The name Behaalotecha means, “in your going up”, and specifically refers to Aaron going up to light the menorah (candelabra) in the mishkan (tabernacle).
The parsha ends with a curious story. This story ends up being one of the six things we are supposed to remember every day (see the six remembrances below). Here, Miryam speaks negatively against Moses and she ends up contracting Tzaarat, which is often called leprosy, but it wasn’t actually leprosy, which is a contagious and until recently, incurable disease of the nerves, respiratory tract, skin and eyes. Leprosy has a very long (as in 5-10 years) incubation period caused by a bacteria. Tzaarat is a disfiguring impurity that can affect skin, beard hair, the scalp, clothing made of linen or wool, and the walls of a home. Tzaarat was a physical manifestation of any of several sins which would fall together into the category of arrogance, but most commonly for Lashon Hara (negative speech about another). Reference to tzaarat can mostly be found in Vayikra (Leviticus) chapters 13-14.
So here, in the seventh aliya, we read:
1 Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses regarding the Cushite woman he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman.
10 The cloud departed from above the Tent, and behold, Miriam was afflicted with tzara’ath, [as white] as snow. Then Aaron turned to Miriam and behold, she was afflicted with tzara’ath.
15 So Miriam was confined outside the camp for seven days, and the people did not travel until Miriam had entered.
There are two very important Jewish principles that we get from this passage. The first one is how incredibly important it is that we don’t speak lashon hara against anyone – so important that we are told by the sages that we must remember it every day. And secondly that we are not to embarrass another. In fact, the Gamara relates that embarrassing another person is equal to killing them.
Did you know that there are six things we are told that we must remember every day? In most siddurs (prayer books) you can find the list right after shacharit (morning prayer service). The six remembrances are:
- REMEMBER THE EXODUS FROM EGYPT – “In order that you remember the day of your going out of Egypt all the days of your life” (Deuteronomy 16:3).
- REMEMBER RECEIVING THE TORAH AT MT. SINAI – “Only guard yourself and guard your soul very much lest you forget the things what your eyes saw and lest they stray from your heart all the days of your life. Make them known to your children and grandchildren – the day you stood before the Lord your God at Mt. Sinai” (Deuteronomy 4:9-10).
- REMEMBER AMALEK’S ATTACK – “Remember what Amalek did to you as you left Egypt. He met you on the way, struck down the weak ones lagging behind you while you were tired and exhausted and he did not fear God. When it will be that when the Almighty will allow you to rest from all the enemies that surround you, in the land that the Lord your God gives to you as an inheritance to bequeath – wipe out the memory of Amalek from under the Heavens. Do not forget” (Deuteronomy 25:17-19).
- REMEMBER THE GOLDEN CALF – “Remember, don’t forget how you angered the Lord, your God in the wilderness” (Deuteronomy 9:7). We were told to wait for Moshe (Moses) to descend from 40 days on Mt. Sinai, but grew impatient and built the Golden Calf to replace Moshe as an intermediary to God.
- REMEMBER MIRIAM – “Remember that which the Lord your God did to Miriam on the way when you left Egypt” (Deuteronomy 24:9).
- REMEMBER THE SABBATH – “Remember the Day of the Sabbath to sanctify it” (Exodus 20:8).
What’s an aliya?
Now, just a quick reminder – each week we read a part of the Torah called the parsha. Each parsha is divided into 7 aliyot. The word aliya means to go up. For each aliya, a different person is called up to the Torah and given the honor of reading it. In ancient times each person who was called up read the aliya himself. However, at some point it was decided that the reading itself would be done by a person who is considered a professional reader – someone who can do it well, and without mistakes. This way people can be honored with being called up to the Torah, even if they are not capable of reading it themselves. This avoids embarrassing anyone, either through their less than adequate reading or by the necessity of not giving someone an honor because they can’t read from the Torah correctly. (Note: some people who are given an aliya do still read it themselves, but most don’t. Most boys on their Bar Mitzvah, will read the whole Torah reading for that week).
There are many people who may not be capable of reading from the Torah correctly but for other reasons are still worthy of the honor.
And here we see again the emphasis on the very primary principle in Judaism – that you should never cause another person embarrassment.
The writers of the Talmud took this prohibition extremely seriously and in just a minute we will take a look at what it says in the Talmud. But it is believed that the concept is based on 3 verses from the Tanach.
In Vayikra 25:17 we read:
‘So you shall not wrong one another, but you shall fear your God; for I am Hashem your God.
