Parashat Beha’alotecha 5778

Rabbi Dr Margaret Jacobi – 1 June 2018

Last week, we saw widespread coverage of the producer Harvey Weinstein coming to court to face charges of rape and sexual harassment. Since accusations first emerged last year, more than eighty women have made allegations against him. It has become clear that Weinstein abused his position of power to take advantage of vulnerable young women, desperate to succeed in the film industry. And it was not only Weinstein. Gradually, as the #MeToo movement began, it emerged that several male film directors and producers had behaved similarly, to the extent that the exploitation of vulnerable women had become part of the Hollywood culture.

Yet, before the stories emerged, Harvey Weinstein had generally been viewed in a positive light as someone who supported good causes. For example, he had been active on issues such as poverty, AIDS, juvenile diabetes, and multiple sclerosis research and was critical of the lack of gun control laws and universal health care in the United States. Whatever wrong he did, he also did some good.

Human nature is complicated. Rarely are people completely good or completely evil. Individuals who are corrupt and ruthless are also capable of good. Oskar Schindler was a hero of the Holocaust, saving thousands of people. But before that, he was a racketeer and a womaniser who had done little good in his life. Others who saved Jews were thieves and criminals. Yet they found within themselves the capacity to do good.

In our sedra, we have the opposite. Miriam was a prophetess, a far-sighted and courageous leader. Whilst still a child, she had stood watch over her brother Moses and when he was found she had bravely spoken to Pharaoh’s daughter, asking that the boy’s mother be invited to the Palace to be his nursemaid. Thus, she helped assure the future of her people. She led the women in rejoicing after the crossing of the Red Sea and was clearly much loved by the people. Yet, this week we read that she spoke to Moses ‘because of the Cushite woman he had married’ and was punished for doing so. We do not know what she said. Some commentaries suggest that she was trying to help Moses’ wife. He was neglecting her in his pursuit of holiness and she reprimanded him for this. But others suggest that Miriam was, in today’s terms, racist, criticising Moses for taking not only a foreign but also a dark-skinned wife. Her punishment for this was ironic – her skin was turned white as snow by the mysterious ailment called metzora. Whatever she said, Miriam seems to have caused harm by her words. For all her wisdom, goodness and courage, Miriam could also do wrong. She was not perfect but, like her brother Aaron, who spoke with her but somehow went unpunished, she was flawed – as all of us are.

It is easy to see people as good or bad. Yet, as the Talmud reminds us, although there are some people whose good deeds far outweigh their bad, and some people whose bad deeds far outweigh their good, for most of us the scales are finely balanced. One good deed can tip the balance in favour of a good judgement. As we observe the behaviour of others, we are are not in a position to judge them. We do not know what hidden good people do or what they are capable of.

The Talmud tells the story of the execution of Rabbi Hanina ben Dosa. His executioner sees him suffering and stokes up the flames to bring about his death sooner. Then he throws himself into the flames. A voice proclaims ‘The executioner has a place in the world to come.’ The story raises many questions. Why does the executioner throw himself into the flames, and how can this be rewarded? How can a single deed earn a place in the world to come whilst others who strive to do good all their lives may not be assured of this? We do not know the answers, but what the Talmud seems to be saying is that wicked people are capable of great good and deserve to be rewarded for the good they do.

It is right that Harvey Weinstein should face justice. He may have done good but he is also accused of crimes for which he should rightly be punished. But we also have to remember that rarely is a person wholly a villain or wholly a hero. Heroes are flawed and villains can be good. People are complex, their motives complicated and their deeds diverse. God is the ultimate judge and only God can truly know a person’s motives and deeds.

Let us then look to our own deeds and strive to be the best people we can be – for that is all we can know.

Share this Thought for the Week