Parashat Beha’alotekha 5781

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A D’var Torah for Parashat Beha’alotekha
By Rabbi Jeffrey Segelman

Two stories appear at the end of the parasha this week, Beha’alotekha, which teach important lessons about life in general, but speak clearly to the ways in which our AJR pluralistic community survives and thrives.

The first story is that of Eldad and Meidad, two of the seventy leaders of the people on whom had been bestowed a level of prophecy so that they might assist Moses. When these two seemed to use their prophetic powers in excess, Joshua called upon Moses to punish them. Moses responded to Joshua saying, “Are you jealous for my sake? If only all the people could be prophets if Hashem would but place His spirit in them.” (Numbers 11:26-29)

We are witness here to a great quality of Moses and one for which we should all aspire: The “Ayin HaTovah” – “The Eye of Good(ness)”. Incidentally, in the chapter of Pirkei Avot which is traditionally learned this Shabbes, we learn that Rabbi Eliezer, a student of Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai said that the most important quality that a person should develop is the Ayin HaTovah (Pirkei Avot 2:9).

Simply stated, the Ayin HaTovah is the capacity to look at a situation, or a person, and see what is good. More importantly, it is the capacity to rise above ego and jealousy and wish the best for people and rejoice at their success even if – and especially if – it is a success that we want for ourselves. Sounds simple, but it’s very hard. We all want to be right – to have our accomplishments and our ideas be noted and lauded and prevail. Competition often brings out the worst in us. The Ayin HaTovah demands that it bring out the best in us.

The second story, just five verses later in the parasha, finds Miriam and Aaron speaking negatively about Moses behind his back. This, as we know, is Lashon HaRa. Briefly, Lashon HaRa is when we say something that is true about a person to another, with the intention of diminishing that person in the mind of the listener.

The circumstances of this Lashon HaRa are vague and not our topic in this d’var Torah. Many commentators suggest that it had something to do with how Moses’ relationship to God affected martial relations with his wife. The language of Miriam and Aaron reveals that they believed that their prophetic powers were the same as their brother’s, and that he did not need to act differently than them. (You can see the exact language of the Torah in Numbers 12.)

There is one line of “editorial comment” in the story: “And Moses was the most humble of all people” (12:3). Why is that important? The simple peshat would be to let us know that Moses was not the type who would ever claim superiority over others and perhaps it may also come to tell us that Moses would be unlikely to defend himself against such Lashon HaRa. But we will see in a moment that it was more than that.

God intervened and called out Miriam and Aaron for their sin and punished Miriam with Tzara’at – the skin ailment associated with and serving as a punishment for Lashon HaRa. Immediately, Aaron called on Moses to pray for her and save her. And no less immediately, Moses offered his prayer: “Please God, please heal her.”

Like the Ayin HaTovah, and in many ways related to it, avoiding Lashon HaRa is a most difficult task. Our story indicated that people as great as Miriam and Aaron can fall victim to it. We also learn from the story that most Lashon HaRa is spoken to people in whom we have the utmost confidence that our words will go no farther. And yet, Lashon HaRa is not just about hurting someone else. It is a flaw in our own character. The person who speaks Lashon HaRa is the one who can see good all around him, but will focus not on that good but on what is wrong – and use that information to put another down and build himself up.

A meaningful pluralistic community is one in which we are regularly confronted with ideas and practices not necessarily to our agreement or our liking. In such a setting, our human intellectual impulse is to focus on what is wrong with such things. Our human emotional impulse is to wish these ideas and practices failure – if not complete failure, then surely not as much success as what we hope for ourselves. Our “public” response to the other is likely to be polite and complimentary. Yet, if our private response is Lashon HaRa, then we inject a virus into our community that will slowly eat away at our ultimate mission.

The pluralistic community we create at AJR must be one in which we cultivate the Ayin HaTovah. We must truly see what is good in the ideas, positions, and practices that are not our own, and make that the focus of our conversation. And we must clearly disdain Lashon HaRa and help each other from speaking it – reminding each other when we hear it, that such words are beneath us.

Which brings me to the last point. What should we learn from the editorial comment about Moses’ humility?

First, it should go without saying that the midah of humility will protect us from losing our Ayin HaTovah or from speaking Lashon HaRa. And yet, we know that from time to time we will inevitably fail. But the other side of that coin is that from time to time, we will inevitably be the object of someone who cannot see the goodness or someone who will speak Lashon HaRa. It is in this moment that humility serves us best, for our impulse in such a situation is to be defensive at best and angry at worst. But these reactions will do no one any good.

Rather, if we can cultivate humility, then when we are the objects, the victims, we can actually listen and measure the truth of what is being said, and use it to introspect and grow. More importantly, like Moses and Miriam, our humility allows us to understand and forgive.

As clergy and as members of the AJR community, each of us strives to wear one thread of the cloak of Moses. May that thread inspire us to have an Ayin Tovah, refrain from Lashon HaRa, and grow and forgive when others may fall short.

Shabbat Shalom
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Rabbi Jeffrey Segelman is Director of Fieldwork and a lecturer in Professional Skills at AJR. He is also the rabbi emeritus of the Westchester Jewish Center.