Parshat Bachaaloteha: Numbers 8:1-12:16; Zechariah 2:14-4:7.
By Rabbi Ariana Gordon
When we teach of Moses, we generally teach of a great leader: the man who led the Israelites from slavery to freedom and then guided them in the wilderness for 40 years.
What we talk about less frequently is how challenging Moses often found his leadership role. How the Israelites constantly complained to him about everything. We also do not talk all that much about Moses as a brother. And yet, in this week’s Torah portion we see Moses as a troubled, burdened leader and as a desperate brother concerned for his sister’s well-being.
This is a very full Torah portion, filled with laws and rituals, challenges and consequences. It is in the final section of this portion that we see the family drama: Miriam and Aaron seemingly questioning Moses’ leadership. They say, “Has Adonai only spoken through Moses? Surely God has also spoken through us? (Numbers 12:2).” They challenge Moses’ behaving as if God only speaks to him and no one else, and noting they also are privileged to hear God’s words.
Theirs is not a civic or religious rebellion but a claim to be as legitimate prophets as Moses. They suggest they are as qualified to lead the Israelites as he. Perhaps they are wondering about their own places within the community and looking for reassurance they are still people of prominence among the Israelites. Rather than receiving this acknowledgment, however, they are rebuked and given a detailed explanation of just why Moses is so extraordinary and how God’s relationship with him is so exceptional.
God explains that Moses speaks with God peh el peh (Numbers 12:8). This mouth to mouth, or face to face, encounter that Moses has with God is unlike that of any other prophet. Furious with them, God departs, and Miriam is left suffering from leprosy. Aaron appeals to Moses, and Moses prays to God to heal Miriam. God insists that Miriam endure her punishment for seven days.
What exactly happened that caused Miriam to suffer this punishment? Why was she the only one to face such a consequence?
We are sometimes led to believe, through Midrash and commentary, that though God may have been most angry with Miriam and Aaron for daring to compare themselves with Moses, ultimately, she was punished for her first offense, criticizing Moses’ wife. Some suggest that while both Aaron and Miriam complain about Moses’ prophetic status, only Miriam criticizes Moses’ wife, thus her punishment is a result of this criticism. Some explanations associate her leprosy with her slander and understand this text as a warning for us against lashon hara: We should learn from Miriam’s mistakes and not speak ill of those around us.
Others explain that Miriam’s punishment indicates that she was the instigator in this challenge while Aaron was merely the bystander.
We learn more about Miriam from this section than we do anywhere else in the Torah. Not only was she a woman who dared to challenge authority, she spoke up, demanding recognition for the gifts of leadership she brought to the community. She was a beloved sister, whose brothers worried about her welfare and prayed to God for her to be healed. And she was a critical part of the Israelite community. Even in the face of God’s anger and punishment, the Israelites do not abandon her, refusing to march on until Miriam was healed and readmitted to camp.
There is so much to learn from this story, often thought to be a simple lesson about the dangers of gossip, and about the woman, the prophetess, who led the people of Israel in song and dance.
Rabbi Arianna Gordon is the director of education and lifelong learning at Temple Israel in West Bloomfield.