It seems unfair. Both Aaron and Miriam spoke disparagingly of their brother. Both failed to grasp the unique level of Moses’ prophecy. They considered Moses their spiritual and prophetic equal. “Is it only to Moses that God speaks? Does He not also speak to us?”
God was angry with them, and punished Miriam with leprosy.
“God displayed anger with them and departed. When the cloud left the Tent, Miriam was leprous, white like snow. Aaron turned to Miriam, and saw she was leprous.” (Num. 12:9-10)
Why was only Miriam punished with leprosy? Why was only Miriam publicly embarrassed with a visible affliction associated with the improper use of language? Why was only Miriam forced to stay outside the encampment for a whole week?
According to the Sages, Aaron did not get off scot-free. They understood the words ‘God displayed anger against them’ to indicate that Aaron was also disciplined. His punishment, though, was less severe than Miriam’s, since it was his older sister who instigated the verbal attack on Moses. Miriam’s leading role is highlighted by the fact that she is mentioned first: “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses...”
The exact nature of Aaron’s punishment, however, is a matter of dispute. Rabbi Akiva said that Aaron was also punished with leprosy. But, unlike Miriam who suffered for a full week, Aaron’s affliction was transient.
Rabbi Yehudah Ben-Betaira disagreed. Aaron was not physically disciplined. His punishment was being reprimanded by God.
According to Rabbi Akiva, Aaron was physically punished like Miriam. There must have been some minor defect in Aaron’s character that led to his lack of awareness of Moses’ unique prophetic stature. This personality defect required the physical affliction of leprosy — albeit briefly — in order to cleanse and rectify it.
Rabbi Yehudah, on the hand, rejected the idea that Aaron was subject to such a defect. Unlike Miriam, Aaron’s sin was a matter of misjudgment — an error of the intellect. Therefore, the appropriate punishment was a Divine rebuke. Actual physical correction was unnecessary.
Rabbi Yehudah rejected his colleague’s opinion for a second reason:
“Akiva! In either case you will be called to task [for your words]. If you are right, the Torah shielded him, while you disclose him. And if not, you have cast a stigma upon a righteous man.”
Even if Rabbi Akiva was right and Aaron was in fact afflicted with leprosy, the Torah does not say so explicitly. If the Torah purposely chose to conceal Aaron’s punishment, what right did Rabbi Akiva have to publicize it?
How could Rabbi Akiva not be attentive of this point?
Rav Kook explained that for Rabbi Akiva, there was no difference between a hidden detail inferred from a verse, and a punishment explicitly stated. Rabbi Akiva was famous for expounding each marking of the ‘crowns’ embellishing the letters of the Torah. In his extraordinary love for the Torah and his penetrating sensitivity to each hint and nuance, the implicit and the explicit were equal.
(Adapted from Ein Eyah vol. IV, pp. 239-241, on Shabbat 97a)