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Message from our Clergy | Behaalotcha  5780

06/12/2020 10:54:54 AM


Dear Ohev Community,

Please see below for a D'var Torah from Rabbi Herzfeld.

Thank you to everyone who joined us last Friday outside of Ohev for the vigil. It was a powerful opportunity to gather with fellow Ohev members, as well as neighbors from all backgrounds. The organizers have decided to continue the vigil every Friday in June, from 5-6 pm. I hope to be there every Friday, as will other folks from our community. You can join for the duration of the hour, or just stop by. Please bring a sign if you can, and be sure to wear a mask at all times. While it can be a bit awkward while wearing masks, I encourage all of us to use this as an opportunity to introduce ourselves to our neighbors, and people we do not know.

Wishing you a peaceful and restful Shabbos,



Miriam’s Sin and Our Sin
Behaalotcha 5780
Shmuel Herzfeld

Recent events have highlighted the fact that we have a huge problem with pervasive racism in the United States.

Unfortunately, this is not a new problem and this is a not a problem limited to the United States.  There have always been people who have made the tragic mistake of judging people by the color of their skin. 

Indeed, I have always read the final chapter of our portion, Behaalotcha, in the context of Miriam and Aaron discussing the skin color of Moshe’s wife.

Says the verse:

Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married: “He married a Cushite woman” (Numbers 12:1).

 This behavior of Miriam and Aaron angered Hashem greatly (v.9).  

The commentators discuss and debate the exact nature of their sin.

One approach is to view Miriam and Aaron’s discussion as anger against Moshe’s behavior for leaving his wife as a result of the fact that he was a prophet and could no longer remain married (see Rashi, 12:1).

Netziv takes a completely different approach.  He understands that Miriam and Aaron were gossiping about Moshe’s behavior in light of the fact that he married a Black woman (12:1).   They felt that since Moshe’s kushite wife had converted to the Jewish faith, Moshe had no justifiable reason in leaving her once she had made that great commitment.  She had made a tremendous sacrifice to become Jewish and, as a result, it was his responsibility to remain with his wife.  

Bekhor Shor understands the nature of the sin to be that Miriam and Aaron were unhappy that Moshe married a Kushite as opposed to an Israelite.  They said, “Were there not enough women amongst our tribe that he had to marry a woman from the [Kushites]” (12:2).

There is textual evidence to support the fact that their sin was related to gossiping about the dark skin color of Moshe’s Kushite wife.  The verse states that Miriam was stricken with “snow-white scales” (12:10).  The nature of the white skin as a punishment supports the idea that the sin of Miriam was related to the fact that they viewed with displeasure and discomfort the black skin of Moshe’s wife.

In gossiping about the skin color of Moshe’s wife they committed a tremendous sin.

The nature of thir punishment carries with it a powerful message.  It is as though Hashem is stating, “You think white skin is better than dark skin, well let’s see how much you like white skin now when I give it to you as a punishment.”

It is beyond tragic that our holy prophets committed a sin.  But it also reflects a reality that too many of us are guilty of judging a person on the basis of skin color.  Such behavior is an overwhelming sin, which goes against the very essence of the Torah.  There are six things that we Jews are commanded to remember every single day.  One of these six “remembrances” is the sin of Miriam and her punishment (Devarim 24:9).  Every single day we are supposed to remember that Miriam sinned and that it is our responsibility to act differently than she did in that situation.

Everything the Torah is about is a rejection of individual and systemic racism.  

Whenever I see racism in the Jewish community—and it is far too often--it breaks my heart.

Should we Jews be at the forefront of efforts to combat racism?  I believe that our commitment to the principles of the Torah means we must be at the forefront of this ongoing fight.

Earlier in our portion there is a scribal anomaly as two verses are bracketed by the letter “nun” written backwards (10:35-36).  These two verses make up the well known refrain that we chant when opening the ark and taking out the Torah, “Vayehi Binsoa Haaron ….”  The Talmud tells us that this is because these two verses actually consist of an entire independent book of the Torah (Shabbat, 116a).  There are actually seven books of the Torah, not 5!

The commentators discuss how can there be a book of the Torah without any commandments.  Impossible!  There must be a mitzvah in this book.  What then is the mitzvah?

The Imrei Shaul (the Modzhitzer Rebbe) explains that this book contains the mitzvah of loving our neighbor.  He bases this idea on the fact that the verse states, ”those who hate you will flee” (10:35).  Rashi explains that whoever hates us, actually hates our Creator, Gd.  Whenever we hate another human being what we are actually doing is hating Gd.

Imrei Shaul explains that this mitzvah of loving our neighbor is indeed the core mitzvah of the Torah and for this reason it is worthy to make up an entire book of the Torah.  

Whoever hates another person on the basis of their skin color is not just hating that person but is in fact hating their Creator.  As my teacher Rabbi Avi Weiss taught me, when a policeman placed his knee on George Floyd’s neck and caused him to be unable to breathe this was a reversal of Gd’s creation of the world as Gd created man by breathing life into him.  The manner in which George Floyd was murdered threatens the very existence of our world and is therefore a call to action for all of us to repeat the anti-racist core message of the Torah again and again.

The last few weeks have raised tensions in our world to highly unusual and highly concerning levels of anxiety.  It is a reminder that we as Jews must do everything in our power to preach a message that seeks racial justice and speaks out against all forms of racism.  

At the same time that I share this devar torah with you about the need for us to all reflect upon and work on improving matters of race, there is also another spiritual message from our portion that I want to share with you.

These are very difficult times for our country.  We have seen over 100,000 people die from this terrible virus.  Many more people have been and continue to isolated from close friends and family.  We have incredibly high unemployment numbers.  And of course we have a country wrestling with itself and its deeply disturbing relationship to race.

With all the terrible things that we see around us, what should be our attitude and mental make-up?  

I believe that with all the terrible things we see in our world now more than ever we have a spiritual responsibility to seek out and emphasize the joyful moments in life.  Everyday we must strive to find something to smile about and give thanks to Hashem.

The verse states that the “people complained bitterly before Hashem” (11:1).  Ramban tells us that the people had much to complain about.  They were, after all, stuck in a wilderness, far from the comforts of their home.  Anyone who has ever been on a long and difficult trip can only relate in a very, very small way to the enormous difficulty of the travel challenges the Israelites faced.  And yet, as great as their challenges were they sinned in emphasizing their difficulties and being bitter about it.  As Ramban writes:

Since the text says that the people were in pain and sorrow, it mentions and tells us their sin [explicitly], as they were speaking from the bitterness of their souls like people who are in pain do (12:1).

Going through life with a bitter attitude is not only a sin, it is also not healthy for our spiritual and physical growth.  

During these difficult times, now more than ever, each of us should strive to put out positive energy in the world.  We should try to greet people with a smile, go out of our way to support someone, and find something to be grateful for.  This too, is our responsibility as a spiritual community.

Thu, March 23 2023 1 Nisan 5783