Shabbos 91 and Parshas Behaaloscha Racism, Self-Defense, and Prison Reform

Today’s daf contains an unusually high amount of different Talmudic principles, all of which can be the subject of post after post on their own.

Among them we see again the concept of אחשביה, the idea that something (or quantity) generally not appreciated as significant by a society in general and thus not subject to the penalty for transferring on shabbos, can become significant when someone sets it aside for a useful purpose.

Besides, for being a recurring theme in our masechta regarding shabbos, we have also seen this in a recent post regarding inedible chametz on Pesach, which can become forbidden when someone chooses to eat it.

We also see the principle of בטל דעתו אצל בני אדם, ( a person’s view is nullified by the view of others), which in our case, shows that the converse DOES NOT apply- even if someone does not regard something as significant, if the majority of people do regard it as such, it is also considered significant.

And towards the end of the daf, we encounter a famous legal rule of קים ליה בדרבה מיניה (a person who does one action subject to multiple punishments, is only subject to the greater of the two.)

It is very tempting with our high, often justified, but often exaggerated, regard for the modern, western justice system, to chas veshalom view the Torah approach to justice as archaic, and even cruel chalila.

While there are certainly many aspects of it, that at least on the face of it, do create philosophical and ethical challenges for us , there are So many concepts, that even on the simple face of it, should be so easy for modern society to learn from.

Punishment is supposed to be constructive, fit the crime, and not over burden society.

On the one hand, self-defense, and defense of one’s property, is a legitimate reaction, and one of the main sugyas of the idea of קים ליה בדרבה מיניה, is the sugya in Sanhedrin (72a), where one is permitted to kill a robber breaking into one’s house, when the assumption is that the thief is coming to kill.

This is so much so, that the thief is exempt from monetary claims caused by his damage during the crime, seeing as he was subject at the time to a possible death penalty!

Yet, the rule is also very clear that this (as well as the general rule of a pursuer) is an absolutely last resort- If there is any way to save oneself by wounding the attacker, one is required to do so, and if one fails to, one is guilty of murder )Sanhedrin 74a.)

In a world where so many people are treated as second class citizens, the rule of אחשביה could teach us on an ideological level, that we are able to elevate these people and restore their dignity simply by starting with ourselves and being the one’s to appreciate them.

At the same time, we can never be guilty of being the ones to treat people with less dignity than the norms of the society in which we live.

In our parsha, Miriam is guilty of gossip against her brother, Moshe Rabbeinu, the greatest prophet of all time.

The passuk tells us that this gossip, had something to do with the Cushite (Ethiopian black) wife that Moshe had taken.

There are many varied explanations in Chazal and the Rishonim as to the precise nature of the gossip (some of which might have more appeal than others to our personal views on racial matters) , and of course, there are multiple facets to everything in Torah.

However, we have one iron-clad rule that Chazal themselves taught us (earlier in our masechta) : אין המקרא יוצא פשוטו (a verse does not depart from its simple meaning.)

This golden rule is usually taken to mean that the various midrashim, even those that seem to contradict the simple reading of the passuk, come to supplement and add additional messages to the simple meaning of the text, NOT to replace it, and although there is much to discuss about this idea in its own right, I will take it as a given for the purposes of this post at least. (for further reading, see the various explanations in Rashi, Ibn Ezra, the Targumim, and in particular, the Sifsei Chachomim on the two explanations in Rashi, on this episode.)

Although it is always hard to understand how great people can do terrible things, whatever the precise nature of this gossip was, the terrible punishment makes it clear that it was indeed a terrible mistake.

I would like to suggest what to me, at least in the context of our time (and the timeless Torah speaks to ALL of us, in ALL times), is the most obvious simple meaning of the text.

In the biblical society, like in today’s so called liberal western world, the illness of racism was a scourge, that even otherwise great, and good people, were affected by.

Moshe Rabbeinu’s marriage to a black woman, was frowned on so much in that society, that even his own great and righteous sister couldn’t handle it.

And what happened- she become ill with an affliction which makes the skin go snow-white!

In Judaism, diversity in creation is actually celebrated, and even has its own bracha, משנה הבריות, (one who diversifies his creations), one that is actually made on rare animals like elephants (depending on time and place), as well as unbelievably, black people, who were very rarely seen in Talmudic Israel and Babylon (Brachos 58b.)

Perhaps the simple lesson from Miriam is that if one doesn’t appreciate that “black is beautiful”, one can land up as a leprous outcast, as white as white can be!

Shabbat Shalom ,and may we see the end of the terrible scourge of racism and the appreciation of every person created in the Image of Hashem.

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