Great Torah thinkers are able to develop new and fresh insights into classic Torah stories that blaze new paths of legitimate Torah thought. The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s revolutionary understanding of the Miriam Bat Bilgah story (Sukkah 56b; the closing story of Masechet Sukkah) is a fantastic example of overturning the conventional understanding of a classic story. The result is a magnificent basis for the special Chassidic approach to reaching out and loving every Jew no matter how far he or she has strayed from a Torah life.
Miriam Bat Bilga
The Gemara in Masechet Sukkah (56b) quotes the following Baraita:
The rabbis taught: it once happened with Miriam Bat Bilgah (who came from amily of Kohanim, mentioned already in Divrei Hayamim I 24:14; Bilga was the 15th of the 24 listed Mishmarot) that she abandoned her religion and went to marry a Greek officer. When the Greeks (subsequently) entered the Beit HaMikdash, she kicked with her sandal against the altar (Mizbei’ach) and said, “Lukus, Lukus [Rashi (ad loc. s.v. Lukus) "Wolf, wolf"1] for how long will you deplete Jewish money and not stand by them in their poverty?”
When the Beit HaMikdash was finally restored and the Kohanim resumed their Avodah (sacred service), the family of Bilgah was penalized for Miriam’s act of disrespect towards the altar.
Normally, each Kohein family served in the Holy Temple for a week (once every 24 weeks). At the end of the week, the incoming and outgoing families would divide the Lechem HaPanim (showbread; see VaYikra 24:5-9) between themselves. Usually the incoming family would divide it in the north of the Temple courtyard, while the outgoing family would do so in the south. The Bilgah family always had to divide their share of the Lechem HaPanim on the southern side.
Additionally, each family had its own ring affixed to the floor, in which the head of the animal was enclosed to hold it down during slaughter. Each family also had their own niche to store knives. The Bilgah family’s ring and niche were permanently closed, forcing them to borrow these needed items from the other priestly families; because of this, they suffered great embarrassment.
The Gemara presents another opinion as to why her family was degraded: Due to their apathetic approach to their rotation. When it was their turn to serve in the Beit HaMikdash, the family came late (or perhaps, as suggested by Rashash, not all of them came) and the next family was forced to work a double shift to make up for their absence.
According to the second opinion, justice is served. If the family doesn't take the Beit HaMikdash service seriously, then they are not permitted to serve with honor. The Gemara, however, questions why according to the first opinion the entire family is punished for the poor behavior of one individual. It answers with a teaching in the name of Abaye,
who said that a child's words are invariably opinions repeated from what he or she heard at home. Even so, asks the Gemara, should the entire family be punished because of Miriam’s parents? Again Abaye is quoted, this time teaching, “Oy LeRasha, Oy LiShcheino,” “Woe to a Rasha (an evil person); woe to his neighbor.” The Gemara then concludes by quoting Abaye as teaching, “Tov LaTzaddik, Tov LiShcheino,” “Good fortune to a Tzaddik (a righteous person), and to his neighbor, as well.”
Tov LaTzaddik, Tov LiShcheino
The Gemara’s concluding phrase “Tov LaTzaddik, Tov LiShcheino” seems random and out of place. It appears to be irrelevant to the Miriam Bat Bilgah story. The classic explanation of the Gemara is the Maharsha’s approach, that indeed this phrase has no connection to the Miriam Bat Bilgah story. It is added simply to end Masechet Sukkah on a positive note. The Lubavitcher Rebbe, however, on 6 Tishrei, 5735 (September 22, 1974), explained how this phrase in reality is very much related to the Miriam Bat Bilgah story.
Rambam – Every Jew Fundamentally Wants to Observe the Torah
In order to understand the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s incredible approach, we must review a classic explanation of Rambam (Mishneh Torah Hilchot Geirushin 2:20) as to why Beit Din in certain circumstances is permitted to coerce a man to give his wife a Get,2 despite the Torah’s requirement that a man give a Get only of his own accord and free will. Rambam writes that when a person is forced by Beit Din to give a Get, it is considered as though he agrees to give it of his own accord because it is a Mitzvah for him to divorce his wife in such a case, and every Jew fundamentally desires to perform Hashem’s Mitzvot.
His refusal to divorce in such a circumstance is merely his Yeitzer HaRa's (evil inclination’s) decision and not his "authentic" decision. Therefore, as soon as he says "Rotzeh Ani" ("I agree to [divorce her]"), even under coercion, the divorce is considered to be done with the husband's full consent. Rambam explains that the coercion merely suppresses the Yeitzer Hara and allows the true self, which truly wishes to obey Hashem’s command, to emerge.
