I’ve had quite a bit of time these last few months to reflect on so many things. Isolation will do that for us – lots of time, lots of reflections.
I remember so many conversations, some make me smile, some make me cringe, some I realize were left open ended and need to be revisited. But, one conversation always makes me laugh and I’d like to share it.
I was sitting in my car with one of my sons and I was thinking of whether or not criminals who committed crimes in their youth should be paroled in their old age. It’s a tough topic for me, since I am definitely someone who believes in accountability, but at the same time, I believe that people can grow and change. Can our entire future lives be set in stone based on a single act from our past?
It’s easy when we think of mundane youthful transgressions – certainly we don’t want people locked in by a minor mistake, but what about the major things? Should someone like Charles Manson ever have seriously been considered for parole? And now we have arrived at the conversation I had with my son.
Rachael: Do you think Manson deserved parole or to die in prison?
Son: Why was he in prison?
Rachael: Because he killed a lot of people.
Son: I don’t think he actually killed anyone.
Rachael: Ok, he didn’t actually kill anyone. But that’s a loophole.
Son: What are you talking about?
Rachael: He didn’t actually kill anyone himself. He ordered other people to kill them. So, I still think he’s responsible.
Son: He didn’t order anyone to kill anyone.
Rachael: Of course he did! Sharon Tate, and that poor LaBianca couple – he had a whole cult thing going on there in the desert!
Son: They’re fans mum…I wouldn’t call that a cult.
Rachael: What are you talking about? Of course it’s a cult!
Son: His music was a little strange, I’ll admit, but I don’t know that I’d call his fans a cult.
Rachael: I don’t know that I’d call him a musician! I think HE thought he was, but I don’t think anyone else thought he was. That whole thing with The Beatles is maybe the music connection, but I really wouldn’t go so far as calling him a musician.
Son: What connection to the Beatles?
Rachael: Helter Skelter – his whole defense during his murder trial.
Son: Who are you talking about?
Rachael: Charlie Manson. Who are you talking about?
Rachael: Marilyn Monroe?
Son: Of course not! Marilyn Manson!!
I think about the layers of misunderstandings that fed this exchange. My generation, his generation, the differences in our gender, the differences in our cultural contexts – and yet I raised him in my home and we should have been on the same page. And with all that embedded into the conversation, I also wondered afterwards if we were not actually talking about it but rather gossiping about the respective Mansons involved. If I tell someone how I feel about a named person and what they did, is that always gossip, and if so, how serious is it?
I agree with all Jewish scholars and sages who have told us that keeping kosher, keeping Shabbat or any of the holidays, is not the hard part of the commandments. Keeping guard of how we speak is the hard part. In fact, the Talmud tells us that the tongue is situated behind two unforgiving guards: the lips and the teeth (even a momentary recall of accidentally biting our tongues and the pain and tears in our eyes confirms their image). Judaism says our thoughts may be unfettered but our speech must not.
In this week’s parshah, Beha’alotcha, Miriam is punished for gossiping about her brother, Moses. She initiates a conversation with Aaron about their little brother, Moses. God hears it and gives her leprosy. It’s a death sentence, since leprosy had no cure. Moses prays for her (the heartfelt plea: “Please, God, please, heal her”) and she is cured after one week. In other words, Miriam, who stood guard over Moses while he was floating in a basket on the Nile, the little girl who united Moses with his mother so she could nurse him, the woman who created a community of women within Israel and taught them to sing and dance their prayers – this woman is cut no slack for a casual sibling conversation! It’s not Shabbat that’s hard, it’s choosing how we speak of each other.
The example of Miriam, Aaron and Moses at that moment always strikes me. They are siblings. We always talk to our brothers and sisters about our brothers and sisters. We talk to them about our parents. They are our sounding boards, our first partners for venting, they teach us about life differently than our parents will – they stand next to us from cradle to grave. Yet, we think they are so much a part of us that we can speak of them without a second thought. Miriam did something we all do without thinking twice.
So, why the harsh reaction?
I think it comes down to leadership. Judaism believes that all people are equal and no one is a saint. We will all make mistakes and we will all fail, but any leader is first and foremost an example. We do not expect that leaders never make mistakes, we expect that they never whitewash them. Leaders are accountable for their choices at all times and while Miriam shows us a leader who is held accountable for her words, Moses shows us a leader who advocates for mercy and forgiveness, even though she hurt him. It is not Miriam alone who is the focus of this moment, it is her brother, whom she critiqued, that stands next to her before God.
MIriam guarded Moses from Pharaoh’s death decree and Moses now guards Miriam from God’s.
We all gossip, we all try not to and then we all do it again. We speak of those closest to us to those who are…closest to us. We are both Miriam and Moses, two siblings who needed each other, had human moments together and then showed us how to forgive and continue the journey together. It’s not the adage about picking ourselves up again after we make a mistake, this is more about remembering that relationships are always about ourselves involved with others and not just how we get back up. It’s about hurting someone and then finding a way to re-enter the relationship. The momentary offense sits within a greater commitment and so Moses and Miriam will emerge standing together.
It’s not just about recognizing the moment we gossiped without also asking ourselves about facing the person afterward