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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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.