Now of course, the term to wrong another is open to interpretation, but the Mishna Bava Metzia says this applies to words as well as money. There are, of course, many ways to wrong another with words, but embarrassing another is for sure one way of transgressing this prohibition.
Also in the Torah, in Vayikra 19:17, we read:
‘You shall not hate your fellow countryman in your heart; you may surely reprove your neighbor, but shall not incur sin because of him.
So here we have a commandment not to hate but giving permission to rebuke another who needs it, and yet it says but you shall not incur sin because of him – what does that mean?
This warns us not to allow the fulfillment of this commandment to simultaneously cause a transgression of humiliating another. The prohibition against embarrassing in this specific case creates a general prohibition against embarrassing another in any situation.
And then in the verse after this, in Vayikra 19:18 we are told that we shall love our neighbor as ourselves. It is taught that embarrassing another violates the commandment to love our neighbor as ourselves.
So what does the Talmud have to say about this?
- He who publicly shames his neighbour is as though he shed blood (Bava metzia 58b)
- Verbal wrong is more heinous than monetary wrong (Bava metzia 58b)
- Better it is for man to cohabit with a doubtful married woman rather than that he should publicly shame his neighbour. (Bava metzia 59a)
- Better to throw oneself into a furnace rather than embarrass another (Bava metzia 59a)
- There was a poor person in the time of the Talmud and Mar Ukva would daily leave coins behind the poor man’s door. One day the poor man wanted to find out who had been leaving coins for him. So he waited until Mar Ukva and his wife stopped by and dropped off the coins. The pauper tried to follow them, when Mar Ukva noticed he was being followed he ran with his wife and hid in a hot furnace as to not embarrass the man. (Ketuboth 67B)
Statements from later Rabbinic sources
- Rabbeinu Yonah in his famous work, “Gates of repentance” explains that the pain of shame is even worse than death itself.
So, as you see, it is such an important principle in Judaism not to embarrass another person that the Torah reading procedure was adjusted to eliminate the possibility of embarrassing someone as much as humanly possible. In addition to having a professional reader to do this, they designated that the first aliya will always be given to a Kohein and the second to a Levy. This order was ordained to avoid public competition for the honor of being first (Gittin 59b).
And since speaking lashon hara against another person always causes embarrassment, there are serious consequences for doing so. For whatever reason, G-d saw fit to stop causing tzaarat to those who speak lashon hara (as far as we know, no one today contracts tzaarat), and we can only speculate as to why that was. But for sure there are very serious spiritual consequences for doing so and so we are told to remember Miriam’s loshon hara every day.
If you want to learn more about the laws against speaking lashon hara, what constitutes lashon hara and under what circumstances you are actually permitted to speak negative speech, I highly recommend reading “The Chofetz Chaim – A Lesson a Day.”
Rabbi Israel Meir HaCohen Kagan was born in 1838 in Poland. As students flocked from all over Europe to learn with him, his home became the Radin Yeshiva. He was primarily known for his teachings on the laws of negative speech or Lashon Hara and his first book, the sefer Chafetz Chaim which was about the laws of lashon hara and was published in 1873, was how he eventually became known.
It is not uncommon in Judaism for great rabbis who write a book of significance to be called by the name of the book. Thus, the Rabbi who wrote the sefer chafetz chaim became known as the chofetz chaim. Chafetz Chaim means He who desires life and comes from the verse in Tehillim (Psalms) 34:13-14:
Who is the man who desires life And loves length of days that he may see good? Keep your tongue from evil And your lips from speaking deceit.
So the book “Chofetz Chaim: A lesson a Day” takes the writings of the Chofetz Chaim and divides it up into 180 or so daily readings so that you can learn all the basics in about 6 months. Each year my husband spends half the year reviewing the laws of lashon hara. Its that important, and yet, although its considered one of the most important laws, most people violate it. And unfortunately, often times if you point out that someone is speaking lashon hara, they take offense in a way that they don’t take regarding any other laws.
You may not be aware of this, but violating the laws of lashon hara, depending on the details can involve breaking up to 17 torah commandments. It is that important. So I highly recommend you get this book and work your way through it!
Just a last note about the Chofetz Chaim, he wrote a total of 21 books during his 70 years of life including the Mishna berurah, which is a commentary on the Oraych Chaim, the first section of the Shulchan Aruch, and has been accepted universally among Ashkenazi Jews as an authoritative source of Halacha.