Shira Smiles shiur 5782

Adapted by Channie Koplowitz Stein

One of the six mandated remembrances in Judaism is to "Remember what... Hashem did to Miriam on the way... out of Egypt." (Devarim 24:9)  The actual incident occurs in our parsha, Parshat Behaalotcha. Miriam spoke loshon horo about her brother Moshe, a brother that she loved dearly and to whom she meant no harm. She noted that he had separated from his wife, a seemingly innocuous observation, yet Hashem afflicted her with tzora'as. While it is important to always remember the gravity of negative speech, it is helpful to also explore and discuss additional ideas raised by this incident. It is also important to hear Moshe's short but poignant five word prayer for her recovery, "Please Hashem, heal her now."

As a metzora, Miriam was quarantined and sent out of the camp of Israel for seven days. The Torah tells us that the people did not journey until Miriam was brought back in, implying that while the Clouds of Glory had indeed lifted, signaling that Bnei Yisroel should travel, yet in homage to Miriam, with Hashem's acquiescence, Bnei Yisroel waited for her to return to the camp at the end of her quarantine. The medrash tells us that this wait, and Hashem's assent, was a reward for Miriam's waiting on the banks of the Nile River when the basket carrying the infant Moshe was put among the reeds.

Rabbi Druck in Aish Tamid asks the obvious question: Miriam stood guard for only a short while, yet all of Bnei Yisroel waited a full week for her. How did such a small act merit such a great reward? Why is this also the correct time for the reward, asks Rabbi Svei. This is a prime example of how a small mitzvah can merit a great reward; we are not the judges. As Rabbi Scheinerman notes, citing the Sifsei Chachamim, Miriam acted naturally in trying to protect her brother, and her "guard duty" was only for a short while, yet she merited such a great reward. How much more can we merit when we act positively when it seems unnatural to do so.

How greatly does this differ from Western mentality. The West values quantity and achievement, while Judaism values effort over accomplishment, continues the Ohel Moshe. See, for example, how Joshua merited succeeding Moshe Rabbenu in leading Bnei Yisroel. We are told Joshua served Moshe. Our Sages tell us that Joshua's service consisted of setting out the mats so the disciples could sit, a relatively minor task. Yet his reward was great. Or consider the husband of the Prophetess and Judge Devorah. He encouraged his wife to go to Shiloh to expound Torah and judge the nation. To facilitate this mission, he made thick wicks to increase the light of Torah, and so Devorah is referred to as Aishet Lapidot/the wife of Lapidot/the wife of Torches. Was this his given name or his sobriquet and title? 

Let us not overlook the small things, teaches us Rabbi Pincus, for we do not know the impact even a smile or a kind word may have on another at any given moment. Bigger is not always better. Often the greatest impact is made with the smallest of actions. Hashem provides so many opportunities for chesed, writes Rabbi Ochion in Ohr Doniel, but we often either don't recognize the opportunity or discard it as irrelevant. We don't know the importance of what we do or don't do, but every detail is recorded, every cheerful smile, every offer of a drink of water, the smallest acts of chesed.

When Moshe sees Miriam afflicted, he voices a short but eloquent five word prayer, "Kel na refa na lah/Please, Kel/God heal her now." From Hashem's response we learn that one of the ways of studying and understanding Torah is through making inferences, kal vachomer/a fortiori. Hashem tells Moshe that had her father spit in Miriam's face, certainly she would have been humiliated for seven days..." Unwritten but derived -- I, the Father, see fit to rebuke her [to "spit in her face], should she not be closeted and separated in humiliation at least equally?

Actually, it is this same reasoning method that Moshe himself used in separating from his wife, the source of Miriam's comments, notes Hinachem Nafshi. Hashem had commanded Bnei Yisroel to separate from their wives for three days in preparation for receiving His word. Moshe reasoned that Bnei Yisroel were encountering God only once, yet they had to separate from their wives. Kal vachomer/How much more so must he separate from his wife and be in constant readiness any moment that Hashem wishes to speak with him "face to face." This was the reasoning Miriam overlooked, and this was why she was punished here.

Hinachem Nafshi offers yet another insight Each of the thirteen attributes of Hakodosh Boruch Hu parallels one of the ways we can learn and study Torah. The third word of the thirteen attributes is Kel, the name parallel to to the method of derivation, a fortiori. Moshe uses this name of God specifically in pleading for Miriam's recovery, as he understands that Miriam's sin stemmed from a fault in this reasoning.  We also learn a kal vachomer from the reward itself.  If Miriam is getting rewarded for an act that any sister would do for her brother, how much more so, will we get rewarded for great acts that we do.

