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Parashat BeHa’alot’cha 5777 — 06/10/2017

Parashat BeHa’alot’cha 5777 — 06/10/2017

Bamidbar 8:1-12:16
One of the strangest (to me) incidents in the Torah is at the end of our parashah, where Moses’ sister, Miriam, speaks lashon hara (loosely, slander or derogatory speech) against her brother, Moshe Rabbeinu.  The text is, as usual sparse.  Miriam and Aharon spoke against Moshe because of the Cushite woman he had married.  They complained that Gd also speaks to them.  Then Gd appeared suddenly to the three of them and ordered them to go out to the tent of meeting, where he informs Miriam and Aharon that Moshe’s prophecy is on a totally different level than theirs – Moshe is able to speak with Gd while fully in control of his faculties, while to all other prophets Gd appears in a vision (trance?) or dream.  Gd then strikes Miriam with tzara’at (a whitening of the skin, traditionally understood as a punishment for lashon hara), Moshe prays for her recovery, Gd promises to heal her after seven days, during which the camp remains in place.

The Midrash fills in the back story.  This passage occurs right after the passage of Eldad and Medad, who “prophesied in the camp.”  Zipporah, Moshe’s wife, laments to Miriam that she pities Eldad’s and Medad’s wives, who will now never see their husbands, because they’ll have to separate from the women to maintain ritual purity (semen conveys ritual impurity to both the man and the woman) so that they can receive prophecy.  Miriam’s response is, “Wait a minute – we’re prophets and we don’t separate from our spouses, what’s up with Moshe?!”

The commentators point out that (a) Miriam didn’t intend to disparage Moshe, (b) she had already demonstrated her love for Moshe by watching over his little basket in the Nile, (c) Moshe didn’t hear her say anything, (d) Moshe was “the most humble man on the face of the earth” and wouldn’t have taken offense if he had heard it.  This indicates how severely Gd views lashon hara.  Our Sages tell us that lashon hara kills three people – the speaker, the hearer, and the person spoken about.  In this case, I wonder if the source of the upset wasn’t simply Miriam’s (and Aharon’s) incorrect assessment of Moshe’s stature.  It was perhaps more a sin of ignorance, or failing to take note of Moshe’s pre-eminence.

Ramchal writes:

The yetzer hara‘s plan was to renew the destruction caused by Chava (Eve) in Gan Eden who was enticed by the serpent.  Hashem, however, prevented this destruction by immediately punishing Miriam with tzara’at thereby appeasing the tumah and silencing its claims against Miriam. …

Further on Ramchal continues:

A person’s body is the vessel that contains his inner spiritual essence.  A person with a beautiful essence therefore has a beautiful appearance … Why then do we find so many physically beautiful women whose actions are inappropriate, even more so than women who do not possess this beauty?  The reason for this is that the higher the level of inner beauty the more the yetzer hara attempts to incite them to wrongdoing, as our Sages teach us “whoever is spiritually greater than his fellow has a stronger evil inclination than his fellow (Sukkah 52a)….

Miriam, a great woman in her own right, spoke sarcastically about Moshe in a way not befitting her lofty character.  Her great spiritual level magnified the harm her improper speech caused in the spiritual realms.  Our Sages in fact point out many who spoke disparagingly about Moshe, yet the only one punished for this was Miriam.  The others were on a simple level and therefore their actions had less of an impact.

The yetzer hara is the “evil inclination,” that part of our personality that draws us towards the physical and ephemeral, and away from the spiritual and eternal.  It is associated with the body, since the body is that part of our individuality which is drawn toward the physical.  This does not make the body evil of course – the body is necessary for the soul to interact with the physical world.  It means that the body’s drives present a challenge to the soul to stay in charge of the body, rather than to let the body be in charge of the soul.  If human beings are to have free will, it is inevitable that there must be a yetzer hara and a yetzer hatov (“good inclination”) more or less in balance, so that we have actual choices to make.

Ramchal writes that the yetzer hara‘s plan was to recreate its success in enticing Eve, and then Adam, in the Garden of Eden.  Before this sin, the evil inclination was something external to human beings, as exemplified by the snake in the Garden.  Something external is something that is easier to identify and to act against than something internal.  Having ingested the fruit of the tree, the yetzer hara became internalized – it is now our own inner self that drives us away from spirituality.  Now we are able to hide our motivations and our agendas from ourselves, and it is much easier to rationalize our wrongdoings.  Our Sages tell us that when we received the Torah at Mt. Sinai we returned to the state Adam and Eve were at before the sin – that is, the Revelation gave everyone so much clarity that good and evil stood out in such sharp contrast that it was virtually impossible to choose evil.  As we know, this lasted all of 40 days until the episode of the golden calf.  The incident with Miriam occurred quite some time after the golden calf, and it is unclear to me what Ramchal means that the yetzer hara attempted to recreate the destruction of Chava and the serpent at this time.

What is certainly clear is that wrong action undertaken by a great person is much more harmful than that of a person of lesser spiritual stature.  By greater or lesser, we mean closer or more distant from Gd.  Now since Gd is the ultimate source of energy and intelligence in the cosmos, one who is closer to Gd is able to draw more effectively on this power and intelligence.  Therefore, any action taken is more powerful, whether it be for good or the opposite.  This is why Darth Vader was so interested in turning Luke Skywalker to the Dark Side: “The Force is strong in this one.”  Substitute the yetzer hara for Darth Vader, Miriam, or any highly developed person for Luke and kedusha for the Force, and you have Ramchal’s point exactly.  Precisely because the stakes are so high, Gd is more exacting in His judgment of the behavior of a tzaddik than he is of a more ordinary person.  Thus, even the hint of lashon hara on Miriam’s part was punished rather severely.

Personally, this last point gives me pause.  Am I ready to be judged so precisely by Gd?  Certainly not.  Fortunately (?) there’s not much chance of such a judgment on me, because I’m nowhere near Miriam’s or Aharon’s or Moshe’s level.  Nonetheless, as we grow, we do get to higher and higher levels and we do need to be progressively more careful with our thoughts, speech and action.  Growth and evolution are built into the nature of life.  We have no choice but to grow to higher levels of spiritual development.  Yes, there are risks; even Moshe Rabbeinu made mistakes.  But the risk of stagnating, or worse, descending, is far greater.


Reflections on This Week’s Torah Portion

by Steve Sufian

Parashat BeHaalotecha

Does Gd get angry?

In this parshah, we learn that when the Ark was travelling, the people “were looking  to complain” and Gd’s anger was kindled, burning the extremes of the camp. When the people cried out, Moses prayed to Gd and the fire died out.

Gd who gets angry doesn’t seem to be very adult so we need to look into what Torah means when it says “Gd’s anger was kindled.”

One take on this is offered by This site proposes that when we complain against Gd, we push Him away, and the response of Gd is to react the same way: to push us away.

The pushing away by our complaints is anger on our part and Gd responds to us as we behave to Him; with what is called anger but it makes sense to take this as  an anthropomorphizing of Gd, describing Gd in ordinary human terms.

When the people cried out to Moses (not to Gd, because their anger had cut them off from Gd), Moses prayed to Gd: Moses was still trusting in Gd, still connected and so his prayer resulted in the fire dying out: and, to my view, not only the fire in the camp, but the fire in the hearts of the people looking to complain.

This is general guidance for us: look for ways to draw upon Gd within ourselves in order to prevent any restricting emotions from arising within us — or to allow them to die out through our prayer—so that they do not express themselves in complaints on our part and we remain connected to our Self and to Gd —really the same.

Baruch HaShem