The entire congregation of the children of Israel arrived at the desert of Zin in the first month, and the people settled in Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there. The congregation had no water; so, they assembled against Moses and Aaron (Bamidbar 20:1-2)
The death of Miriam, a tragic loss for the Jewish people, was compounded by the lack of water in the desert after her passing. Rashi explains that the juxtaposition of these two details is extremely important;
From here [we learn that] all forty years they had the well in Miriam’s merit (20:2).
The miraculous well which sustained the Jewish people over the last forty years had dried up. It was the merit of Miriam which sustained the people for the last four decades.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe (Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, 1902-1994) makes an insightful and truly beautiful observation. Miriam didn’t know that the well was provided in her merit. The Jewish people didn’t know that the well was in the merit of Miriam. It was only after her passing that the Nation of Israel appreciated who this Matriarch was and what she meant to the people. It was only after her passing that Miriam realized what she had accomplished and contributed to the Jewish people.
This episode with the Rebbe’s explanation provides us with two dramatic life lessons. Too often, we don’t appreciate the special people in our lives until they are gone. There are things that our leaders and loved ones contribute to the fabric of our existence which we take for granted. We assume that these details and benefits are just part of our life package. We forget that very often the things we have are a result of someone else’s hard work. Tragically, it is not until that special person is gone that we realize how much he/she meant to us. This special person can be a parent, a spouse, a friend or a teacher. They are the people who work so hard to make us happy and successful and whom too often, we just take for granted. Our ancestors knew that Miriam was a righteous woman, they just didn’t appreciate what she provided them with each and every day. They never got to say thank you to a special woman who had given them so much.
The second lesson is a bit more nuanced. Miriam had no idea that her merit generated the well. She didn’t realize that it was her good deeds and personal piety which had such a dramatic effect. Many times, we grow frustrated because we feel we are not making an impact. Does my life really matter? Am I really contributing is some substantive way? Am I making my mark in this world? Miriam may have thought she didn’t matter all that much. There could be nothing further from truth. Miriam kept the people alive in the desert. It was her merit and spiritual accomplishment which sustained our nation. Just because you can’t see the impact of your actions, it doesn’t mean they aren’t occurring. In life, you must try your best to do your best. You must put in the effort in the service of God and your fellow man. You must make the right choices and figure out how to become the very best version of yourself. And if you do all of this -know that you are positively impacting your world. You are effecting change. You are making a difference. Miriam did what she had to do in this world, and as a result, we were sustained and nourished. Everything we do makes a difference even when we can’t see it.
The death of Miriam was indeed a tragic loss. Tragic because we never got to say thank you to a woman who changed our lives. Tragic because maybe she herself never realized how truly important she was. May Miriam’s memory inspire us to appreciate the special people in our lives and provide us with the courage to keep doing good while living meaningful lives filled with optimistic belief that we are making a difference. (Reprinted from 5779)
“God spoke to Moshe and Aharon, saying: If a man has on the skin of his body: A white blotch or a bright spot …. The Priest shall pronounce him ritually impure, for this discoloration is Tzaraas.” (Vayikra 13:1-6)
It was a gift. Not the type of gift that makes you feel loved and appreciated; but the kind of gift that opens your eyes and heart to the realities of life. The gift to which I refer was the gift of Tzaraas (loosely translated as leprosy). Tzaraas was a physical manifestation of a spiritual malady. The Talmud explains that if one spoke Lashon Hara (slander against another), they would be stricken with a strange skin disease. One would have to appear before the kohen (priest) to have the discoloration or blotch examined. If the spot met certain criteria, the kohen would declare the individual tamei (impure). The afflicted individual would then be exiled and sent out from the community. His punishment was middah k’neged middah, reciprocal in nature; he sought to isolate another through negative and slanderous speech and therefore, we punish him in kind by isolating him from the community. Yet, despite the difficulties this punishment brought upon the sinner – it was a gift. It was through this sickness that the sinner was made aware of his negative and deleterious behavior. It was through Tzaraas that the slanderer was given an opportunity to fix himself and right his wrongs. During the days of isolation, the sinner was able to reflect on his behavior and begin to take the necessary substantive, rehabilitative steps.
The Torah then proceeds to discuss the purification process. “This shall be the law of the person afflicted with tzara’ath, on the day of his cleansing: He shall be brought to the kohen (Vayikra 14:2).” Yet, the very next verse reads, “The kohen shall go outside the camp, and the kohen shall look, and behold, the lesion of tzara’ath has healed in the afflicted person (Vayikra 14:3).” At first glance it appears the verses are contradicting one another. Is the Metzorah (person afflicted with Tzaraas) brought to the Kohen? Or is the Kohen brought to the Metzorah?
