In this week’s Torah portion, Behaalotecha, we catch a rare and fascinating glimpse into the relationships of siblings Moshe, Aharon and Miriam.
When Miriam comments to Aharon about their brother Moses’ marriage, the Torah is cryptic about what exactly she is criticizing, saying merely,
“Miriam and Aharon spoke about Moses regarding the Cushite woman he had married.” There are various explanations and interpretations of what it was she said and who this Cushite woman was.
G-d hears their conversation and clarifies unequivocally who their younger brother, Moshe, is. He says to them: “If there are prophets among you, I make myself known to them only in a vision or a dream. Not so is My servant Moses; he is faithful throughout My house. With him, I speak mouth to mouth… he beholds the image of the Lord. So how were you not afraid to speak against My servant Moses?”
G-d departs, and Miriam is left stricken with leprosy, the biblical punishment for slander. Moses then intervenes, crying out to G-d: “I beseech you, G-d, please heal her!” G-d limits her affliction to seven days, which she, like all lepers, must spend in isolation outside the camp. Following these seven quarantined days, she would be healed and could reenter the camp.
The Torah finishes the story by telling us about a unique privilege and honor granted exclusively to Miriam: “And the people did not travel until Miriam had re-entered.”
Rashi tells us that this special treatment was bestowed in the merit of something she did in her past.
In the book of Exodus, Pharaoh had decreed that all male Jewish children must be drowned in the Nile. Moses’ mother had placed baby Moses in a basket in the Nile River. It was then that Miriam debuted in biblical history: “His sister stood from afar, to know what would happen to him.”
It is the merit of Miriam waiting for Moses that the nation now waited for her.
Although the nation was ready to embark on the next leg of its journey, it stopped for seven days, waiting for Miriam — who was quarantined outside of the camp — as a reward for her noble deed decades earlier when Moses was still a baby.
Why did Miriam deserve this honor?
Let us go back 81 years earlier to see what Miriam actually did for her baby brother, Moses. We can then begin to appreciate the spiritual dynamics of history — how all our actions return to us in one form or another.
Picture the scene. Pharaoh decreed that all Jewish newborn boys, including Moses, must be drowned. In desperation, hoping against hope that somehow, some way, he might survive, their mother sent the infant to his divinely ordained fate by setting him sail into the Nile. Perhaps an Egyptian would, against odds, be aroused to compassion and save the innocent Jewish boy.
Miriam goes to the river: “His sister stood from afar, to know what would happen to him.” She gazes at her brother from a distance to see how things will play out. Miriam is a 7-year-old girl at the time. If Moses is captured by Pharaoh’s soldiers, she knows she cannot save him. She is probably too far away to help if the basket capsizes, and she won’t be able to do much if an Egyptian takes the baby to his own home.
So what does she actually accomplish? She accomplishes one thing. You may see it as a small achievement, but in the biblical perspective it is grand.
When Batya, Pharaoh’s daughter, discovers Moses wailing, she naturally attempts to find a wet nurse to feed him. Moses, although starving, refuses to nurse from an Egyptian woman. That is when Miriam steps in: “Shall I go and call for you a wet nurse from the Hebrew women, so that she shall nurse the child for you?” she asks the Egyptian princess. Batya agrees. Miriam calls the mother of the child. Batya gives her the child so that she can nurse him. As a result, Moses is reunited with his loving mother. He survives, and the rest is history.
Now suppose that Miriam was absent from the scene. What would have occurred? After observing that the baby is not taking an Egyptian women’s milk, Batya would have eventually realized that Moses, a Jewish child, was insisting on nursing from a Jewish woman. She would have summoned a Jewish woman and Moses would have gotten his nourishment. Sure, it would have taken longer — Moses would have cried for another hour or two — but eventually he would be fed.
So what did Miriam accomplish? She ensured that her baby brother was hungry for a shorter period of time and that he cried less. She alleviated the distress of a baby.
Eighty-one years pass. Miriam is experiencing discomfort. She has a skin disease. The nation is supposed to travel to the Holy Land. But if they begin traveling now, Miriam’s agony would be prolonged, maybe a few hours, maybe a few days. Because she eased the discomfort of her baby brother, eight decades later, an entire nation —3 million people, the holy Tabernacle, the Ark, Moses, Aharon, all of the leaders, and G-d Himself — all waited. She minimized her brother’s pain, and now millions of people waited patiently to minimize her agony.
The energy you put out there is exactly the same energy comes back to you, in one form or another.
This episode about Miriam teaches us that real history is not created in office buildings. It is created in the arms of mothers and fathers nurturing the souls G-d granted them to create our collective tomorrow. On a single day, a little boy was spared, for a short time, hunger pangs. Eight decades later, millions of people and G-d himself, interrupted their journey to pay homage to that individual act.
All of us can be Miriams each day of our life. We meet or hear of someone in pain, starving for nourishment, for love, for validation, for confidence, for meaning. We may say, “They will grow up and learn how to manage.” Or we may tend to them, be there for them, embrace them and shorten the span of their agony.
And when we do that, like little Miriam did, millions will be thankful to us for making a difference in that one individual’s life. PJC
Rabbi Mendel Rosenblum is director of Chabad of the South Hills. This column is a service of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.