This week weekly portion “Behaalotha” contains the very famous story of Miriam’s punishment. Miriam and Aharon talked about Moshe and the fact he took a black wife. The story is so abrupt that many questions left unanswered.
Both Miriam and Aharon were talking about the issue, so why only Miriam was punished? What did they talk about, who is this black wife of Moshe and what’s wrong about her or about Moshe taking her as a wife?
Let’s examin the Torah verses closer: “Miriam and Aharon spoke against Moshe because of the Cushit woman he had married: He married a Cushite woman.”
וַתְּדַבֵּר מִרְיָם וְאַהֲרֹן בְּמֹשֶׁה עַל אֹדוֹת הָאִשָּׁה הַכֻּשִׁית אֲשֶׁר לָקָח כִּי אִשָּׁה כֻשִׁית לָקָח:
The interpretors pay attention to the fact that Miriam is mentioned first, before Aharon. Therefore, they came to conclusion that she initiated this discussion, in other words, she is the one who is responsible for it. That’s why she was the one to be punished.
What was so terrible about this discussion of the black woman Moshe took remains a secret to us. But the second verse represents a clear claim for leadership and therefore could be interpreted as a mutiny: “They said: Has the Lord spoken only through Moshe? Has he not spoken through us as well? The Lord heard it.”
וַיֹּאמְרוּ הֲרַק אַךְ בְּמֹשֶׁה דִּבֶּר ה’ הֲלֹא גַּם בָּנוּ דִבֵּר וַיִּשְׁמַע ה’:
Moshe’s family is a unique family: all of the children, the sister and two brothers are prophets. But somehow from the very beginning of the story of Exodus, it is clear and unquestionable that Moshe is the chosen one. The story of his birth opens the book of Exodus and only by chance we have found out that he has an older sister. The existence of an older brother, Aharon, is announced even later in the story.
God as an incompetent father shows clear signs of preference of one of his sons over the others. So, the bitterness expressed by Miriam and Ahron is quite understandable. In this verse they are reported to talk about their jealousy to Moshe together:
וַיֹּאמְרוּ = and they said
Moshe does not respond to their claims. At least, the Torah does not mention anything about Moshe’s literal or emotional response to his siblings’ bitterness.
But the storyteller makes an unexpected comment about Moshe: “Now Moshe was a very humble man, more so then any other man on earth.”
וְהָאִישׁ מֹשֶׁה עָנָיו מְאֹד מִכֹּל הָאָדָם אֲשֶׁר עַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה:
It seems that what is strengthened here is the fact that Moshe is not involved in human pettiness, he’s above the rumors and gossips.
But God cares about his chosen one. God calls for the three of them to come to the alter. God is furious with Miriam and Aharon for questioning his choose. It is not just Moshe who is better than any other man. God has decided to choose him and to speak to him directly, face to face. Miriam and Aharon wanted to be as close to God as Moshe was. There is nothing wrong about their longing to God.
But God feels some kind of a threat in their claim: they question the leader God had selected for the children of Israel; they question God’s decision.
Miriam is punished by leprosy that considered as God’s punishment for immoral behavior. This story became a prototypical story of gossiping, “lashon haraa” and its punishment in our tradition till now.
In this respect the response of the people of Israel is challenging: “So Miriam was shutout of camp seven days; and the people did not march on until Miriam was readmitted”
וַתִּסָּגֵר מִרְיָם מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה שִׁבְעַת יָמִים וְהָעָם לֹא נָסַע עַד הֵאָסֵף מִרְיָם:
All leprous have to spend seven days outside of encampment of Israel until they are cleansed. All of people of Israel did not move until Miriam is back. The Torah in its laconic way does not provide any additional comment but the refusal of the children of Israel to leave Miriam means that she was not just a leader, but also someone dear and important to many of them.
The comparison between Israel’s response to God’s punishment of Miriam and of Moshe is more than intriguing: Moshe, as a punishment, is not allowed to enter the land of Israel. None in his people raises a voice in his defense, while Miriam was supported by all of them. Despite of the fact that in both cases the punishments came directly from God, which means they are ultimately righteous.
People of Israel, in a quite but unmistakable way, have voted against God’s decision in the case of Miriam.
Moreover, in Jewish tradition, Miriam is an important prophet who provided the children of Israel with her well of living water in the desert. This miraculous well followed Israel in the wilderness even after Miriam’s death. The midrashic stories tell us about reappearances of Miriam’s well in later times when Israel needed it.
The weekly portion states a very challenging but appealing to any liberal movement model: we believe in God and his righteousness, we worship and pray to God, we believe God to be a source of good and moral but we question God and God’s decisions. We peruse a gentle balance between faith and personal responsibility, between spiritual and rational, between God’s power and our personal impact on our lives.
Let it be God’s will we succeed in our quest.