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Torah Commentary
B'haalot'cha (June 6, 2015)

Sherry Nehmer,


Once my brother threw a staff on the earth
and God turned it into a snake. Once my brother
put his hand inside his cloak and God turned it white
like hoarfrost in the cold desert shadows. Once
I groused that my brother gets all the attention
(he speaks for God; he married the most beautiful woman
any of us had ever seen, then ignored her
because God was more important) and God turned me
white as my brother’s arm. Does that mean I too
am an instrument of God's will, set apart wholly?

THESE LINES ARE part of a septet of poems about Moses’s sister, Miriam, written by Rabbi Rachel Barenblat. A poet as well as a scholar, Rabbi Barenblat (who has a wonderful blog called “The Velveteen Rabbi”) invests her writings with personal, as well as cerebral and religious interpretations of the Hebrew Bible. Her poetry is lovely and thought-provoking, and I’m delighted to call her a friend of mine.

And it is the personal aspect of this week’s portion, B’haalot’cha, that resonates for me, specifically the interaction of those three siblings Moses, Aaron and Miriam, for it is here we witness a family dynamic as true and current as those found in our own time. What family doesn’t have the child who excels so much that his siblings pale in comparison? What family doesn’t have petty jealousies when one child is seemingly raised above the others?

Now picture Miriam, the older sister, who (if we believe the lore about Moses’ beginnings) is there placing him in a basket and sending him into the reeds, then watching over him until he is safe. Then imagine her as an adult, rejoicing that she is sister to a man who speaks with and for God. How could Miriam have ever imagined such a thing of that infant in the reeds!

Now picture Aaron, raised to the priesthood by Moses — his children will be priests, and they, too, will lead the Israelites in their own way. The bright sun that is Moses has turned in his direction, and Aaron, although he does not shine like the sun himself, reflects that light like the moon. Aaron is so in thrall to Moses that when Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, are destroyed in the Temple for an infraction, he says nothing in protest, or even in sorrow. Nothing. That’s either incredible acceptance of God’s will or fear of his brother’s power. And Miriam?

Miriam is connected with images of water, perhaps representing the life of her people, for everyone requires water to flourish. When she dies, God honors her by opening up a spring. But here in the parashah B’haalot’cha, we see a different side of her. Aaron and Miriam, in a fit of jealous gossip, complain about Moses marrying a Cushite (Ethiopian) woman and are chastised for it, to which they reply, “They said, ‘Was it only to Moses that God spoke? Did He not speak to us as well?’” In other words, we’re prophets, too! We’re important! But it is Miriam alone who is punished for the transgression, by a leprosy-like disease that forces her out of the Israelite camp. There, alone, she must endure the shame and the terror of being thrust aside. It’s only when Moses intervenes that God allows her to heal and return — another example of Moses’ greater power.

Why doesn’t Aaron suffer the same fate? Aaron is a priest. He is needed, and he must remain pure to do his job. There’s no such need for Miriam.

This is biblical pragmatism at its most obvious...and perhaps most cruel. But it’s also remarkably human. If we cross out the mystical elements, like sudden-onset leprosy and Divine anger, then we’re left with a family where not all are created equal. Certainly the times dictate the different status of men and women, but this is a more personal glimpse into a family. Moses is driven, obsessive and powerful, Aaron more thoughtful and measured (and afraid?). Miriam is revered in her own way but is a complex creature — alternately loving, vengeful, jealous, gossipy, joyful, petty. Miriam is a real human being, easy to identify with whether she’s engaging in musical schadenfreude over the death of the Egyptians,

Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously;
Horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.

or loving and watching over her brother Moses, or being resentful of him. She is crucial to the story of the Israelites, perhaps not for leading her people, but as chorus, inspiration, revered prophetess and pragmatic reminder of the best and the worst we can be.

How I love Miriam, her flaws, her faults, her realness! Like the stories of Joseph and his vindictive brothers, the stories of Miriam, Aaron and Moses at their most contentious resonate because this is how real people behave. It’s in moments like this that it’s good to remember the Bible is not just a record of Divine pronouncements and plagues, fiery pillars and sentient clouds. It’s stories of real people caught up in extraordinary circumstances, human beings who are not always wise or kind or compassionate. Their struggles to become wise, kind and compassionate are what make them extraordinary. And that is why the story of Miriam, imperfect Prophetess, is so compelling.


And when I die there will be no water.
And when I am gone the well will disappear.
Without me the people will be restless.
But brother, my brother, do not weep:
bury me here on the flats of Zin.
The women will sing my songs at sundown
and I will hear their voices on the wind.
Every woman of Israel who seeks to draw
these waters forth will be my hands.
Thus has God spoken. Amen, amen, selah.

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