Parshat Beha’alotecha: Educational punishment

By SHMUEL RABINOWITZ
May 23, 2013 21:34

This lesson which we learn from the story of Miriam the Prophetess is a message which the Torah wants us to remember every day: Punishment should only be one which advances and educates the punished.

2 minute read.



‘THE ISRAELITES crossing the Red Sea’ by Juan de la Corte.

The Israelitied crossing the Red Sea 370. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

At the end of this week’s Torah portion, we read a sad story that took place during Am Yisrael’s journey from Egypt to the Land of Israel.

Two of the nation’s great leaders, Aharon the Priest and Miriam the Prophetess, spoke between themselves badly about their brother, the Jewish nation’s leader and redeemer, Moshe Rabeinu.

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G-d’s reaction came swiftly. Miriam was struck with leprosy and needed to leave the camp where the nation resided for a period of seven days.

According to the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, one of the great sages of Spain from the 13th century), it is commanded upon each person to remember this story daily. In other words: The lesson we are to learn from this is so important that we must remember it every day so it can guide us all the time.

Beyond the simple and true significance of this story which teaches us that speaking badly of someone (lashon hara) is a serious and destructive sin, there is another detail in the story which the Torah saw fit to mention.

During the days when Miriam was outside the camp, the nation did not proceed in its journey toward the Land of Israel, but stopped in its tracks and waited for Miriam to be cured of her leprosy: “... and the people journeyed not till Miriam was brought in again.”

(Numbers 12, 15) In these short words, the Torah explains the significance of Miriam’s being outside the camp. The entire nation of Israel, millions of people, stopped its journey toward the yearnedfor land and waited for seven days for Miriam to be cured of the leprosy and return to the camp. With this gesture, the nation expressed its understanding that Miriam leaving the camp was not just a plain punishment, but contained within it a chance for a person to take advantage of the time of isolation from society and other distractions to take an insightful look into his own heart.

The entire nation understood this. It understood that Miriam was utilizing these days to advance and look inside herself. Therefore, it waited for her until she returned. The nation knew that the Miriam who would return to the camp would not be the same Miriam who had left the camp. She would be a Miriam who had internalized the severity of the lashon hara deed and had learned how we must treat each other with tolerance and acceptance.

In everyday life, punishment fulfills a role, occasionally consciously, such as when society punishes someone who broke a law or harmed public order; and occasionally unconsciously, such as when we treat another person in a way that punishes him for his deeds.

The Torah teaches us that the main purpose of punishment is rehabilitation and education of the punished. Therefore, we must always distinguish between efficient punishment and inefficient punishment. Efficient punishment is one which allows the person to examine and understand the severity of his actions. But punishment which does not rehabilitate the punished does not have the desired benefit and is inappropriate.

This lesson which we learn from the story of Miriam the Prophetess is a message which the Torah wants us to remember every day: Punishment should only be one which advances and educates the punished.

The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.


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