This, the final third of Parashat B’ha-alot’kha, starts off with a passage (verse 35), which now appears early in the Torah service: 


When the Ark was to set out, Moses would say:      Va-y’hi binso’a, va-yomer Moshe:

    Advance O Lord!                                                    Kumah Adonai

    May Your enemies be scattered,                             V’yafutzu oyvekha,

And may your foes flee before You!                         V’yanusu m’san-ekha mi-panekha!


As written, the words were meant quite literally, but, as part of the Torah service, they are meant figuratively.  I mention them just as in passing.  I really want to go on to focus on the several moods or qualities of God we encounter in this part of the Parashah.


      First, we hear from a God of Terror.  The Israelites complain “before the Lord” (lit. in the ears of God), and, without any warning, God sends down fire, very likely lightening.  Moses prays to God, and the fire ceases.  There was no discussion between God and Moses before or after the fire.


      Second, we hear from a parental God.  The Israelites are complaining again, but this time it is Moses who loses his cool.  He tells God that the job is too much for him, that he would rather die than continue.  Does God get upset?  Not at all.  Rather, God very calmly advises Moses to build a Council of Elders to help him – just what Jethro had earlier suggested for secular problems, but now extended to religious affairs.  Even when Moses questions whether God can feed all the people, God chastises Moses gently for his lack of faith.


      Third, we hear from a God of Judgment.  Miriam and Aaron complain about Moses, and, after hearing their charge, God calls them to the bar, indicates that they have overstepped legitimate bounds, gives them a stern lecture from the bench, and sets terms of punishment.


All of this is really quite anthropogenic, which it was likely intended to be.  God is taking the role of an earthly ruler who is close to His people, and sympathetic to their problems, but who ultimately expects obedience.


It is the last mood that I want to explore, the material contained in Chapter 12, except that my focus will not be on God but on Miriam and Aaron.  What exactly is it that they did wrong?  Why did they deserve to be punished?  And why does Miriam suffer the worst of the punishment?  Some answers appear in the notes in Eitz Hayim, but they only hint at the wealth of material in commentaries, and, in particular, the link to Lashon Ha-Ra:  Saying things that may be true but that are injurious to another person.



Let’s start with some of the more evident issues.  Why is Miriam deemed to be the provocateur in this episode?  Because of the sentence structure.  The first three words in 12:1 are: Va-t’daber Miriam v’Aharon.  Not only is Miriam’s name first, but the verb is feminine singular.  QED.


Second, Miriam refers to Moses’ Cushite wife.  That phrase also evoked pages of commentary: Was Zipporah the Cushite – one of the tribes of Midiam is called Cushan – or is it someone else, perhaps an Ethiopian woman about whom we have not heard  to now?  Those may be good questions for students of Torah, but they interest me not at all.  Let’s assume that the Cushite wife was in fact Zipporah.


Third, Miriam and Aaron do not complain to God, but God does hear them.  (One may ask, “What did they expect?”)  God responds with words that have to be deliberately ironic.  God asks Miriam and Aaron to move some distance apart from Moses, and then explains that Moses is so special that, in contrast to anyone else in the world, God speaks to Moses face-to-face in plain language – all the while speaking to Miriam and Aaron face-to-face in plain language.  I take this playful use of language to be the Biblical redactor’s way of highlighting the importance of what is to follow.


We are now getting into the core of the discussion.  God punishes Miriam by covering her skin with whitish scales, which are described as leprosy but which, being white and only skin deep, was not the contagious form.  It still required isolation from the camp for a time before she could be ritually pure again.  The ritual impurity arises because what is called leprosy in the Torah is not a natural disease, but something inflicted by God when special punishment is called for.


Aaron is then punished with the need to humiliate himself and ask Moses to intercede with God, as if to admit that he had lost whatever prophetic powers he had had.  Moses does so in one of the shortest petitionary prayers in The Torah, just five words long.  Some commentators say that it was so short because Moses himself was incensed at Miriam and Aaron; others say that he wanted to avoid showing favoritism to his sister; and still others emphasize that the prayer could be short because Miriam had not sinned.  We will come back to that point in a moment.  What is accepted by everyone is that, just as Miriam saved Moses when he was adrift in the Nile, so it is appropriate that Moses now save Miriam when she is adrift in exile.


God does cure Miriam, but she is not let off completely.  In what is a seemingly strange passage, God compares Miriam’s sin to a child insulting a parent.  In those times, if the parent spit deliberately (note the infinitive absolute: Yarok yarak in verse 14) in the child’s face, the child must suffer the public humiliation of being sent outside the camp for a week – much less serious than the penalty for rebellion, or for messing up a religious duty.  It is more a symbolic than a real punishment.


