Equal Punishment by Nachum Fisch


In Parashat BeHa’alotecha, we read the Pasuk, “VaYichar Af Hashem Bam… VeHineih Miriam Metzora’at KaShaleg, “And the anger of Hashem flared up… and Miriam was white with Tzaraat” (BeMidbar 12:9-10). Miriam deserves punishment because she speaks Lashon HaRa about Moshe to Aharon. However, we learn that when a person speaks Lashon HaRa, both the speaker and the listener are punished, yet, in this case it seems that only Miriam is punished. How could this have happened? Why would Hashem punish only Miriam and not Aharon?

 According to the Chachamim, Aharon is also punished, though not as severely as Miriam. We see proof of this in the Pasuk in which Miriam’s name is mentioned first, as it states, “VaTedabeir Miriam VeAharon BeMoshe,” “Miriam and Aharon spoke against Moshe” (BeMidbar 12:1). However, there is a Machloket Tanaim, a disagreement amongst Chazal, about what punishment Aharon actually receives. Rabi Akiva maintains that Aharon also receives Tzara’at, but as we do not see any mention of this punishment, it must have been short-lived. Rabi Yehudah Ben Betaira believes that Aharon is not punished physically, but instead is scolded by Hashem. Rabi Akiva’s reasoning is that there must have been a slight character defect in Aharon that causes him to be insensitive, or else he would not have listened to the Lashon HaRa. This flaw is corrected by the Tzaraat that he endures, even if it is only a brief affliction. Rabi Yehudah Ben Betaira’s reasoning, on the other hand, is that unlike Miriam’s sin, Aharon’s is a matter of misjudgment, as he does not know that listening to Miriam’s speech is considered Lashon HaRa.

 In addition, Rabi Yehudah Ben Beteira may have had another reason for rejecting the opinion of Rabi Akiva. Even if Rabi Akiva is correct and Aharon is in fact afflicted with leprosy as a punishment, the Torah does not say so explicitly. If the Torah purposely chooses to conceal Aharon's punishment, what right does Rabi Akiva have to publicize it? Therefore, Rabi Yehudah Ben Beteira prefers not to state what the Torah doesn’t – that Aharon is punished with Tzaraat. Rav Kook, however, explains that Rabi Akiva does not believe in a difference between a hidden detail inferred from a Pasuk and a punishment that is explicitly stated in the Pasuk. Since Rabi Akiva has such a great love for the Torah and a penetrating sensitivity to all of the Torah’s subtle hints and nuances, to him the implied and the explicit are equal. Therefore, he has no qualms publicizing a punishment not stated explicitly in the Torah.

After having considered all of these points, it appears that Aharon did, in fact, receive a different punishment from Tzaraat. The Pesukim explain when a person becomes a Metzora, he is separated from the camp. However, how could Hashem separate the Kohen Gadol from the camp for a week? Thus, while Miriam is out of the picture temporarily, Aharon must deal with the people’s insults and reactions to finding sin and flaws among their leaders. It is this public affront that serves as the true punishment of Aharon.

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