The answer is – both. As a result of his behavior, the Metzorah was rejected by the community. The verse states, “All the days the lesion is upon him, he shall remain unclean. He is unclean; he shall dwell isolated; his dwelling shall be outside the camp (Vayikra 13:46).” The Talmud explains that even others who were themselves ritually impure had to avoid contact with the Metzorah. He was away from his family, distanced from his community, and cut-off from his people. All this to impress upon him the severity of his actions. “You created a distance between one man and his fellow; therefore, you must sit alone outside the camp (Arachin 16b).” The Metzorah was taught a harsh, yet profound lesson – there is no room within the camp and community for those who sow the seeds of hatred and animosity within our ranks. But along with this lesson came a fear – a fear that this feeling of rejection would forever isolate the Metzorah and make him think that he would never reintegrate. In fact, the Midrash comments, “And he shall be brought to the Kohen; on the day that he becomes pure he should not delay … even if we must bring him against his will.” Could we imagine a scenario in which the Metzorah was reticent to return for his purification process? Would he not want to be reunited with his family? Would he not yearn to resume his normal life? Yet, the Torah tells us that this concern does exist. He may not want to come back – why? Because the Metzorah may say, “Look what I have done to myself. Look how I have sullied my soul and reputation. I have hurt others, and how will they ever forgive me? I have fractured relationships, caused heartbreak. I don’t think I can ever go back.”
The Torah tells us, on the day he is to be purified, he should come to the Kohen on his own. He has paid the price for his negative behavior; he has repented, learned his lesson, and will hopefully be more vigilant in his inter-personal conduct. But God tells the Kohen, “If you see he is not showing up – go get him. Run to him, embrace him, bring him back, tell him that we, the community, love, care and forgive him. Make him feel wanted. Remind him that we do get second chances.”
There are times when people wrong us and hurt us. Often, because of the emotional pain endured, I want nothing to do with the person who hurt me. Truth be told, after a difficult or hurtful interaction, a little distance (sometimes for a long time) is what is needed to heal the wounds and rebuild the self. But we must learn from the Metzorah the need to give second (third, fourth…) chances. I must remember that if the person who harmed me is truly penitent, understands what he has done, and has demonstrated a desire to do things differently going forward – I must leave my heart and the door open to reconciliation. People aren’t perfect, and I must allow those around me to find their interpersonal redemption in the aftermath of relationship failure. But there is another lesson as well. We must learn to forgive ourselves. We all make mistakes. There are some who carry the pain of their mistakes with them every moment of every day. There are people who cannot let go of the pain of personal failure. The laws of Tzaraas teach us that we must forgive the other; but we must also learn to forgive ourselves.
Originally published 5779
In the aftermath of the tragic deaths of Nadav and Avihu, God appeared to Aharon, the bereaved father, and instructed him:
And the Lord spoke to Aharon saying, ‘Do not drink wine that will lead to intoxication, neither you nor your sons with you, when you go into the Tent of Meeting, so that you shall not die. [This is] an eternal statute for your generations’ (Vayikra 10:8-9).”
The Kohanim (priests) may not drink wine either before or when performing the Temple service. On a most basic level, this was to ensure the sanctity and appropriateness of Kohanic behavior. In addition, the Kohanim were often consulted on matters of Jewish law and therefore, had to possess the clarity of mind to rule on complex issues. But why was Aharon given these instructions now? This could have been communicated at the beginning of the Mishkan’s inauguration. Yet, God chose to communicate this to Aharon in the aftermath of the loss of his sons. Why?
The commentaries offer many different approaches. I would like to share with you an incredible insight by the Ben Ish Chai (Chacham Yosef Chaim, Chief Rabbi of Baghdad, 1835-1909).
“… For the Temple and wine are two opposites. The Temple itself has the ability to fill the heart of a person with incredible joy … however, wine was created to comfort mourners or those who have suffered misfortune, as the verse states, ‘give wine to the embittered soul.’ Therefore, when one comes to the Temple which is the source of all joy, why would he need to drink wine?”
