When a person is not or unable to be a contributing member of society, what good is his existence?
This week’s Torah portion (in Israel!) is Beha’alotcha (Numbers 8:1 -12:6). At the end of the reading is the famous (or infamous) episode where Miriam speaks Lashon Harah (gossip and slander) about Moses concerning his personal life.
Miriam was punished with what is known as tzara’at – a terrible biblical-era skin disease with which a person who spoke Lashon Harah would be stricken. A person afflicted with this disease, referred to as a Metzora, was required to separate from the Jewish people and live outside the camp or city until the affliction went away. Miriam was no different, and she, too, was expelled from the Jewish camp until her tzara’at subsided. As a gesture of honor towards the otherwise righteous Miriam, the Jewish people parked themselves for the duration of her punishment and did not continue their travels in the desert until she was healed and returned to the camp.
When Miriam was stricken with tzara’at, both Moses and Aaron prayer for her speedy recovery. It is noted that in the course of Aaron’s prayers, he beseeches God that the righteous Miriam should not remain “like a dead person”.
What is this comparison between a Metzora and a dead person all about?
The premier Torah commentator, Rashi, explains that indeed, a Metzora is compared to one who is dead. In fact, he says that there are other types of people considered “like a dead person” as well, including one who is poor or blind.
The common denominator among them, he continues, is that they lack something so fundamental and important in life that it is as if they are dead, which is the ability to help others!
Allow me to explain.
As mentioned, the Metzora is forced to live outside the camp, and as such, he is cut off from society. Like a dead person, he or she cannot contribute to the community. One who is unable (or unwilling!) to assist others is considered like a dead person, who obviously cannot do so either.
In Talmudic times, a blind person was essentially helpless and cut off from the world. (Thank God that in our day and age, there are many outlets and support systems for those who are blind, and the comparison may no longer hold true.)
This is what are sages mean when certain categories of people are comparable to the dead. When a person is unable to be a contributing member of society, what good is his existence?
The message: Be alive! Very alive! Do whatever you can to help others.
For more insights by Rabbi Ari Enkin on this week’s Torah portion, click on the links below.