In honor of my Prodigious Babes series, I wanted to write this week’s Taste of Torah with a focus on the female protagonist of Behaalotecha (Numbers), Miriam. The parashah concludes with a rather bizarre incident: G-d punishes Miriam with tzaraat (a skin affliction) for “[speaking] against” her brother Moses (12:1).
To better understand the peculiarity, let’s provide context: Miriam gossips to Aaron about their brother’s wife, and justifies her position by drawing parallels between their own prophecy and Moses’. Moses refrains from countering the verbal attacks from his siblings, essentially winning the Most Humble Man on Earth award, as bestowed by G-d. G-d is angered by Miriam’s hubris, and summons them to the Tent of Meeting — here, he explains to them that He reveals Himself to prophets in obscure ways, but Moses is special: “he beholds the image of the L-rd” (12:8). G-d goes on to inform the sibling duo that by underestimating Moshe’s course of action with his wife, they underestimate G-d. For her sin, G-d afflicts Miriam with tzaraat. Aaron begs his brother not to punish them for acting foolishly, so Moshe beseeches G-d to heal her. G-d compares himself to an angry father, claiming she will bear shame for seven days as she would if it was her biological father who was upset with her. Miriam is thus shunned for seven days; once she heals, the Jewish people continue their travels with her.
Let’s deconstruct. This episode is a bit tabloidesque, prying into the personal lives of Judaism’s favorite family. Moses’ sex life is revealed: Rashi explains that the content of Aaron and Miriam’s gossip was Moses’ lack of affection with his wife (Tanchuma Tzav 13). According to this source, Moses became so holy and in tune with G-d, that he developed a Nazarite-like abstinence, transcending the most basic physiological needs of Maslow’s hierarchy. And then of course the drama unfolds with his sister: Miriam goes from prophetess to pariah, plagued by a skin affliction.
Why is Miriam’s genuine concern for her brother’s marriage constitute such severe punishment? If anything, Miriam’s gossip isn’t gossip at all, but rather constructive verbal communication. In fact, Miriam’s ability to recognize that the holy bond between Moses and G-d has unfair implications to Moses’ wife, Zipporah, is an important affirmation of a woman’s right in the bedroom. (Judaism in general is very emphatic with its understanding of a woman’s sexuality. For example, a woman may ask for a divorce on legitimate grounds of sexual incompatibility.) So is Miriam being punished for speaking up for women’s rights? Does G-d condemn her feminism?
The answer is no. Miriam’s sin is not so much that she was concerned about her brother’s wife. Her sin was that she was haughty with her status as prophetess; she says, “Has the Lord spoken only to Moses? Hasn’t He spoken to us too?” (Numbers 12:2), essentially undermining her brother’s holiness by equating it to her own. Miriam feels too confident in her knowledge of her brother’s situation, and jumps too quickly at the chance to intervene and offer her own advice.
We tend to do this about those we love — assume we know what is best for them. Despite coming from a place of love and care, this behavior can be detrimental. In Miriam’s case, her communication came at a time in which Moses’ leadership was challenged by the community — her criticisms could have potentially only intensified these sentiments, further debilitating his leadership (Numbers 11:1-17). Thus it is important to employ the benefit of the doubt when judging others. It’s unrealistic for me to tell you not to judge others, because it’s judgement that allows us to make good decisions and show our care for others. However, it’s vital to acknowledge our limited perspectives when drawing conclusions.
Miriam’s attempt to verbally communicate her concerns is laudable in its intent. However, her execution was poor and hurtful. We can learn from her and refrain from speaking deceitfully of others — especially behind their backs. Rather than jumping to conclusions, we can calmly approach whomever perturbed us; we must come from a place of understanding — not from a place of omniscience — after all, who are we to play G-d?
Special thank you to Moshe Kahn, Rabbi Chaim Seidler-Feller, and Dr. Doreen Seidler-Feller for their input and analysis.
This article is part of Ha’Am’s Friday Taste of Torah column. Each week, a different UCLA community member will contribute some words of Jewish wisdom in preparation for Shabbat.