Remembering Miriam

  • Rav Jonathan Mishkin






Remembering Miriam


By Rabbi Jonathan Mishkin



This week's parasha concludes with a dramatic command to remember an attack against the young Israelite nation by a people called the Amalekites:


Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, on the way when you left Egypt - how, undeterred by fear of God, he surprised you on the way, when you were famished and weary, and cut down all the stragglers in your rear. Therefore, when Hashem your God grants you safety from all your enemies around you, in the land that Hashem your God is giving you as a hereditary portion, you blot out the memory of Amalek from under heaven.  Do not forget!  (Deuteronomy 25:17-19)


            The incident itself, which is recorded in Exodus 17:8:15 at the end of Parashat Beshalach, ends in an Israelite victory, but the unprovoked nature of the Amalek hostilities so scarred the freed slaves that the event has been seared into the national memory as one of unforgivable hostility. The passage we have read is the source of three mitzvot: to forever remember Amalek's attack; to eventually destroy the Amalek nation; to never forget the episode.  The first and third of these commandments are fulfilled communally every year on the Shabbat preceding Purim, known as Parashat Zakhor for the first Hebrew word in the paragraph, when our passage is read aloud as part of the Torah reading.  It is linked to the Purim holiday because Haman, the villain of that story, is traditionally believed to have belonged to the Biblical nation of Amalek.


Tucked away in the chapter preceding ours is another command of remembrance: "Remember what Hashem your God did to Miriam on the journey after you left Egypt" (24:9).  This statement refers back to a seemingly minor family squabble which constitutes the whole of Numbers 12:


"Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married for he married a Cushite woman. They said, 'Has the Lord spoken only through Moses?'"


As a result, Miriam is struck with tzara'at, a skin affliction usually translated as leprosy.


"And Miriam was shut out of camp seven says; and the people did not march on until Miriam was readmitted.  After that the people set out from Hazeroth and encamped in the wilderness of Paran."


What seems to be missing from this story is a description of the nature of Miriam's sin.  The consensus among the commentators is that she spoke gossip against her brother. Tale-bearing is, from the Torah's perspective, a nasty habit. What exactly did she say?  Rashi explains that Miriam told Aaron that Moses had separated himself from his wife.  As a punishment for her indiscretion of LASHON HA'RA, Miriam is stricken with TZARA'AT, some form of leprosy.  Consequently, TZARA'AT is considered by the Sages to be the standard punishment for gossip.  Indeed, if we look back at the review of this story in our parasha, we see that the verse preceding the command to remember Miriam's sin discusses the phenomenon of TZARA'AT:  "In cases of a skin infliction be most careful to do exactly as the levitical priests instruct you.  Take care to do as I have commanded them" (24:8). The next sentence, commanding remembrance of Miriam's story, almost serves as a tip on how to avoid the unpleasantness of TZARA'AT - watch what you say!


When we compare the two commandments of remembrance which appear in our parasha we find the match-up to be unbalanced.  No Parashat Miriam reading exists where the entire community gathers to hear about the evils of idle gossip.  In fact, the commentators do not even agree on whether 24:9 constitutes a Biblical  mitzva or not.  The Ramban argues that this is one of the mitzvot that the Rambam mistakenly left out of his list of the 613 commandments (omission #7).  This disparency makes some sense - is there really any sort of parallel between attacking a defenseless and inexperienced people, and catching up on the latest family news?  On the other hand the Torah felt that Miriam's sin was severe enough to warrant a warning not to repeat her mistake.  There are plenty of cases of people misbehaving in the Torah which are not followed by cautionary statements. Why doesn't the Torah say "remember how Joseph spoke against his brothers"?  Why not admonish "not to speak ill of the Land of Israel like the spies did?"  What was so heinous about Miriam's chatter?


To understand the link between Amalek and Miriam, we must complete the list with other Biblical statements which include commandments to remember.  The Torah has roughly eight instances containing such terminology.  Here they are, in order of appearance:


1. Exodus 20:8 - "Remember the sabbath day and keep it holy."


2. Numbers 15:39 - The mitzva of TZITZIT serves to remind the Jew of all the commandments of God.


3. Deuteronomy 4:9-10 - Remember the events at Mount Sinai.


4. Deuteronomy 8:2 - Remember that God sustained the nation in the desert.  (This idea is repeated with/some variation in Deuteronomy 8:18.)


