife. They also question Moses’ fitness for leadership, saying that God has also instructed the people and acted through them, perhaps their judgment is better suited to lead the Israelite people. Hearing this God convenes the three together to the Tent of Meeting. He then orders Aaron and Miriam to step forward and offers this rebuke: 

“GOD came down in a pillar of cloud, stopped at the entrance of the Tent, and called out, “Aaron and Miriam!” The two of them came forward.“Hear these My words: When prophets of GOD arise among you, I make Myself known to them in a vision, I speak with them in a dream. Not so with My servant Moses; he is trusted throughout My household. With him I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles, and he beholds GOD’s likeness. How then did you not shrink from speaking against My servant Moses!” 

Still incensed with them, GOD departed.” (Numbers 12 5-9)

God firmly puts Aaron and Miriam in their place, going so far as to cause Miriam to fall sick and need to be separated from the community for seven days. God’s most direct rebuke is that they spoke against God’s servant Moses. They are scolded and punished for their derogatory speech towards their brother and his choices. 

While there are other places in the Torah that provide commandments about how we speak about one another, this is one of the few times that we see these principles put into action and adjudicated by God. From this episode we can understand that God has high expectations of us and the way we are meant to speak with one another. There is an expectation that we do not look to sully someone’s name, to tarnish their reputation through our words. 

This admittedly high expectation stands in stark contrast to the way in which public discourse is carried out in 2024. We are so quick to jump to extremes in the way we speak about one another. I wish I could say it was only from the comfort of people’s couches and behind the safe distance provided by the internet that this extreme method of speech and debate is heard. In Israel particularly there is a culture of saying whatever you want at any given time. Even on the floor of the Knesset, a place where we might hope for a bit of decorum, there is very little tact practiced by representatives. 

On one hand this type of speaking leaves no room for mystery. Everything is out in the open, for better or worse. On the other hand, the permission this gives to speak disparagingly about other people or groups is evident. Sadly, referring to certain groups in society as ‘pigs’ or ‘parasites,’ all sorts of generalizations and dehumanizing language meant to insult and belittle those in society with whom you do not agree. 

To be clear, this is not just one part of society. An extreme manner of speech is, sadly, found in many corners of the country. What is most frustratingly how quickly we went from be’yachad ne’natzeach - together we will win at the beginning of the war to returning to the same petty political issues and society dividing questions as if there was no war at all. And, alongside this shift, the language of division returned as well. 

It would be naive to say that there are not real differences, not real clashes of values that exist in Israel. They are present, they are real, and we will likely not be able to overcome some of them. Yet their existence does not mean that coexistence is an impossibility. However, when people, particularly those with influence and power, use language to demonize the other, to belittle and even to dehumanize, that opportunity becomes more difficult to realize. 

Aaron and Miriam, exalted leaders of our people, serve as a reminder that even the greatest amongst us can fall into this trap. They saw something with which they did not agree and, while bringing criticism is at times a value, they chose to critique Moses as a human, to try and bring him low. 

Just as our words can harm, they can also guide, inspire, and empower. May we learn the lesson of Aaron and Miriam and use our speech for good, to bring hope to our surroundings, and to move our people forward. 

Shabbat Shalom. 

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