In Parashat Ki Teitzei, the Torah states, “Zachor Eit Asher Asah Hashem Elokecha LeMiriam BaDerech BeTzeitechem MiMitzrayim,” “Remember what Hashem your God did to Miriam on the way after you left from Egypt” (Devarim 24:9). The Pasuk refers to the episode recorded in Parashat BeHaalotecha in which Miriam and Aharon said Lashon HaRa about Moshe, a sin for which Miriam was afflicted with Tzaraat and sent away from Bnei Yisrael’s encampment for seven days.
Rashi believes that the Torah intends for us to always think of this event so that we will not say Lashon HaRa for fear of its consequences; it is not a Mitzvah, but rather a reminder. Ramban disagrees with Rashi and maintains that this is a full-fledged Mitzvah just like remembering Shabbat. What exactly is this Mitzvah? Ramban says that we should constantly remember that Miriam, who was talking seemingly innocently about her brother whom she loved, privately with Aharon, still got Tzaraat for it. According to Ramban, this Pasuk is a concrete commandment, not a suggestion or a word to the wise. Oddly enough, it appears as if Ramban argues with Rashi but in effect says the same thing. Doesn’t Ramban ultimately agree with Rashi’s basic idea that this Pasuk is designed for us to better ourselves in regards to Lashon HaRa by learning from Miriam’s experiences?
In reality, there is a slight difference between the two opinions. Ramban’s opinion is easier to understand – learn from Miriam and don’t say Lashon HaRa. Rashi, on the other hand, reasons that if one does not want to get Tzaraat, he should not say Lashon HaRa. Rashi interestingly words this advice as if the Torah is striking a deal with Bnei Yisrael. However, even according to Rashi’s opinion, the Pasuk (and Miriam’s episode in general) offers strong motivation for people to abstain from any sort of Lashon HaRa. The punishment of Tzaraat is a very severe, life-changing experience. One who gets it is literally ostracized from his family and community for at least a week and is at everyone else’s mercy in terms of slander. He is made into an easy target for shaming by the community. The punishment is the ultimate Midah KeNegged Midah, since it publicizes him in his lowest state. Even if one were to think of Rashi’s “deal” as more lenient than Ramban’s Mitzvah, the Pasuk is still emphasizing a powerful dissuasion from speaking Lashon HaRa. May we all remember what happened to Miriam and use this knowledge to increase our sensitivity to others and use our speech only for good.