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Miriam

This week's parasha is Beha'aloteha One of the most fascinating, but often forgotten, parts of this narrative involves Moses and his siblings Aaron and Miriam.

We read in Chapter 12, verse 1 that "Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married; for he had married a Cushite woman." Before we find out who this Cushite woman was (Cush refers
today to Ethiopia, but his wife Tzipporah was a Midianite. Does this refer to Tzipporah or did Moses have a second wife?) the text then tells us that Aaron and Miriam complain "Has Adonai spoken only through Moses? Has God not spoken through us as well?" And so it would seem that the siblings have two complaints against Moses, the first having to do with his wife (whoever she might be) and the second with their roles as prophets in Israel.

Miriam is referred to only five times in the Torah, and this is the most detailed narrative involving her. She is referred to as a prophet and yet little is known about her in the Torah. God responds later in the parasha to Miriam and Aaron that Moses' prophetic ability is different from theirs -- or that of any prophet to follow -- for God and Moses speak "peh el peh" mouth to mouth. This does not negate Miriam's prophetic status, but merely distinguishes that of her baby brother Moses.

What occurs after God responds angrily to Miriam and Aaron is that Miriam is stricken with tza'arat, a skin affliction, and is sent out of the camp for seven days until she recovers. We are told that the people wait for her recovery before continuing on their journey.

Rabbi Ruth Sohn, in her commentary in The Women's Torah Commentary discusses the role of Miriam in Jewish tradition. In her lengthy treatment of this issue it becomes clear that there was most likely a much stronger Miriam tradition in which she played a much greater role as prophet and leader.

What remains in the Torah are fragments of this tradition -- and how ironic (or is it) that the largest fragment involves her chastisement and punishment by God (while nothing at all happens to Aaron, who had also complained).

Luckily, traditional midrash fills in the gaps for us and creates a Miriam who speaks, prophesies, advises and has a "real life." The midrashim on this particular passage are fascinating, especially since we can assume that they were written by male rabbis approximately two millennia ago!

I would like to focus on one particular stream of midrash on this parasha. In these midrashim the rabbis state that Miriam speaks out not against Moses' marriage to the "Cushite woman," as is often assumed, but on behalf of Moses' wife. In these midrashim they state that the Cushite woman is indeed Tzipporah and that she, upon hearing that the elders Eldad and Medad have now been given the gift of prophecy so that they can assist Moses, responds "woe to the wives of these men." Tzipporah overhears this and assumes that Moses is so caught up in his responsibilities and his spiritual life that he is neglecting his conjugal duties to his wife. She then tells Aaron about this and they go to confront Moses.

Her sin, according to these midrashim, is lashon ha'ra (gossip, literally the "evil tongue"). Miriam should not have reported Tzipporah's words to Aaron. Rather, if she truly wanted to be an advocate for her sister-in-law (and Tzipporah's marriage to her brother) then she should have gone directly to Moses. Instead she tells their elder brother Aaron and they both say to one another "we are prophets and we have not neglected our spouses, why should Moses?" It still seems unfair that only Miriam was singled out for punishment, but at least it helps us to understand one possible reason for God's reaction.

What fascinates me most about this midrash, and the Torah text itself, is that it gives Miriam a greater role in the narrative, and yet it is a clearly circumscribed role. As Sohn states in her commentary, people of either Biblical or Rabbinic times were not ready for a woman taking on a prophetic role or a real leadership role. And so the editors of the Torah text may have indeed removed much of the Miriam narrative to keep her role limited.

The rabbis, thought they give her a greater role in Midrash and praise her frequently, also limit her by continuing to place the blame and the punishment on Miriam and not Aaron in their midrashim.

However, what I also find telling is that Miriam's voice is the one that tries to help Moses to see that he should not be neglecting his family in order to do his job as leader and prophet. Judaism has never taught celibacy or asceticism for our leaders. Our leaders are always portrayed as people with "real lives." It seems that Moses has forgotten this and it is up to Miriam -- with the help of Aaron -- to help him see this.

This is not so different from today where it is the presence of women in the workplace and the greater role that women have taken in society that many believe has enabled men to feel able to have personal, as well as work, lives. The days of the male professional who neglects his family in order to "make it" in the world is, thank God, becoming a thing of the past. (For those of the 60's and 70's would Harry Chapin's "Cat's in the Cradle" resonate for as many people today as it did then?). But this is most true in the professions where women are found in the greatest numbers and have had the greatest impact.

We can all, women and men alike, be thankful to Miriam for setting an example all those years ago. Unfortunately, the world was not ready for her at that time and so she had to suffer the consequences. Luckily that is not the case today for most of us (though it still is for some). We still have our work cut out for us, but we have certainly come a long way thanks to Miriam and her sisters after her and the effect that they have had on the rest of us!
Topics: Divrei Torah
Type: Dvar Torah

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