5. Deuteronomy 9:7 - Remember the sin of the golden calf.


6. Deuteronomy 16:3 - Remember the salvation from Egypt.


7. Deuteronomy 24:9 - Remember what God did to Miriam.


8. Deuteronomy 25:17-19 - Remember the attack of Amalek.


This is a weighty collection of topics representing many of the fundamental principles of Judaism: the Exodus signifies God's unique relationship with the Jews; revelation is the foundation of the Torah; tzitzit is a reminder for all the Torah's commandments; the desert manna speaks of providence; the warning against idolatry teaches the unity of God; Shabbat observance declares belief in creation and sets the Jew apart in the world.  These are all national themes intrinsic to the purpose of Judaism and it makes sense for the Torah to emphasize them.  To explain the inclusion of Amalek, we might say that unfortunately Jewish nationhood has always involved the fight for physical survival.  But, alas, Miriam seems to be the odd one out.  Whatever is she doing on this list?   Perhaps, one might suggest, she represents the realm of mitzvot known as MITZVOT BEIN ADAM LE'CHAVERO - obligations between Man and Man.  If that is so, surely the  mitzva commanding the preservation of human life, one of the Torah's highest ideals, should be repeated here instead: "Remember what Cain did to Abel, how he struck him down dead."  Instead, the Torah warns us not to gossip.


There is another dimension to the Miriam story which, when properly addressed, will explain the reasons for God's anger with Miriam, and the necessity for reminding us about the incident in Parashat Ki Tetze.  The Torah deals at length, in Parshiyot Tazria and Metzora, with infections afflicting the body, clothes, and homes. Commentators debate whether the Biblical disease constitutes a natural, medical condition, or a supernatural and miraculous sign of God's displeasure.  Whatever the true nature of tzara'at, the Torah is quite clear that treatment of the phenomenon requires the investigation of a priest, the kohen.  Called to the scene of suspected tzara'at, a kohen does not heal the victim but diagnoses, examining the symptoms to determine if quarantine is necessary.  What follows is an elaborate system of ritual cleansing of the leper which is not a physical therapy but a spiritual purification, with every stage governed by the kohen. 


Let us return to the verse which precedes the Miriam warning in our parasha:


"In cases of a skin infliction be most careful to do exactly as the levitical priests instruct you.  Take care to do as I have commanded them" (Deuteronomy 24:8).


The Torah here cautions a victim of tzara'at to do exactly as instructed by the kohen who assists in overcoming the ordeal. Perhaps we can make a connection between the recovery process and a possible cause for the tzara'at.  It is my suggestion that rejection of authority is sometimes severe enough to warrant divine intervention and that part of the healing process is re-acceptance of authority.  The Hebrew phrase instructing total obedience to the kohen in this matter, KE'CHOL ASHER YORUKHA (do exactly as you are taught), recalls an earlier verse in Deuteronomy 17:11.  There the Torah tells the people to obey the rulings of the kohanim, levi'im and judges who are the nation's teachers.  The passage is understood as the source which grants religious authority to every generation's rabbinic scholars.  The Rabbis are not only held to be Jewry's most learned people, they are considered the representations of God, the bearers of the Oral Tradition and the ones trained to interpret the Written Law.  In verse 11 we find the same phrase which demands we heed all that our leaders teach - "ASHER YORUKHA."


When Miriam spoke against Moses, it was not merely her brother she was maligning but the first and greatest teacher in Jewish history.  By speaking about Moses' wife or comparing herself to him in some way, Miriam was showing disrespect to an agent of God. For a brief moment she doubted his total authority.  There are two other cases in the Bible where tzara'at might also be explained in terms of questioning authority.  In Exodus (Ch. 4) Moses himself resists God's command that he accept the leadership of the nation.  As a sign that God is with him, Moses' hand is struck with tzara'at.  If the Israelites in Egypt question Moses' mission, he is to show them this sign.  The right of God to appoint leadership is demonstrated in His power to instantly afflict and heal.  In II Kings Chapter 5, Naaman, a commander in the army of Aram, is inflicted with leprosy but scoffs at the instructions given by the prophet Elisha to cure him.  Once he recants and obeys the simple directions of the prophet, he is immediately cured. 


One might argue that were the Torah intent in reminding us that the position of God's anointed ones is not to be challenged, a far better example than Miriam can be found in the story of Korach. Korach's insurrection (Numbers 16), does indeed aim to completely topple the rule of Moses and Aaron.  There is however, a great difference between the slight of Miriam and the outrage of Korach in terms of the challenge to authority they represent.  No self-respecting system of government can tolerate outright rebellion which attempts to overthrow a political leader.  The Torah recognizes that kings must be obeyed and respected and probably would not deny that privilege to the leader of another culture. On the other hand, the Torah believes that only the Jewish system of law affords religious leadership with a unique power and right to express the will of God.  It is this UNIQUE function of religious authority that the Torah is stressing when it recalls Miriam's sin - Do not belittle your teachers.  Combined with the other remembrances on our list of eight, obeying the halakhic teachings of the Rabbis fits nicely as a fundamental belief for the Jewish nation.