No “Shabbat Miriam” Parashat Beha’alotecha 5777

Last year a friend posed an interesting question regarding Parashat Beha’alotecha. I thought that his question could serve as a good starting point for a shiur and so I asked him to remind me this year a few weeks before Parashat Beha’alotecha. Well, here we are: He kept his part of the deal and now I am keeping mine.

Three pieces of background are required to in order to address his question: [Piece 1] Each year on the Shabbat before Purim we read Parashat Zachor [Devarim 25:17-19] reminding us of how the Amalekites attacked us only days after our exodus from Egypt and reminding us to “blot out the memory of Amalek”. Based on these verses, we are commanded to remind ourselves once a year of the Amalekites and their treachery. We traditionally do this on Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat before Purim, as Haman was descended from the Amalekite King Agag. [Piece 2] At the end of Parashat Beha’alotecha, Miriam and Aharon make denigrating comments about Moshe’s relationship with his wife, Tzippora. Hashem punishes Miriam[1] by giving her a major case of tzara’at. [Piece 3] Only one chapter before Parashat Zachor, the Torah commands us to [Devarim 24:8-9] “Be cautious regarding the lesion of tzara’at, to observe meticulously and to do according to all that the Kohanim instruct you; as I have commanded them, [so shall you] observe to do. Remember what Hashem did to Miriam on the way, when you went out of Egypt.”

Now here, in a nutshell, is my friend’s question: Why are we not commanded to read “Parashat Miriam” once a year so that we can remember what Miriam did? Why does remembering the blotting out of Amalek merit a mitzvah – one of the big six-hundred and thirteen – while remembering the evils of Miriam’s slander does not? It’s not too difficult to imagine a “Shabbat Miriam” in which the Rabbi’s sermon emphasizes the evils of lashon hara (negative speech), perhaps enjoining his congregants to spend a little less time on their smart phones. Such fertile soil, but, alas, no mitzvah.

The Ramban stumbled upon this very same inconsistency nearly eight hundred years ago. The Ramban is bothered not only by the absence of a mitzvah to remember Miriam and her doings, but by the absence of another mitzvah [Devarim 9:7]: “Remember… how you angered Hashem, in the desert; from the day that you went out of the land of Egypt, until you came to this place.” Why is it, asks the Ramban, that there is no mitzvah to remember how awful Am Yisrael acted during their forty-year sojourn in the desert, similar to the mitzvah to remember Amalek[2]? The Ramban does not take “no” for an answer and he adds the commandments to remember both Miriam and Am Yisrael’s desert rebellion to the list of six-hundred and thirteen Torah-mandated mitzvot. However, as the Ramban is a lone voice, and as most of the enumerators of mitzvot, including the Rambam, Sefer HaMitzvot Hagadol (SMaG), and the Sefer HaChinuch do not include these remembrances, they have not been accepted as part of normative Halacha.

Rabbi Baruch HaLevi Epstein, writing in the Torah Temima, is also disturbed by the lack of a Shabbat Miriam. Rav Epstein does not have as broad halachic shoulders as the Ramban and so he cannot simple add another mitzvah to the list. Rav Epstein makes some suggestions but then summarily shoots all of them down. As far as he is concerned, Miriam should be no different from Amalek[3]: if remembering one of them is a mitzvah, than remembering the other two should also be mitzvot. Rav Epstein concludes with the words “V’tzarich iyun v’talmud rav”, literally “This will require great thought in order to be understood”. What these words really mean is “I am at a complete loss”.

After looking at the Ramban and the Torah Temima, I told my friend that if Rav Epstein was stumped, chances were that I was not going to come up with anything better. But then I ran into R’ Tuvia. R’ Tuvia directed my attention to a sentence from in the previous paragraph: “Miriam should be no different from Amalek”. Oh yes she should!  Until Miriam erred by slandering Moshe, she was a rock-star: As a young child, she was ready to sacrifice her own life so that Moshe should live[4]. Eighty years later, on the shores of the Red Sea, Miriam grabs a tambourine and leads the women in prayer, extolling Hashem for His beneficence. The Torah calls her a prophetess – the only woman in the entire Torah to warrant this title. To set aside one Shabbat each year in order to remind ourselves how this great woman stumbled would be counterproductive. The Talmud in Tractate Avoda Zara [4b] teaches that “Whoever says that [King] David sinned [with Batsheva] is mistaken”. Rav Eliyahu Zinni reminds us that the Talmud does not say “David did not sin”[5]. Rather, the Talmud is teaching us that to publicly state that David or Miriam or anyone of their immense stature sinned is a mistake. It is simply not educational to do so.

Unfortunately, there is a glaring hole in R’ Tuvia’s thesis. While it can be argued that setting aside a special Shabbat to remember Miriam’s denigration of Moshe is not a good idea, the same cannot be said for setting aside a special Shabbat to remember the countless times that Am Yisrael rebelled against Hashem in the Sinai desert. These erstwhile slaves were no saints. They were rescued from bondage moments before they sank to a spiritual level from which there was no escape. According to our sages, they have no share in the World to Come. We have much to learn from their sins and from their punishment. It’s not too difficult to imagine a “Shabbat Dor HaMidbar” in which the Rabbi’s sermon emphasizes the importance of following one’s religious leaders, perhaps enjoining his congregants to spend a little more money on keeping their current one.

Fortunately, by slightly modifying R’ Tuvia’s suggestion we can fill our glaring hole. In 2002, Daniel Kahneman won the Nobel Prize in economics[6] for his work on Prospect Theory. Prospect Theory states that a person is less interested in how much money he has in absolute terms and more interested in how much money he has in relative terms. A person wants more money than he had yesterday and he wants more money than his friends and neighbours have. Prospect Theory can also be used to explain lashon hara. Why do humans incessantly slander? Because a person is less interested in how wonderful he is in absolute terms and more interested in how wonderful he is compared to his friends and neighbours. A person can increase his self-esteem either by building himself up or by tearing others down. The latter requires significantly less energy than the former and so it is usually the path most travelled. Publicizing another person’s sins, even for a worthy goal, is guaranteed to start a hail of lashon hara. Establishing a Shabbat that revolved around the sins of Miriam would be paradoxical: we would be trying to fight lashon hara by creating even more of it. Establishing a Shabbat that revolved around the sins of Am Yisrael in the desert would just be plain wrong. It would make too many people feel too good about their own religious status by commanding them to remember others who are at this moment still burning in hell. When Am Yisrael join together as a nation, it is to move forward. It is not to stare as others fall behind.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5777

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza.

[1] Why only Miriam is punished is a topic for next year’s shiur. Somebody write this down.

[2] The commandment to remember [1] Amalek, along with the commandment to remember [2] Miriam, [3] Am Yisrael’s desert misbehavior, [4] Shabbat, [5] the revelation at Sinai, and [6] the exodus from Egypt, make up the “Six Remembrances”, found in many siddurim after the daily Shacharit prayer. Little-known factoid: The “Six Remembrances” were codified by none other than Rav Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe.

[3] He includes remembering Am Yisrael’s misdeeds in the desert.

[4] When Miriam suggests to Pharaoh’s daughter that she could find her a Jewish wet nurse, any normal despot would have made her disappear. For some reason Pharaoh’s daughter chooses to let Miriam live and to follow her advice.

[5] In the words of the Abarbanel, if King David admitted [Samuel II 12:13] “I have sinned”, who are we to say otherwise?

[6] Kahneman performed is research with Amos Tversky, who died before the prize was awarded.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty-five years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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