June 2016, Parshat Beha’alotcha

Dear friends

This week’s Parsha contains in it a curious little story with a profound lesson. On the personal level it can make us happier, better adjusted, and compassionate individuals. As a society, it has the potential to reshape our focus of what it is that we value.

The story goes that the two siblings of Moshe, Miriam and Aharon spoke to each other criticising Moshe ‘regarding the black woman he had married’. They said, was it only to Moshe that God spoke? Did he not speak to us as well?’ The Torah rightly then points out that Moshe was the most humble person on the face of the earth. Not only most humble but also most special, since it is only with Moshe that God communicates face-to-face. God’s wrath then flares up and behold Miriam is afflicted with Tzaraat, her skin turns white as snow. Aharon begs Moshe to intervene – ‘let her not be like a corpse’ – and Moshe cries to God to heal her which indeed happens eventually.

What exactly was their criticism? According to Rashi, they were attacking Moshe for divorcing his wife Tzipporah. The reason why she is referred to as a black woman was a euphemism for her extraordinary beauty. In other words, black is a derogatory description they were employing simply in order to avert ‘the evil eye’ by tricking the evil spirit into believing she was ugly.

So what was the criticism? The Artscroll gives the explanation that Moshe had stopped having marital relations with his wife because he had to remain ritually pure at all times ready to communicate with God at the drop of a hat. ‘This intimate matter remained their private affair, until Miriam learned of it from a chance remark by Zipporah. Not realising God had instructed Moshe to do so, and feeling that is was an unjustifiable affront to Zipporah, Miriam shared the news with Aharon, who agreed with her. They were critical of Moshe contending that since the two of them were also prophets, but were not required to withdraw from normal life, neither was Moshe.’ God then chastises them by explaining that Moshe was a higher prophet which required his abstinence.

God then punishes Miriam for instigating the criticism, even though she did out of a sincere desire to correct what she thought was Moshe’s wrong towards his lovely wife. The lesson we are then taught is that we should never speak ill of anyone, especially behind their back. If you think there is a legitimate reason for concern, speak directly to the person.

Though I think this is a most worthwhile lesson, I’m not so sure about the interpretation. Firstly, the Torah states that their criticism involved the black woman he had married, not divorced!  Second, suggesting that Miriam was actually defending the dignity of Tzipporah in her criticism, is very far removed from the simple interpretation. The Torah states nothing of a chance remark made by Tzipporah which is then badly interpreted by Miriam. It’s also very hard to imagine such a casual remark about something so intimate being made without any context.

Moreover, the whole tone of the criticism ‘regarding the black woman he had married’ sounds very slighting towards Tzipporah; like she is so disrespected that even her name can’t be mentioned. In fact, even Artscroll and Rashi agree that the term ‘black woman’ is derogatory. Finally, that God is so infuriated with Miriam and turns her into a sickly white woman ‘like a corpse’ in Aaron’s words, suggests a not-so-subtle misdemeanour on the part of Miriam. In fact, she had to remain in that state for seven days excommunicated and diseased because in God’s words, ‘Were her father to spit in her face, should she not be humiliated for seven days’?

The Torah is then clear that Miriam is getting punished for a very crude sin on the part of Miriam. I believe that the story gives us all the information we need. Miriam and Aharon were deeply envious of Moshe and wanted to belittle him. They had a go at him because he had married Tzipporah who was not even Jewish. She was the daughter of a High-Priest in Midian – deep into present day Arabia – where very likely the skin colour of its inhabitants was darker. God is infuriated because of the racial slur of course, but also for the fact that their petty envy would lead them to attack someone who was the most humble person. In their attack they would be showing themselves to be entirely unworthy of their own privileged status, which is why God refers to Miriam’s punishment as a spit in her face.

To better understand this, we must first appreciate the sometimes very poorly understood concept of humility. If humility is about thinking that you’re just the average person, well if you are then that is simply the truth. If you’re not average or you are above average, then you are simply denying the truth and humility would be about lying to yourself.

Take Moshe for instance. This is someone who God lists as the most special person ever. The only one with whom God is comfortable having a face-to-face. According to the Midrash, Moshe physically towered over everyone. He was five metres tall, he could jump five metres, and his stick reached five metres. This was a very impressive character in every way! How could he possibly think of himself as average when clearly he was a freak of nature, laden with gifts and talents beyond belief!?

The answer is that of course Moshe recognised his incredible talents and capacities. What he thought to himself though was that if someone else was given the opportunities I’ve had, no doubt they would have performed better than I have. Rather than denying a truth about yourself, humility is about putting yourself in context. Humility is about acknowledging your special talents but recognising that your talents don’t make you a better person, a more deserving person. In fact, your talents are the cause to legitimately have higher expectations of yourself.

Everyone understands that in order to better ourselves as individuals we must know our limitations – knowledge of the sickness is half the cure. Since we are so often blind to our many weak spots we must sometimes get help to acknowledge our weaknesses – the work of so much therapy.

Equally important though is that we recognise our gifts. But whether we be smart, funny, warm, sporty, arty, musical or wealthy, that in itself does not make us special deserving of praise. What makes us deserving is how well we use those talents, to better ourselves and our environment. So you can be the most impressive human being alive and still be the most humble when you acknowledge your privileged starting point.

On an individual level, recognising our strengths is vastly important. Our talents will generally determine our passions and so we would be emotionally healthier and fulfilled individuals by recognising our talents and pursuing them. Recognising the simple truth that they are gifts will always ensure we keep our feet on the ground and nurture empathy to less fortunate human beings. And empathetic people are truly loved.

On a societal level the importance of this is just as great. How often do we hear of sporting idols who turn out to be the most unfathomably grotesque human beings? Just recently, I saw a documentary on Lance Armstrong and he is arguably the worst example of this. A person who would eliminate anyone who stood in the way of his cheating his way to attaining god-like status, a total sociopath without a shred of decency.

When we discover that they are disgusting we become disillusioned. How can this person who represented so much hope turn out to be this monster?! The fault, though, lies with society more than anything. The fact that we allowed ourselves to idolise someone merely because they showed such a talent for bike racing, footy, dancing, acting or making money -that is the core problem. What is the connection between real value and a strong rider, an awesome footballer or any other extraordinary talent?

The moral of this story with Moshe is that while Miriam and Aharon thought they were special simply because they spoke to God, Moshe didn’t think he was deserving of praise though he was far superior in this quality alone.

Of course we want to see awesome sportspeople and artists excelling in every field. What we should refrain from doing is confusing their special talent with moral judgement. They may be extremely talented but that is not to say they are necessarily good human beings. In cycling terms, if they excel without equal, test them rigorously and independently exactly at the time they are shooting up the mountain, especially if they are showing no signs of pain or discomfort.

Shabbat shalom,

Rabbi Shneur