When trying to impress a class of students about the evils of loshon hora, the average teacher would probably use examples of serious cases in which a person’s reputation or livelihood was destroyed, or perhaps of a shidduch (marriage match) which was unnecessarily broken. After all, these are real-life illustrations which clearly demonstrate the danger of loshon hora.
The Torah, however, does the opposite. In teaching us the evils of loshon hora, the Torah relates an incident which is so mild that it has barely a tinge of loshon hora. It is the case of Miriam, who spoke to Aharon about their brother, Moshe (see Bamidbar ch.12). Miriam was punished with tzara’as (a skin disease induced by spiritual impurity), sent out of the camp of the Jews to live in isolation, and the entire Jewish nation, well over a million people, was forced to wait for her to be cured before they could resume their travels.
The Torah commands us to remember the story of Miriam to remind us of the evils of loshon hora, as it is written, “Remember that which Hashem, your God, did to Miriam on the way when you were leaving Egypt” (Devarim 24:9).
The Chofetz Chaim points out how mild this case of loshon hora was. Miriam spoke about her brother, whom she loved and for whom she had risked her own life. She did not say something derogatory about him; all she did was mistakenly equate Moshe with other prophets. Moreover, her words were not said in Moshe’s presence or in public. And we know that Moshe wasn’t hurt by her words and that there was no negative fallout. The Chofetz Chaim explains that this is precisely why the Torah uses this incident to teach us the evils of loshon hora. Despite all these factors and Miriam’s great personal merit, she was still punished.
How much more culpable are people who speak loshon hora that does hurt people and does cause damage! When a person speaks loshon hora, he transgresses this commandment of remembering the lesson of Miriam.
The Chofetz Chaim further states that when one speaks loshon hora, he also violates the commandment “you shall love your fellow as yourself” (Vayikra 19:18). It is obvious that if you speak loshon hora about someone: A. You do not love him, and B. You are not treating him as you would yourself. The proof to this, says the Chofetz Chaim, is that most people are well aware of their own faults, yet they are very intent on concealing them from others. Even if someone were to discover one of our faults, and would tell some of our friends about it, we would hope that they would not believe him.
This is because we really love ourselves, and we do not want others to view us in a negative way. The Chofetz Chaim says that this attitude is precisely what the Torah wants us to apply to our fellow man. Just as we would be horrified to overhear our peers reviewing our faults, we should be equally horrified to participate in a similar conversation about someone else. And just as we are so caring and protective of our own egos, so must we be equally caring and protective of the pride of others.