While a punishment should reflect the transgression, a reward should also reflect the positive act at some level, writes Chochmat Hamatzpun. We don't know the "back story" of Miriam at the banks of the Nile. How much was she suffering along with her baby brother, adrift on the water? What were her thoughts and her prayers? When we are involved in mitzvoth, we need to invest not just time, but purity of mind and spirit in the performance.

Miriam was suffering with her brother, nosei b'ol im chavero/carrying the burden of suffering with him. Empathy has the power to relieve some of the suffering of another. Rabbi Druck notes that for the duration of World War I the Chofetz Chaim refused to sleep on a bed, for he felt the suffering of Jewish soldiers. In the desert, all of Bnei Yisroel felt the suffering of Miriam in quarantine, and could not move through the pain for the duration of the seven days' quarantine.

Rabbi Cohen brings the example of Rabbi Chaim Shmulevitz who was celebrating the bris of his son during the War of Independence. With bombs going off constantly, and Jews being forced to run from house to house as they sought cover, Reb Chaim came across a young boy, crying and cowering in an alley. Although he himself was in danger, and the child had already received medical attention. Rabbi Shmulevitz stayed with the child and cried with him.

If we can create mental images of the suffering of another, we can internalize their pain and share their burden, suggests Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv. Hashem Himself shared the pain of Bnei Yisroel when they were enslaved in Egypt. According to the medrash, Hashem kept a sapphire brick under His throne as a constant reminder of the bricks Bnei Yisroel were forced to build during their enslavement.

The point of doing chesed with empathy rather than only as an obligation, is further emphasized with the mitzvah of lending money to your brother. The Torah states, "When you lend money to your brother with you..." As Rashi points out, if you are lending him money, certainly he is with you. But the extra words are meant to teach you to put yourself in his place, to feel his embarrassment at asking for help. As the Sifsei Chaim adds, when you imagine yourself in his position, you give with a smile, not with a dismissive grunt at the inconvenience of opening your door to him. Step outside yourself, outside your own comfort zone, and give not only of material goods, but also of yourself to others.

Hashem's judgment is different from ours, writes Rabbi Shmulevitz in Sichot Mussar. Hashem considers the effects of a punishment not only on the transgressor, but also on others in his circle. Is the pain of those who love him also warranted? If one seeks the advice and prayers of a Gadol/great Rabbi, and the rabbi is pained by our suffering, does Hashem want this Rabbi to feel pain? Hashem may ease the suffering of the transgressor just to eliminate the pain of the Rabbi, the collateral and undeserved pain. Even the cherubim protecting the Ark were embracing at the hour of the destruction of the Temple, supporting each other as they felt the pain of Bnei Yisroel and feeling the closeness of Hakodosh Boruch Hu.

Hashem punished Miriam, but at the same moment, he remembered her empathy for Moshe. Similarly, writes Rabbi Gamliel Rabinowitz in Tiv Hatorah, when we view someone's actions negatively, we must also try to remember the good things they did, and judge them positively.

Coming from a completely different perspective, Rabbi Michoel Rabayov posits that Miriam's reward was for her complete trust in Hakodosh Boruch Hu, that He would fulfill her prophecy. She prophesied that her mother would give birth to the redeemer. Miriam was waiting and watching in anticipation to see how that prophecy would be actualized. Because she saw how her prophecy had been so greatly fulfilled, Miriam could not conceive of Moshe's prophetic spirit being even greater than hers. She did not realize that Moshe was "the most loyal and trustworthy in all of [Hashem's] house," or that Hashem spoke to him "mouth to mouth," more clearly and intimately than He spoke with Miriam herself. However, even within this miscalculation, we must learn Miriam's message, that every Jew is great, every Jew, like every angel, is on a mission from Hashem. We must believe in ourselves, just as Miriam believed in herself and in the power of her prophecy, writes Rabbi Svei.

Indeed, every Jew is an olam katan/a small world. However, in Sichot Ba'avodat Hashem we get two interpretations of this phrase. True, olam, in simple translation, is our finite world, limited in space and time. But olam also means that which is hidden. We should never accept our apparent limitations, but must push ourselves beyond the visible confines of our circumstances. We must seek out the hidden resources within ourselves, as Miriam did. We must invest every act with a spirit that elevates it, for even the most simple of acts has tremendous potential to change worlds. Even if we feel we can offer no material aid to another, our mere presence and empathy is powerful in supporting others. Hashem records everything. We do not know how the smallest of acts can prove to be our greatest merit. Miriam, a prophet and a leader, especially of women, even when she sinned, continued to teach us many lessons.