Shabbat 97

Disease and punishment.

Today’s daf takes a break from the laws of public and private space to reflect on a troubling biblical story about Miriam and Aaron and their complaint against their brother Moses.

The Book of Numbers describes a strange moment in the relationship between these three siblings:

Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married: “He married a Cushite woman!” And they said, “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us as well?” And the Lord heard it. (Numbers 12:1–2)

In response to their complaint, God calls all three siblings to the Tent of Meeting, and defends the unique status of Moses. And then:

Still incensed with them, the Lord departed. As the cloud withdrew from the Tent, there was Miriam stricken with tzaraat! When Aaron turned toward Miriam, he saw that she was stricken with scales. And Aaron said to Moses, “O my lord, account not to us the sin which we committed in our folly.” (Numbers 12:9-10)

For millennia, readers have noticed that though both Aaron and Miriam are guilty of speaking against Moses, only Miriam is afflicted with the punishment of tzaraat, a biblical skin disease that requires quarantine and, upon healing, purification.

In today’s daf, one talmudic rabbi tries to correct this injustice:

It was taught: Aaron also contracted tzaraat, as it is written: And Aaron turned toward Miriam, and behold, she had tzaraat (Numbers 12:10). This teaches that he turned, i.e. he was healed from his tzaraat, as he too had been afflicted.

The word “turned,” which can mean either a physical gesture or a more significant transformation, is the basis for the rabbinic midrash that Aaron, too, contracted and then healed from tzaraat. Resh Lakish follows up with a general principle: One who suspects the innocent is afflicted in his body.

Among many communities in the ancient world, including Jews, disease was understood to be a punishment for sin. And for many years, these ideas and texts have been used against disabled members of our communities to assign moral blame for physical or psychological conditions.

 

Luckily the Jewish canon, like the Talmud itself, is multivocal and offers diverse theological understandings of the world. I choose to read today’s daf together with the Book of Job which offers the story of a righteous man who loses everything as part of a divine test. His flocks are carried off by raiders, his shepherds murdered, his children killed when a structure collapses on them, and he breaks out in painful sores all over his body. All of this suffering is undeserved.

Job’s friends try to comfort him — by insisting that he must have done something wrong to have merited such devastating calamity. If only he’d repent, they “helpfully” suggest, God would favor him again! But we the readers know that Job does not deserve his suffering. And Job knows it too. He insists that he has nothing to repent for.

The Book of Job ends with God affirming Job’s righteousness, and expressing anger at the friends whose attempt at comfort distorts the divine truth. The story teaches that some diseases — fatal or otherwise — are undeserved.

Read all of Shabbat 97 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on June 11, 2020. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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