Monday, June 2, 2014


Numbers 8:1−12:16

By Rabbi Rabbi Steven Pik-Nathan for Reconstructionist Jewish Communities


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!

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