The Lubatvitcher Rebbe’s Approach
The Lubavitcher Rebbe gives a deeply moving and inspiring explanation of the Miriam Bat Bilgah story. He argues that Miriam Bat Bilgah’s actions are examples of how fundamentally, every Jew is committed to Torah and the Jewish people. Hashem loves and cherishes every one of us, and our connection can never be severed. Look at Miriam, argues the Rebbe: You might think that she gave up everything, walked away from all that her people held dear; that she’s now a Hellenist and married to an officer of the army that defiles the Beit HaMikdash, and then severely insults the Mizbei’ach in a very public manner. A Jew cannot sink any lower!
But when she reaches the sacrificial altar, something hits a raw nerve, she sees her fellow Jews suffering, and her deep pain is exposed. In this moment of bitterness, what does she cry out? “Wolf, wolf! You consume the Jewish people’s wealth, but you don’t answer them in their time of need!” - in other words, “Hashem, how are You letting this happen?!” Her pain and response stress just how very connected she really was to Hashem and the Jews. She acknowledges Hashem and His relationship with the Jews, and can’t bear His silence.
Miriam may have viewed herself as no longer Jewish, not interested in Hashem, intermarried with the enemy, Hellenized, a pagan. But in reality, this was merely a superficial layer masking her true identity. The Jewish soul is bound to Hashem regardless of its outer spiritual appearance, even during the time of sin. At her core, she was a Jewish woman, and every moment presented the potential for her to return and reconnect with Hashem through the Torah and Mitzvot.
Lubavitcher Rebbe on Tov LaTzaddik, Tov LiShcheino
The Rebbe explains that Miriam Bat Bilgah teaches a lesson of monumental importance. If even a Jew who has converted out of Judaism and married an enemy of our People fundamentally remains committed to Torah, then every Jew has the potential to be reached by a committed Jew who is deeply committed to Torah.
The secret to successful outreach to people like Miriam Bat Bilgah can be discovered in the contrasting phrases of Oy LeRasha, Oy LiShcheino, and Tov LaTzaddik, Tov LiShcheino. These phrases seem to contradict each other. One teaches that a Rasha will influence his neighbor for the worse and the other teaches that a Tzaddik will influence his neighbor for the good.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe resolves the contradiction by noting that everything depends on who is the neighbor – the Tzaddik or the Rasha. If the Tzaddik is inactive, then he will be negatively impacted by the Rasha. However, if the Tzaddik takes control of the situation and actively seeks to influence his neighbors in a positive manner, then he will be successful in doing so.
The reason the Gemara is so confident in the Tzaddik’s ability to influence the Rasha is that even the Rasha is fundamentally committed to Torah, as evidenced by Miriam Bat Bilgah’s behavior. A dedicated and committed Tzaddik is able to peel off the superficial layers (Chitzoni’ut) of the assimilated Jew and allow the Rasha’s true self (the Penimi’ut) to emerge.
The Lubavitcher Rebbe points to Rashi who comments on the phrase “Tov LaTzaddik, Tov LiShcheino” that Midah Tovah Merubah MiMidah Ra’ah, that Hashem rewards in a much grander manner than that in which he punishes. The proof for this is from the Aseret HaDibrot (Shemot 20:5-6), in which Hashem teaches that the merit of Tzaddikim will last for two hundred generations, but the descendents of a Rasha are punished for only four generations. Thus, if Hashem created a world in which a Rasha can negatively influence his neighbors, then how much more so did Hashem create a world in which a Tzaddik is able to influence his neighbors in a positive direction.
Miriam Bat Bilgah is traditionally viewed as a classic Talmudic villain to be vilified, repudiated and despised by every Jew. The Lubavitcher Rebbe teaches us otherwise. Following the Berdechiver Rebbe’s classic example of Limud Zechut, finding something positive in even the most estranged of Jews, the Lubavitcher Rebbe understands the Miriam Bat Bilgah story to teach that every Jew can be redirected to a more positive Jewish life by a deeply committed Jew who is resolute in his devotion to uplift himself and his fellow Jews.
1 The twice daily sacrifice, the Korban Tamid, is a lamb. Hence, Miriam Bat Bilgah refers to the Mizbei’ach as a wolf, since wolves devour lambs.
2 In certain circumstances it is a Mitzvah for a man to give his wife a Get, such as if he refuses to perform his obligations to his wife, such as earn a livelihood. Only in such cases is a duly constituted and recognized Beit Din permitted to coerce a man to