Before I start, I want to make a disclaimer. As some of you may know, I have always questioned the nature of God. I am putting that aside for now and moving into the study of Torah. I am going to treat God as a character in a story — albeit a very important story.
My parashah, Beha’alotecha, is a packed one. After receiving instructions about various ritual procedures, the time comes for the people to leave Mount Sinai. Among the detailed directions God gives the people about how they will travel, one aspect stood out to me: God says that when the cloud rises, the people should break camp and follow the cloud, and they should set up camp again where the cloud rests. God doesn’t just say this once or even twice, God says this seven times. As they continue on their travels, the people remember the delicious food of Egypt and crave meat. God responds: I will give you enough meat to come out of your nostrils because you have angered Me. Moses starts kvetching also, saying: These are not my children! I cannot lead them on my own. God gives Moses 70 elders who do some crazy prophecy… but two men, Eldad and Meidad stay in camp acting as prophets among the people. When Moses is told of this, he is delighted and says why don’t you all become prophets!
At the end of the parashah, Miriam and Aaron speak harshly of Moses behind his back. They talk about how he married a Kushite woman. Miriam and Aaron complain that Moses is treated differently even though they are all prophets. The cloud comes down to the entrance of the tent. God calls the three siblings together and gives Miriam and Aaron a good telling off… saying: Moses is the closest to God, the only one with whom God speaks plainly and in whom God trusts… God gets very angry because they are questioning the authority of God’s favorite one, Moses. The cloud rises and Miriam is stricken with “snow white scales” called tzara’at. Aaron turns to Moses, saying: I know we have done you wrong but please, do not leave her this way! Moses then turns to God with the famous line “El na refa na la. Please, God, heal her!” God replies that if her father had spit in her face she would leave the camp for seven days and so she does. Though the cloud has risen, the people stay until Miriam reenters the camp. Only then do they move on.
I am intrigued by how the characters in my parasha relate to one another. Since God repeats seven times that the people would move on when the cloud rose, it seems to me that this must have been very important to God. I wonder: why did God not punish the people? The cloud rose but they stayed where they were until Miriam returned to the camp. Some commentators had ideas about this question.
Rashi connects this situation to the past: Miriam spent time when Moses was a baby watching him float along the Nile and guarding him. Rashi says God honors Miriam’s waiting and guarding by allowing the people to wait for her now. Rashi suggests that even though God is punishing Miriam, God is also showing respect for Miriam. I think it’s cool that this respect is shown in a way the whole people can see.
Rashi also has a mashal, a story or parable, which is posed as a version of the end of my parasha: A king tells a teacher to punish a student but tells the teacher to wait until the king is gone because he is the student’s father. This mashal seems confusing because it has three characters while the parasha has only Miriam and God. (pause) I see the student as Miriam and the punishment as tzara’at. God is the teacher who punishes with the tzara’at. And the king is the cloud, which must leave because it cannot bear the pain of the child. To me the cloud represents the aspect of God that guards the People of Israel. Just as the king leaves before the punishment, so does the cloud, it rises and there stands Miriam, stricken with tzara’at. Here God as acts the ultimate parent — one who loves and guards their child but also knows when they need to be taught a lesson.
Another commentator, Ibn Ezra, sees the story differently. He doesn’t think the cloud ever really left the camp. He thinks it just left the entryway of the tent. In chapter 12 verse 5, it says “God came down in a pillar of cloud, stopping at the entrance of the tent….” So, it might make sense for the cloud to simply be returning to its normal post above the tent.
S’forno is the only commentator I learned from who gives the people credit for making the decision not to leave. S’forno thinks the people realized that the cloud had not risen in order to tell them to move, rather it rose to make clear to Miriam that she was being distanced from God. S’forno gives some insight here into his opinion about the people’s connection with God. The fact that he thinks the people knew what God wanted is huge. He is describing a significant degree of understanding between the people and God.
My own take on the relationship between the people and God is that is has been distant and indirect. Any time the people want God to hear something it goes through Moses, and everything God says to the people goes through Moses as well. We learn at Sinai that the people are afraid of God. They say to Moses: we don’t want to encounter God too closely, don’t make us. This puts Moses in a very difficult position — he will never truly be a part of the people but is not on the same level as God either.
In contrast, I think Miriam is the kind of leader who is truly part of the people. In my Parasha the people do a lot of grumbling. What does Miriam do at the end of the Parasha? She grumbles like everyone else. She is in the same mode as the people. I see her as someone who has a distinct connection to God but is not distanced from the people by that connection.
I’ve realized we don’t know very much about Miriam. We see her exactly 4 times in the Torah, which is not a lot. I wonder who she was. We really don’t know.
We learn from the rabbis that Miriam cared about babies from a very young age. There is a midrashic story that the Israelite men in Egypt divorce their wives because they don’t want their children to be killed by Pharoah. Miriam, a young child, convinces her parents to remarry and have children again. She believed it was important to continue the generations. The Torah tells us that after her brother was born she protected him on the river. By showing this deep caring at such a young age, she took on the role of midwife to the people. She continued throughout her life to ensure that there would be a next generation.
I also see her as a leader of the women because of what she did after the people crossed the Red Sea. The people of Israel have just escaped slavery, Moses says a song of praise for God and then comes Miriam. Sh’ne-emar / It is written: “And Miriam the prophet, sister of Aaron, took her timbrel in her hand and all the women went after her, dancing with their timbrels.” She bursts out in song and dance leading the women. I don’t see how after this she could be anything but a leader of the women.
Miriam has a deep connection to water. Every time she appears, there is water. I’ve already mentioned the river, the sea, and the cloud. Because the people asked for water after Miriam’s death, the rabbis teach that there was a well that followed Miriam throughout the desert. I disagree with the rabbis — the water that the people yearned for was a metaphor for something bigger.
Miriam was the well.
I see water as Miriam’s essential character, who she was. Water was the first thing God created after light and darkness. Water sustains us; we need it to survive. It is both an everyday substance and a holy one. We drink it and take baths in it, and we purify ourselves with it. We are born out of water, the water of our mothers’ wombs. Water is all of these things individually and water is all encompassing. This is Miriam. She is close to God, a supporter and sustainer of the people, everyday and holy, and someone who is close to the cycle of births. Maybe what the people needed was what she gave them — the same things water gives us all. And that is why the people would not leave her. They waited for her to rejoin the camp before travelling on. They could not live without her.
I have come to these conclusions about Miriam but I realize this is only speculation. Over the past year, I have been engaged with this story and, about two months ago, I got really frustrated. I wanted to go back and ask Rashi, Ibn Ezra, and S’forno why they thought what they did! Even better, why not just go all the way back and ask the people why they didn’t leave and ask God why God didn’t punish them. I wanted to chat with Miriam, get to know her and ask her about her life, everything that was left out. But I can’t do that, none of us can. Interpreting Torah is all speculation and we will never know if we’re right. For a few days, I was pretty annoyed with our tradition.
Then I realized how cool it actually is. For thousands of years, Jews have wrestled with this. I am not alone in wanting to know. But none of us can go back, so we try to construct conversations with our past. We have commentaries about commentaries about commentaries that try to figure it all out. This is Jewish tradition. We dig into our history and find links and connections. We come up with reasons and ideas. We reach into our past and keep it alive with our questions and our search for answers. Who knows, maybe we are all wrong, maybe it didn’t happen the way we think or never happened at all. That’s not what matters — what matters is that we, the Jewish people, are drawn together in this never-ending exploration.