Parashat B'ha'alotkha

God Hears, But What We Do Matters Most

Miriam and Aaron's criticism of Moses, and Miriam's punishment of leprosy teach lessons of sibling and communal responsibility.

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The following article is reprinted with permission from Union for Reform Judaism.  

Parashah Overview

  • God speaks to Moses, describing the menorah for the Tent of Meeting. The Levites are appointed to serve as assistants under Aaron and his sons. (Numbers 8:1-26)

  • Those who are unable to celebrate Passover during Nisan are given a time in the month of Iyar to observe a "second Passover." (Numbers 9:1-14)

  • A cloud by day and fire by night show God's Presence over the Tabernacle. When the cloud lifts from the Tabernacle, the people leave Sinai, setting out on their journey, tribe by tribe. (Numbers 9:15-10:36)

  • The Israelites complain about the lack of meat, and Moses becomes frustrated. God tells him to appoint a council of elders. God provides the people with meat and then strikes them with a very severe plague. (Numbers 11:1-34)

  • Miriam and Aaron talk about the "Cushite woman" whom Moses has married. In addition, they complain that God speaks not only through Moses but also through them. Miriam is struck with leprosy, and Moses begs God to heal her. After her recovery, the people resume their journey. (Numbers 12:1-16)

Focal Point

When they were in Hazeroth, Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married: "He married a Cushite woman!" They said, "Has Adonai spoken only through Moses? Has God not spoken through us as well? . . .

God said, "Hear these My words: When a prophet of Adonai arises among you, I make Myself known to him in a vision, I speak with him in a dream. Not so with My servant Moses; he is trusted throughout My household. With him I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles, and he beholds the likeness of Adonai. How then did you not shrink from speaking against My servant Moses!"

Still incensed with them, Adonai departed. As the cloud withdrew from the Tent, there was Miriam stricken with snow-white scales! 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 that we committed in our folly. Let her not be as one dead, who emerges from his mother's womb with half his flesh eaten away."

So Moses cried out to Adonai, saying, "O God, pray heal her!" But Adonai said to Moses, "If her father spat in her face, would she not bear her shame for seven days? Let her be shut out of camp for seven days, and then let her be readmitted." So Miriam was shut out of camp for seven days; and the people did not march on until Miriam was readmitted. (Numbers 11:35-12:15)

Your Guide

Moses intercedes on Miriam's behalf with a prayer. Do you think that he was pleading with God just to cure her, or was there another kind of healing that he was requesting? Do you think that there is a difference between healing and curing?

How do the Israelite people respond when Miriam is stricken with leprosy? Does this surprise you?

By the Way…

How did Miriam know that Moses had neglected his conjugal obligations? Because she saw that Zipporah, his wife, took no care regarding her personal appearance, as is the manner of women. Miriam said to her, "What is the matter with you that you neglect your appearance?" She replied, "Your brother does not mind!" Thus Miriam knew, and she told it to her brother [Aaron], and they both spoke against Moses. Rabbi Nathan says, "Miriam was standing beside Zipporah when a young man ran and told Moses [that Eldad and Medad were prophesying]. When Zipporah heard this, she said, 'Woe unto the wives of these men!' And thus Miriam knew, and she told it to her brother [Aaron], and she "spoke against Moses." (Sifrei, B'midbar 99)

After being stricken with leprosy, Miriam was shut out of the camp for seven days. But she was not shut out of the hearts of her people. Miriam had waited by the Nile to watch over her baby brother in his ark of reeds. Now all of Israel waited for the prophetess, the women's leader, to be healed. (Miki Raver, Listen to Her Voice, Chronicle Books, p. 91)

"Maybe Aaron wonders if he could have protected his sister. Maybe he's thinking, 'Why didn't I challenge God and ask why she got punished and I didn't?' Maybe Aaron suffers over what he perceives is his own cowardice. I imagine Aaron sitting beside his sister's hospital bed with his head in his hands. I see him as just a regular Jew, like the rest of us. Guilty. Afraid. Wondering about the meaning of pain. Struggling with his faith and searching for comfort. But also connected by blood and history and love to his brother, Moses, to his sister, Miriam, and to the Jewish people's unending project of discerning and creating meaning in a seemingly random, sometimes cruel universe." (Rabbi Michelle Hertz, a character in Good Harbor by Anita Diamant, Simon & Schuster, 2001, p. 63)

Your Guide

Based on the midrash in Sifrei, B'midbar, do you think that Miriam intended to disparage her brother?

The above midrash tries to justify Miriam's action because of her outrage toward Moses regarding his not having conjugal relations with his wife. Is there a difference between slander and voicing an objection about a person's behavior?

The author of Listen to Her Voice reminds us that Miriam has played an important role in the life of our people. What was the impact on Miriam as a leader and as a prophetess after she was stricken with leprosy?

In a close reading of the Hebrew text (the word t'daber (speak) is a feminine singular verb), only Miriam and not Aaron spoke out against Moses regarding the Cushite woman. What do you think was going through Aaron's mind when he thought about Miriam's affliction? Do you agree with the rabbi in Good Harbor regarding her assessment of Aaron?

D'var Torah

This episode in the journey of the Israelites raises many questions about why Miriam was punished, especially with something as defiling as leprosy. But perhaps we are asking the wrong questions. Instead, let's ask what this story teaches us as a result of the fact that Miriam was stricken with leprosy.

If we accept what the midrash Sifrei tells us, we might gain a greater understanding about the relationships that the siblings have with one another and with God. Miriam discovers that Moses' wife has a fair grievance against her husband and wants to help her sister-in-law. She shares the information with her brother Aaron, and they both express concern about Moses' behavior.

Perhaps their statement that God does not speak only through Moses is their way of wondering why that divine relationship would prevent Moses from having conjugal relations with his wife. Might it be possible to view their subsequent question as a suggestion rather than as a criticism? Might they be saying, "Look, Moses, God speaks to all of us in some way. Your relationship with God needn't alter your marital relations."

God hears this conversation and summarizes the divine relationship with Moses, reiterating that God confides solely in Moses. Miriam still gets leprosy. Notice the next course of events: Aaron pleads with Moses, who then beseeches God to heal Miriam. Aaron respects Moses' divine connection. Their sister has a grave illness, and each brother reacts appropriately.

We will never be able to provide a rational reason for this case of leprosy, but we can try to understand the reactions and the relationships of those involved. The Israelite people waited for their prophetess to be healed. Their reaction speaks of a great respect they must have had for her. As for Miriam's brothers, they sought to help her through their supplications, first Aaron to Moses, then Moses to God.

Let us remember that it all started when Miriam voiced a concern regarding the relationship between Zipporah and Moses. God may hear what we say, but it is the human interaction in relationships that affects the way in which we understand our world.

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Rabbi Elaine Zecher

Rabbi Elaine Zecher is a rabbi at Temple Israel, Boston, MA.