Wine was created to dull pain, to take the edge off difficult situations (when used in moderation). The Talmud explains that upon returning from burying a loved one, mourners were given a “cup of consolation,” a large glass of wine. God created something that can help remove some of the searing pain of life’s challenges. But this is not true joy; this is a masking or a dulling of the pain. At times, this is necessary as I am not yet ready to confront and tackle my broken heart. True joy comes from the Temple. True joy comes from connection with God. Happiness comes from within. The Kohen cannot drink wine when he comes to the Temple, because God wants the Kohen’s joy to come from his service and connection and not from an intoxicating beverage. God wants the Kohen to experience true and complete joy and not a contrived state of happiness resulting from masking life challenges. God wants the Kohen to feel simcha, not simply the absence of tzaar (pain).
God was speaking to a bereaved father. Aharon’s world had imploded as he had just experienced the loss of his beloved sons. God tells Aharon, “I know that life will never be the same for you. I know that although you have accepted My will and decree, your heart is shattered in a million pieces. But you can find a way to reclaim some measure of happiness through a life of sacred service and connection to the Divine. Don’t seek out happiness through dulling your pain. Find joy in a life of meaningful, dynamic service.”
Wine has its place. There is no Jewish life-cycle event which doesn’t include wine. We just demonstrated our freedom by drinking 4 cups of wine at the Seder. Wine can help you feel happy – but it can’t make you happy. True happiness comes from within. True happiness is the result of living a meaningful life filled with connection to God and the Jewish people. Real simcha is the result of knowing that I am making a difference, and my life is purposeful. Genuine joy comes from knowing that I am striving to become the best version of me. The wine can help at times, but true joy can only be found in the Temple.
Alexander Pope wrote, “To err is human; to forgive, divine.” From the moment we are first introduced to Adam in the beginning of Genesis it is clear that man is prone to falling and failing. In this week’s Parsha, the Torah begins the lengthy section detailing sacrificial law. There are offerings brought for thanksgiving and celebration and there are offerings brought for atonement in the aftermath of sin. There are sacrifices for the mistakes of the common man and there are special sacrificial rites for the sins of the leader.
“If a leader [of Israel] sins and unintentionally commits one of all the commandments of the Lord, which may not be committed, incurring guilt; if his sin that he has committed is made known to him, then he shall bring his offering: an unblemished male goat.” (Vayikra 4:22)
In this verse the Torah describes the events that occur if the Nasi, the leader of the Jewish people, inadvertently issues an erroneous halachik ruling (permitting that which is prohibited) and acts upon his own ruling (thereby committing a sin). The verses describe the special sacrificial service to atone for his transgression.
The verse begins with the Hebrew word “Asher,” translated as “if.” In a bit of a play on words, the Talmud (Horiyos 10b) explains: “Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai said: Praiseworthy (Ashrei) is the generation whose leader brings a sin-offering for his inadvertent transgression.”
Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai teaches us that it can be difficult for one in a leadership position to admit he has done something wrong. The leader may be concerned about his image, about his ability to “lead” in the aftermath of an admission of guilt. And so, praiseworthy is the leader who can admit his faults, seek atonement and attempt to restore his spiritual standing.
But shouldn’t the Talmud have reserved its praise for the leader who has not sinned at all? Shouldn’t Rabbi Yochanan save his “Ashrei” accolade for the leader who does not suffer a spiritual lapse? Such a leader can serve as incredible role model for his constituents and followers. If our leader can remain above temptation, if our leader can avoid the spiritual and physical pitfalls of life, we can as well. Why not laud the Nasi who never suffered the set-back rather than the praising the one who did?
Rav Menachem Dovid of Amshinov (1850-1918) explains that in fact the reverse is true. A leader who has not suffered personal failure will be unable to forgive the shortcomings of another. A leader who has never tasted the bitterness of personal defeat will not appreciate the struggles of those he must lead. The leader who always succeeds will look at those who do not with a sense of disdain and resentment. Therefore, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai says, “Praiseworthy is the generation whose leader has stumbled, for this is a leader who will understand, appreciate and empathize with the difficulties his flock must face.”
The words of the Amshinover resonate with incredible personal relevance. We all stumble, fall and suffer set-backs along the journey of life. Each of us (in our own unique way) has tasted the bitterness of defeat and has felt the pain of self-doubt. These experiences must sensitize and allow us to be accepting of the faults and shortcomings of the other. It is precisely because we know how frail we are that we must accept the frailties of those around us. In the aftermath of personal failure, we must learn to forgive ourselves in order to get up, move forward and make up lost ground. When we see the failures of others, we must forgive, understand and aid them in getting back up. It is because we know how much we yearn to be forgiven for our transgressions that we must be quick to dispense forgiveness to those who wrong us.
“Praiseworthy is the generation whose members recognize their own failures and are able to forgive and accept the shortcomings of others.”