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Freedom of Kosher Speech
“Remember what the L-rd, your G-d, did to Miriam on the way, when you were leaving Egypt.” (24:9)
When Miriam criticized her brother Moshe unfairly, Hashem punished her with tzara’at, a serious leprous-like skin affliction that covered her body.
The Torah, for some reason, connects Miriam’s punishment with leaving Egypt. What does one thing have to do with the other?
The captivity of the Jewish People in Egypt was more than physical bondage. On a deeper level Egypt represented the enslavement of the power of speech. Egypt not only enslaved the bodies of the Jewish People, but it put in chains the major weapon of the Jewish People – speech. Thus, the Torah writes that the Jewish People “cried out” to Hashem. It never writes that they “prayed.” For in Egypt, speech itself was bound.
The Exodus from Egypt was the beginning of the rebuilding of the power of speech.
Man’s pre-eminence derives from his power of speech. He has the ability to direct himself according to his will. When the Jewish People left Egypt, they went straight into the desert. In Hebrew, the word desert is midbar which is from the root mi’dibur “from speech” – because the desert is the place that is separated and removed from speech. Since the desert is the maximum place of non-speech, of non-direction, it is the ideal place to rebuild the power of speech from the ground up.
When the Jewish People left Egypt they were like a newborn baby. When a child begins to speak, his father is obligated to start to teach him Torah. In this formative stage, then, it was essential that the Jewish People should guard their mouths and their tongues with great care. Something is most vulnerable during its construction. To protect the reconstruction of speech, they were given Torah, and to protect their mouths, they were given the manna.
The gravity of Miriam’s error was not just what she said, but when she said it. To use the power of speech incorrectly at the very time of its reconstruction required a serious punishment. Thus, the Torah connects her mistake to the departure from Egypt.
It is Miriam’s eternal privilege, though, that every generation has a positive commandment to remember what Hashem did to her, to teach us that death and life are in the power of the tongue.