Drash on Parashat B'ha'alotcha
Rabbi Allison RH Conyer
Etz Chayim Progressive Synagogue
This week’s parsha, B’ha’alotcha, illuminates the roles, challenges, and sharing of leadership, and poses an interesting consideration as to the recognition of leadership. Specifically, this parsha begs the questions: Did Miriam get the raw end of the stick, or did her situation solidify her leadership role alongside her brothers amongst the people? As the Torah said: “Adonai called to Moses, Aaron, and Miriam…” (Num. 12:3).
In brief, the parsha commences by illuminating the leadership roles of Moses and Aaron, reminding us the importance of delegation – sharing the burden of leadership, and humility; a leader may light the flame, but the candles/people shed the light. In the most unlikely manner, the final message of leadership is couched at the end of our parsha. The final scene tells of Miriam, accompanied by Aaron, complaining about “the Cushite woman” (commonly understood to be Moses’ wife, Zipporah). We read that Miriam was struck with leprosy, presumably for talking badly about Moses’ wife to Aaron behind Moses’ back. Both Aaron and Moses begged G-d to assuage the Divine punishment and heal her. She was sent outside the camp for seven days, during which time, “the people did not march on until Miriam was re-admitted [to the camp]” (Num. 12:15). What does this tell us? Unlike her brothers, Moses and Aaron, who were chosen and guided by G-d to lead, Miriam’s leadership was determined by the people.
How did this come to be? According to the Shalvi/Hyman Encyclopedia of Jewish Women, feminist biblical scholar, Phyllis Trible, referred to Miriam as “the archetype of the female prophetic tradition”, as Miriam is the first woman to be called a prophet (Ex. 15:20; Michah 6:8). Trible notes that Miriam “challenges the prophetic authority of Moses [asking]… “Has [Adonai] spoken only through Moses? Has [G-d] not spoken through us also?” (Num 12:2). She understands leadership to embrace diverse voices, female and male. But the price of speaking out is severe …[although she eventually heals from her affliction,] Miriam remains a condemned woman, a warning for generations to come (see Deut 24:8–9). After her punishment, she never speaks, nor is she spoken to ... until the announcement of her death and burial at Kadesh (Num 20:1)” (https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/miriam-bible).
Rabbi Ruth H Sohn points out in her drash, “The Silencing of Miriam”, (Goldstein, Women’s Torah Commentary, 2008): “Miriam has been all but silenced and banished from the narrative. All we are left with is shards, fragments of a tale, hints of a reality that we are left to ponder and dream” (pp. 274-275). Rabbi Sohn quotes Biblical scholar, Ilana Pardes, who said “‘[I]n Moses’ day, a woman with the gift of prophesy would have had to be silenced and then buried in the wilderness for daring to demand a central cultural position.’ According to Pardes, Moses and Miriam’s world was not ready for a woman with the gift of prophecy. Miriam was silenced by the Israelites of her own time, who were unwilling to have a woman in such a high position” (Goldstein, 2008, p. 274).
However, it is also important to note that the people refused to move forward until Miriam was healed and with the people. Although the Torah itself provides sparce accounts of Miriam’s leadership role, the Midrash is rife with interpretations and explanations validating Miriam as an incredible, inspirational leader. According to the Talmud (Sotah 12b), at the age of six years, Miriam was responsible for speaking out in front of her father, Amran, who, according to the midrash, divorced his wife, Yocheved, on account of Pharoah’s decree to kill the firstborn sons. Miriam spoke out saying:
“Father, Father, your decree is harsher than that of Pharaoh. Pharaoh only decreed against the males, but you have decreed against both the males and the females [because all the Israelites withdrew from their wives, neither sons nor daughters would come into the world]. Pharaoh decreed only for this world, but you decreed both for this world and the next [a baby that was born and died as a result of Pharaoh’s decree would reach the World to Come, but an unborn child would not attain this]. It is doubtful whether the decree of the wicked Pharaoh will be fulfilled, but you are righteous, and your decree will undoubtedly be fulfilled.” Amram heeded his daughter, and returned to his wife” (https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/miriam-midrash-and-aggadah). And thus, Moses was born.
Another Midrash claims that Miriam was also the midwife, Puah, who saved the firstborn Israelite males from Pharoah’s harsh decree. “Why was she called “Puah? Because she appeared (hofi’a) with good deeds for Israel” (Exodus Rabbah 1:13 as cited in https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/miriam-midrash-and-aggadah). The rabbinic tradition noted that Miriam’s reward for not following Pharoah’s decree was to be blessed with wise and royal descendants, including Betzalel, the designer of the Mishkan (tabernacle), and King David (BT Sotah 11b).
Yet another midrash claims that Miriam’s “gossip" about Moses’ wife, Tziporah, was related to Tziporah’s complaint about Moses being too busy leading the people to fulfill his conjugal rights; thus, Miriam’s complaint was on behalf of Tziporah, advocating for the sexual rights of wives. The midrash states that G-d’s punishment is on account of the public humiliation of Moses, rather than speaking with Moses privately about the matter (Avot d’Rabbi Natan A9, as cited in Goldstein, 2008, p. 276).
Miriam’s act of dancing with a timbral in her hand after the parting of the Sea of Reeds is noted as an act of complete trust in G-d. Her faith and joy led the women to follow her. Miriam is also credited with bringing with her the gift of water, leading people to the wells while the Israelites were travelling in the desert. And in this week’s parsha, the people refused to move on unless Miriam was amongst them. All three biblical instances convey the people following Miriam. Her leadership brought joy, celebration, life-giving force, advocacy for women’s rights, and humility for her wrongful act of either gossiping or embarrassing her brother. Miriam was a true leader of the Jewish people, an example illuminating our path for righteous behaviour.