Could Nature Defend Miriam? Commentary on Parashat Beha’alotekha 5783
By Rabbi Jonah Rank, President and Rosh Yeshivah of Hebrew Seminary
After publishing his 1981 bestselling book When Bad Things Happen To Good People, Rabbi Dr. Harold Kushner, of blessed memory, privately counseled grieving parents who, like he, had suffered the loss of a beloved child. Rabbi Kushner believed in a God whose interventions in the world were, at best, modest. This God is one whose influence nonetheless demands of us our commitment to Jewish living, for the blessings that God may bestow upon us remain positively transformative. Rabbi Kushner would occasionally joke that, while he had a hit with When Bad Things Happen To Good People, he would have made a true fortune had his book’s title tackled the harder question: Why Bad Things Happen To Good People. We know when good people suffer, but we do not know why the bad things happen.
The notoriety that clouds Miriam in this week’s torah reading, Beha’alotekha, often feels undeserved. She and her brother Aaron had been engaged in gossip when
וַתְּדַבֵּ֨ר מִרְיָ֤ם וְאַהֲרֹן֙ בְּמֹשֶׁ֔ה עַל־אֹד֛וֹת הָאִשָּׁ֥ה הַכֻּשִׁ֖ית אֲשֶׁ֣ר לָקָ֑ח כִּֽי־אִשָּׁ֥ה כֻשִׁ֖ית לָקָֽח׃
Miriam spoke—along with Aaron—about Moses regarding the circumstances of the Kushite woman whom he had taken, for he had taken a Kushite woman. (Numbers 12:1.)
The way that the Torah reports it, the substance of their talk seems repetitive and contentless—a real waste of time. So what if Moses had been involved with a Kushite woman? The Torah never pronounced any laws against Israelite men marrying Kushite women. What did this matter to Aaron or Miriam? The Torah does not tell us what bothered them so much about the Kushite woman in Moses’ life. As it turns out, God disapproved so strongly of Miriam’s and Aaron’s words (Numbers 12:2–9) that the Torah reports that Miriam was afflicted (perhaps by God) with a snow-white skin disease (Numbers 12:10).
The punishment that is meted out raises at least two problems for us. First off, is it possible that Miriam could have pronounced something so truly despicable that she deserved to be punished with the ailment that came upon her? Secondly, if the words she and Aaron shared were so horrendous, why was Aaron not subject to that same skin condition that plagued Miriam? Don Yitzchak Abravan’el (15th–16th Iberian Peninsula), when reading Numbers 12, posited (problematically) that women in leadership carry a heavier burden than men—plus she started it:
כי היא התחילה באותו דבור בהיותו יותר מגונה בנשים ולכך נלקתה עליו מרים ולא אהרן כי להיותה אשה נביאה היה גדול עונה מנשוא
For she initiated that [ill] speech when he[r brother Aaron] had been more despised among women. Therefore, Miriam was punished in his stead (and Aaron [was not]). For, in being a woman prophet, [she was responsible for] an iniquity greater than she could bear.
Half a millennium later, feminists may take issue with the literary imagination of Abraven’el. Although this medieval commentator attempted to argue that Aaron and Miriam should have been (mal)treated a bit more equally, Abravan’el put into Aaron’s mouth a few words trying (unconvincingly) to defend Miriam:
והאשם לא במרים כי היא אשה דברנית ודעתן של נשים קלה אבל בי תלוי העון.
“The guilt is not amidst Miriam, for she is but a chatty woman, and women’s minds are weak. Rather the iniquity hangs upon me!”
Although Abravan’el literally wrote thousands of words of commentary to demonstrate the inequity in God’s responses to Miriam and to Aaron—Abravan’el’s apologetics end up perpetuating sexist tropes that were absent in the original story. Abravan’el’s misogynistic brand of revisionist history may dissuade modern students of the Torah, but the terse inventions of Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra instead argued that the Torah depicts Aaron as not free from guilt at all.
ותדבר מרים. היא דברה גם אהרן הסכים או החריש על כן נענש
“Miriam spoke” (Numbers 12:1). She spoke. So too, Aaron agreed or [at least] went silent. Therefore he was punished.
Readers may ponder: What was Aaron’s punishment? Where did the Torah ever mention Aaron’s scaly leprous skin? As far as the Torah tells it, Miriam and Aaron spoke ill of Moses, Miriam got punished, and Aaron felt bad for Miriam. His empathy for Miriam’s condition was presumably not some divine penalty. Inasmuch as Leviticus 19:18 commands us to love our neighbor as we love ourselves, compassion is at the center of Jewish tradition. So what bad thing happened to Aaron? It seems that his bad deed went unpunished.
Inasmuch as the Torah is a composite work, formed by combining multiple ancient traditions into a single text—we, as readers, are inclined to notice only certain narrative layers during any given read. When we read the story of Miriam and Aaron discussing the Kushite woman, we may notice both Miriam’s punishment and the absence of any punishment for Aaron. This problem arises when we choose to read the text as retributivists. When we view the Hebrew Bible through the lens of retributivism, we expect that all good deeds will be rewarded and all bad deeds will be punished. A retributivist considers the story of Miriam and Aaron speaking ill of the Kushite woman, and the inequality horrifies them. Miriam got ill, but nothing happened to Aaron—yet both did wrong in the eyes of God.
