The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and then the Israelites wept and said, “If only we had meat to eat!” We remember the fish we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!”
Kohelet 7:10 (as cited by James Kugel)
Don’t say, ‘How has it come about that things were better in earlier times than now?’ for you are not asking about this out of wisdom.
Sifrei Bamidbar 87
“We remember the fish that we would eat in Egypt, free”: Is it possible that the Egyptians gave them fish free? Is it not written, ” And now, go and work, and straw will not be given you” (Shemot 5:18): If they did not give them straw free, would they give them fish free? How, then, are we to understand “free”? Free of mitzvot.
Do you sometimes experience false nostalgia? Is nostalgia always false? Why might nostalgia be unwise, even if it is not false?
The mussar concept of hakarat hatov is translated as gratitude but implies a sense of obligation and debt. What is the midrash suggesting about the “free” food? What is the obligation or debt that the Israelites have and to whom? Can God be”paid back” for freeing them? How is this kind of debt different from a monetary debt (different from a transactional debt)?
Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married: “He married a Cushite woman!” They said, “Has the LORD spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us as well?” The LORD heard it. Now Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth. Suddenly the LORD called to Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, “Come out, you three, to the Tent of Meeting.” So the three of them went out. The LORD came down in a pillar of cloud, stopped at the entrance of the Tent, and called out, “Aaron and Miriam!” The two of them came forward; and He said, “Hear these My words: When a prophet of the LORD arises among you, I make Myself known to him in a vision, I speak with him in a dream. Not so with My servant Moses; he is trusted throughout My household. With him I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles, and he beholds the likeness of the LORD. How then did you not shrink from speaking against My servant Moses!” Still incensed with them, the LORD departed. As the cloud withdrew from the Tent, there was Miriam stricken with snow-white scales! When Aaron turned toward Miriam, he saw that she was stricken with scales. And Aaron said to Moses, “O my lord, account not to us the sin which we committed in our folly. Let her not be as one dead, who emerges from his mother’s womb with half his flesh eaten away.” So Moses cried out to the LORD, saying, “O God, pray heal her!” But the LORD said to Moses,”If her father spat in her face, would she not bear her shame for seven days? Let her be shut out of camp for seven days, and then let her be readmitted. So Miriam was shut out of camp seven days; and the people did not march on until Miriam was readmitted.
A direct (pshat) reading of the text might be that Miriam and Aaron were making a racist complaint about Moses — he married a foreigner (a Midianite), who looked like an African woman, rather than an Israelite woman. How might this speak to the time we live in?
Rashi notes that in the Bible, “Cushite” has the connotation of beautiful. Following the Midrash, Rashi argues that Miriam’s and Aaron’s complaint was that Moses had separated from his wife due to wanting to be more spiritually pure, and their disagreement was theological, related to abstinence. (Since she was beautiful, Moses’ abstinence could not be because she was unattractive to him.) They framed this disagreement in a personal way. Why might Rashi be interested in following this line of thought in describing lashon hara?
This then is the purpose of remembering the episode of Miriam. It is for us to learn how evil lashon hara is, and how excluded from the community will be the one who spreads it.
It is not enough to simply make a decision not to speak lashon hara. A person has to acquire and maintain a positive outlook toward others. There was a woman in Stockholm … [who made] it impossible to speak lashon hara in her presence. When she heard someone speak negatively about another person, she would say, “If that is the case, then we must help him. How can we help him?” If a person maintains such an attitude, he will never come to speak derogatorily about someone else. The next time we have an urge to speak lashon hara, let us think how we can possibly help that person instead. In time, this will help us acquire a “good eye” (Avot 2:13) and ultimately effect a positive change in our personality.
What happens when you simply try to suppress a bad habit?
Is the practice that Rabbi Wolbe is recommending something you could do?
Pirkei Avot 2:13
Rabbi Shimon says: Be careful in reciting of Shema (and praying). When you pray, do not make your prayer fixed, rather prayers for mercy and supplication before the Omnipresent, blessed be He, as it says (Joel 2:13), “For He is gracious and merciful, long-suffering and full of kindness and repents of evil.” And do not be wicked in your own eyes.
Why do you think Rabbi Wolbe referenced the wicked eye in Pirkei Avot? How are the verses in Pirkei Avot related to Torah verses? What is Rabbi Wolbe trying to tell us about what “a positive change in personality” means?
Moshe tolerated their criticism and did not grow angry. Tolerance [patience] is an essential virtue in all of our interpersonal relationships. The Alter of Kelm writes, “How great it would be if we could habituate ourselves to act with tolerance, for it is the root of all middos and qualities and the source of serenity.”
In addition to the tolerance a person must show toward others, one must also be tolerant of himself. We are all seeking to grow and become better people, but we constantly encounter difficulties. Sometimes we feel that the yetzer hara is out to stop us at all costs, sometimes we lose our drive to continue, and sometimes we forget where we are headed. A person who
lacks patience in avodas Hashem will give up or get depressed, and there is nothing more detrimental to avodas Hashem than depression.
Can we do lashon hara towards ourselves? What might distinguish lashon hara from valid criticism?
When we speak negatively about someone or ourself, is it:
- For the Good?