What is going on here?  Christian commentators almost all state that Miriam and Aaron were jealous of Moses’ role and that they wanted a bigger piece of the glory pie.  Not so most Jewish commentators.  Perhaps because of closer reading of the text, they note that none of the action that follows reflects any attempt to supplant Moses.   Rather, the rabbis noted the similarity of sound between motzi-ra (malicious gossip) and m’tzora (leprosy).  They suggest that Miriam was hinting pretty openly that Moses was using his special status with God as a rationale for avoiding marital relations with his wife, Zipporah because Moses felt that he always had to be ready for direct contact with God.  To understand Moses’ concern, you have to know that a man becomes ritually impure from the emission of semen, even in the course of marital relations (Vyk: 15:16-18)  though this is a stricture the rabbis long since gave up trying to enforce.  To be specific, Miriam is saying that she and Aaron have also been given the gift of prophecy, and that they do not abstain from sexual relations with their spouses, so why should Moses.  According to one commentary, but unfortunately not a well referenced one, the term “marrying a Cushite woman” is a euphemism to mean marriage without sex.  Aaron may be equally concerned because, according to a Talmudic explanation, his two sons were killed by God just because they had not fulfilled their obligation to be fruitful and multiply (Yevamot 64a).  Rashi comments that, when Zipporah heard that Eldad and Medad were prophesying in the camp, she exclaimed, “Woe to their wives, for they will separate from them, just as my husband separated from me!”


If Moses’ behaviour with his wife is the source of Miriam’s complaint, and if her concern is true, as, for the sake of this d’var we must assume it was, what was the problem?  Miriam can be seen merely to be giving some sisterly advice to her kid brother.  What’s wrong with that?  God seems to accept Miriam’s complaint as both true and justified.  However, in justifying Moses’ special concern for ritual purity, God does, by implication, absolve any other prophet from any need for sexual abstinence.  We can infer that Moses’ abstinence for sexual relations with Zipporah was known in the camp.  Not only has Zipporah made it public by her comments about Eldad and Medad, but nothing we know about the woman suggests that she would meekly accept being deprived of what (admittedly later) Jewish law considers her right.  Nor is there any reason to think that Moses was impotent.  The Torah is clear that, at the time of his death, he was still vigorous, something that is expressed by saying that he was still moist (Dvr 34:7).


What Miriam did wrong, according to this line of reasoning, which reflects that of the majority of rabbinic commentators, was to make her complaint aloud, in public, and not privately to Moses.  Now the link between motzi ra (malicious gossip) and m’tzora (leprosy) becomes clear, and the punishment does fit the crime.  The fact that Miriam’s statement was true and that other people knew of Moses’ abstinence from sex, does not absolve her of the charge of Lashon Ha-Ra.  Nor does the fact that her intentions were good – some rabbis even say “pure” – and that she really wanted to help Zipporah.  According to Rambam (Hilchot Deot 7:5), regardless of motive, a statement is Lashon Ha-Ra if, were it to be publicized, it would cause the subject physical or monetary damage, or anguish or fear.  Was Moses upset when Miriam made her statements?  We do not know, but he might have been, and that is sufficient to make the case.  Because her intentions were good, Miriam was not deemed to have sinned, but she had spoken Lashon Ha-Ra, which was like insulting an elder, and for this her punishment was not, ultimately, leprosy but the humiliation of a week’s expulsion.


There a huge literature on Lashon Ha-Ra, so I will not go further with the subject today.  Just to give some indication of how important Lashon Ha-Ra is taken by Jewish sages, there are traditionally Six Remembrances, six things that Jews are supposed to think about every day.  Most of the six involve critical events in Jewish history, such as the giving of the Torah and the golden calf, but the sixth is “to remember what Hashem, blessed be He, did to Miriam.” ( )


In conclusion, Miriam had spoken Lashon Ha-Ra, and she was punished.  However, her standing among the Israelites in the desert was not endangered.  The last verses of Chapter 12, which close  Parashat B’ha-alot’kha, tell us that the tribes of Israel decided to wait for Miriam to come back into society before setting off again.  She had not lost her status among them.  (If you wish to be cynical, you could also suggest that the Israelites might have feared that, were Miriam not with them, her well might disappear.)  Equally important, in an era when we are beginning to acknowledge the role of women in ancient Jewish history and in modern Jewish practice, Miriam’s status is, if anything, even greater today than it was in the desert of Sinai.  Miriam’s cup, filled with water, is now a common feature of the seder table.


David B. Brooks

Shabbat Bahalothekha

Adath Shalom Congregation - Ottawa, Canada

02 June 2007