By Yochanan Gordon
The importance of the laws of lashon ha’ra and hotza’as shem ra cannot be overstated. For decades, we have seen the release of sefarim attempting to bring clarity and a sense of awareness to positive speech and protecting people’s privacy and innocence.
Gaining clarity of these laws is crucial because holding back information from people when there is a critical need and even an obligation for them to know that information is equally as dangerous as needlessly speaking ill about someone or not giving others the benefit of the doubt.
Having said that, there is a remarkable story recorded in the introduction to the eighth volume of Igros Moshe, which pertains to this week’s parashah, that occurred with Reb Moshe Feinstein’s father, Reb Dovid Feinstein, at a time when he was a rav in Luban.
Rav Moshe records: Rav Dovid received word one Shabbos morning of Parashas Vayeira that a Jew who davened in his congregation took critically ill and had requested that the rav come visit him. When the rav arrived, he saw the Jew in a sorry state, stricken with an extremely rare and peculiar malady that he hadn’t before witnessed — one in which his tongue was seared to his palate. Rav Moshe writes that the Jew conveyed to his father that he feels that his time left in this world is very short and that he wanted to tell him of the events that led to his sudden illness.
The man said that he was eating the Shabbos seudah with his family and began railing against the lewd and immoral acts perpetrated by Lot and his daughters, recorded in Parashas Vayeira, which led to the birth of Ammon and Moav whose male descendants are never allowed entry into the Jewish nation. He exclaimed, “Is it not enough that they acted the way they did? Was it necessary for them to declare to mankind through the name of the child that he was born from an illicit relationship? Feh! This is disgusting and abominable behavior.” Shortly thereafter, they bentsched and they went to bed.
During the night, two women appeared to this man in a dream and said that they will hold him accountable for the negative way in which he portrayed how they acted. These two women were the daughters of Lot and they visited this man in a dream to explain the rationale behind their seemingly mindless act. They said G-d had destroyed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, save for them and their father. They said that later on in history a man would be born who would defect from the Jewish people to start his own religion, claiming that he was the son of G-d, born through immaculate conception. The child born through the relationship between the women and their father could have easily claimed to have been born immaculately and nobody would be able to contest it — since all of civilization was desolate. They named him Moav, meaning “from our father,” to make known for posterity that a child needs to be born from a father and mother.
It seems that the grudge borne by the daughters of Lot was severe because shortly after the encounter with the rav, this man returned his soul to his creator.
This story is remarkable enough on its own. I subscribe to a WhatsApp group of daily Mishnayos which made a siyum on Maseches Sukkah this week. The final Gemara in tractate Sukkah discusses the story of Miriam, the daughter of Bilgah. The story of Miriam bas Bilgah occurred in history prior to the Chanukah story, at a time of religious suppression in the land of Israel. The Greeks, led by Antiochus, forced Jews to eat pig and desecrated the Temple at whim.
The only rationale that I can think of is that Miriam bas Bilgah might have suffered from Stockholm Syndrome, because as a result of the unending atrocities that she had witnessed, she denounced her Judaism, married a high-ranking Greek officer, and on many occasions followed him into the Holy Temple where he and his marauding band of evildoers would defile the holiness of the Temple and its vessels.
On one occasion, she entered into the Beis HaMikdash alongside her husband who was holding a pig which he was going to place atop the altar. Miriam removed her shoe and began hitting the altar screaming: “Wolf, wolf, until when will you continue to consume the money of the Jews and not stand in their stead in their time of distress?” This was such a distressing and demoralizing display of irreverence that after the rededication of the Temple, the family of Bilgah was penalized and their mishmar in the temple was cleaned out and closed. The Gemara asks: Is it just for an entire family to suffer due to the actions of one member? The Gemara concludes with the message that associations have repercussions. Those who are close to the rasha are punished along with him, while those in the vicinity, physically or otherwise, of the righteous are rewarded just the same.
Not getting into whether or not that is fair, the fact remains that this Miriam, for thousands of years, must have been denigrated and her legacy perceived with dismay for many years to follow — until the 6th of Tishrei 1974. The late Lubavitcher Rebbe, in a siyum on Maseches Sukkah, at a farbrengen coinciding with his mother’s yahrzeit, delivered a stunning limud z’chus of Miriam bas Bilgah.
Firstly, the Rebbe pointed out that the rabbis learned out from her the principle of “oy l’rasha oy l’shcheino,” which can itself be seen as a redeeming quality in what otherwise seemed to have been a disgraceful act of desecration. But then, fighting through his tears, the Rebbe concluded that we see the essence of a Jewish girl who despite the fact that she denounced her religion and married a high-ranking Greek officer and entered the Temple deeply defiled, after everything, what does she scream about? What can’t she bear? The desecration of G-d through the unending pain of her fellow Jews. The Rebbe said that even if we say she was chayav kareis, at his or her core a Jew can never truly sever himself from the Aibershter, and we see that clearly if we peel away the shrouds surrounding the act of Miriam bas Bilgah.
It seems that many people were perturbed by what they felt was a needless defense of an evil woman. The Rebbe, it seemed, was asked on more than one occasion why he felt it necessary to stand in defense of the wicked Miriam bas Bilgah, a question he would address just a couple of weeks later at a farbrengen on Simchas Torah.
First, the Rebbe discussed the importance of finding the silver lining in all people and in all situations. The Rebbe then said that by finding a point of positivity or a redeeming quality and articulating it, it has real concrete, positive ramifications. This is the charge of the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos: “Judge every person favorably.” The Rebbe explained that finding a favorable judgment within people, especially someone of the character of Miriam bas Bilgah, can effect a positive change within the person or in the soul of the person posthumously, as in this situation.
Then the Rebbe retold a story about a Jew who entered into the Alter Rebbe, Reb Schneur Zalman of Liadi, plagued by a dybbuk. It seemed that a wandering soul had latched itself to this Jew and he came seeking the Alter Rebbe to exorcise it. After a few moments, the Alter Rebbe determined that the soul, which had no respite, wandering, homeless, not allowed into Heaven or Hell, for thousands of years, was the soul of the murderer of Zechariah HaNavi, who was killed in the Beis HaMikdash on Yom Kippur. If the Alter Rebbe was going to succeed in exorcising this lost soul, he would have to come up with a plausible defense for the heinous act which left Zechariah dead in cold blood on the holiest day of the year in the holiest place on earth.
The Alter Rebbe then offered the following rationale. Everyone knew that Zechariah was getting ready to repeat a prophecy he had received regarding the destruction of Yerushalayim and the Beis HaMikdash. The law is that a prophet who holds back a prophecy is liable to death so he knew that Zechariah had no choice but to utter it. At the same time, he surmised, allowing him to say the prophecy would cause the inevitable destruction of the Temple, and so to prevent him from saying the prophecy he killed the prophet right then and there. While it was a murderous act, one for which his soul was punished for thousands of years, if you peer into its core, it was done for the good of Klal Yisrael and Eretz Yisrael. And with that, the soul detached itself and was allowed entry into its eternal resting place.
At that moment the Rebbe sensed that the soul of Miriam bas Bilgah was there and was seeking a similar resolution. There are many legends retold regarding people who had tikkunim associated with that sichah, but that is not the important detail in all this. What is noteworthy is the length to which a Jewish leader will go to find favor in another Jew despite the great depths to which he or she may have fallen. The story of the Jew in Luban, which occurred over hundred years ago, and this story with Miriam bas Bilgah should serve as a message to us to find favor in all people and in all situations because we never know the redemption that can occur on its account.