The Bible, however, was not written exclusively by people who believed that retribution was God’s way. Some of our ancestors were naturalists. Not all that happened was because God forced it to happen. God did not always get involved in our ancestors’ lives. In the Book of Job, Tzofar the Na’amite scolded the titular Job for forgetting “כִּֽי־יַשֶּׁ֥ה לְךָ֥ אֱ֝ל֗וֹהַ מֵעֲוֺנֶֽךָ׃” (“that God has ignored you amidst your iniquities”) (Job 11:6). God’s role in the universe was not predictable. Tzofar teased Job: “הַחֵ֣קֶר אֱל֣וֹהַ תִּמְצָ֑א אִ֤ם עַד־תַּכְלִ֖ית שַׁדַּ֣י תִּמְצָֽא׃” (“Could you discover the essence of God? Could you discover the limits of [God]?”) (Job 11:7). With this sort of attitude, the naturalist may not be shocked by the disparity between Miriam’s and Aaron’s states of skin health.
In fact, the naturalist has reason to argue that Miriam was not punished at all. The naturalist might point out that, before any leprosy is referenced in the text, “וַיִּֽחַר־אַ֧ף יְהֹוָ֛ה בָּ֖ם וַיֵּלַֽךְ׃” (“God’s nose flared [with rage] towards those [siblings Miriam and Aaron], and that [God] went [away]”) (Numbers 11:9). It is only after God had left the scene that, in the next verse:
וְהֶעָנָ֗ן סָ֚ר מֵעַ֣ל הָאֹ֔הֶל וְהִנֵּ֥ה מִרְיָ֖ם מְצֹרַ֣עַת כַּשָּׁ֑לֶג וַיִּ֧פֶן אַהֲרֹ֛ן אֶל־מִרְיָ֖ם וְהִנֵּ֥ה מְצֹרָֽעַת׃
The cloud [of God’s glory] had turned [away] from the tent, and, behold, Miriam was leprous like snow! Aaron turned to Miriam, and—behold—she was leprous! (Numbers 9:10.)
In fact, the naturalists among us would highlight that the Torah went out of its way (twice—once in Numbers 9:9 and again in the next verse) to emphasize God’s utter irrelevance to the fact that Miriam suddenly became leprous. Did her words cause her leprosy? Did bad things (namely, leprosy) happen to a bad person (namely, Miriam)? Did good things (namely, no punishment) happen to a bad person (namely, Aaron)? Or did nature just take its course? When we get sick, we often have no idea where, why, or how we get sick. Is God responsible for all of our illnesses? The naturalist would decry any such claim.
Ibn Ezra’s suggestion though that Aaron was punished challenges us to identify the penalty Aaron paid. I believe that, if Aaron was punished, the punishment he received was a living lesson in the unpredictability of life’s hardships. Perhaps it could be comforting to live in a world where good things lead to obvious blessings and bad things lead to obvious curses. Instead, the story of Aaron and Miriam discussing the Kushite woman rejects that possibility. An ancient retributivist may have claimed Miriam’s leprosy a triumphant display of sin causing pain to the sinner. That same retributivist however would be forced to declare that Aaron’s lack of obvious punishment was even harsher. On that day, Aaron confronted the single most enraging truth to a retributivist: Retributivism cannot possibly be always true. The story of Aaron and Miriam must have truly horrified the retributivist, for the retributivist was forced to declare their philosophy inconsistent, if not utterly false.
As for the naturalist though, the story of Aaron and Miriam speaking of the Kushite woman bespeaks an unspeakable tragedy. Two bad actors, acting badly enough for the Torah to recognize their bad actions, escaped any divine punishment; nobody is really subject to divine punishment, according to the naturalist. Although neither was punished, Miriam suffered anyway, and, in watching her suffer, Aaron suffered too. The entire story is one of sinning and suffering—and a God whose fleeting presence (in Numbers 12:5–9) would go largely unfelt until Moses has come to yell at God to pray for Miriam’s healing (Numbers 12:13). Even Aaron, the high priest, could not find God when Aaron needed God; Aaron went instead to Moses (Numbers 12:11–12).
When we question whether Miriam and Aaron were punished equally—the answer is a resounding no. The retributivist might argue that Miriam was punished with direct suffering, and Aaron was punished with the existential crisis of recognizing undue suffering. The naturalist would say they were not punished equally, for they were not punished at all. Both the naturalist and the retributivist would agree though that Miriam and Aaron fell short in our story—for neither took seriously their prophetic responsibility to approach God and to use their words to build a world of love.
It doesn’t matter what gender we are, whether we are prophets or rabbis or lay Jews or any other kind of human. Nature’s consequences remain the same—and we have a serious responsibility to make our words align with holy intentions.
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