Deciphering a Spitting Image: To Live and to Learn

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Author’s Note: This essay is a transcript of a talk given several years ago. Its thesis, the link between aspects of Miriam’s childhood and the episode involving her critique of Moshe Rabbeinu, is, in effect, a piecing together of disparate midrashic sources. The observation that the divine rebuke in the latter episode served to reopen an emotional wound from Miriam’s youth is based on the comments of R. Zev Wolf Einhorn (MaHarZu) to Shemos Rabba (1:22), and elaborated on in his treatise Nesiv Chadash (P. 14).
The drasha raises a number of important issues of hashkafa; among them, the balance that must be maintained when analyzing the conduct of gedolei hauma – Torah giants whose sanctity and piety defy description. On the one hand, the fact that the Torah does not obscure the mistakes of our leaders suggests a certain license to probe such matters, ostensibly in order to draw inferences which may be of moral value to us. Yet, the very enterprise of scrutinizing individuals of enormous spiritual stature carries the risk of introducing biases borne of our small-mindedness and limited understanding. With this in mind, it behooves us not to lose sight of Miriam’s own grandeur within the mesorah. To the extent that our approach affords us fresh insight into this Torah narrative, it should be emphasized that the dynamics must surely have played out in a far more subtle manner than words can convey. I share this drasha in the hope that it will foster an appreciation of “dekula ba” – that there is no element of truth regarding human nature which is not contained and elucidated in the Torah.


Have we ever stopped to think about the connection between who we are today and our experiences during early childhood? About how a poignant feeling or instinct we had in early life continued to resonate within us, consciously or subconsciously, only to manifest itself again many years later? How the nature of our earliest relationships with our parents and siblings became inextricably linked with our self-image? Or how a private act of kindness performed as a child can unexpectedly provide solace for us many years later? These issues are largely the domain of psychoanalysts who posit that our adult “personalities” - our feelings, tastes, attitudes, interests and personalities - can be traced to childhood experiences. While there are some who invest vast resources of time and money in therapy as a means of gaining deeper insights into the underlying origin of their “here and now” reality, most of us are content living our daily lives without the need to discover underlying patterns from the distant past. Yet sometimes we stumble upon a particular incident where the impact of a person’s early personal history is so powerful that to overlook it would be to miss an important part of the story. I believe that such an example can be found in the Torah at the conclusion of Parshas Behaaloscha (Bemidbar Chapter 12) in the episode dealing with Miriam’s slander against her younger brother, Moshe. (I say Miriam because while both Miriam and Aharon were faulted for the error, it was Miriam who initiated the conversation and was primary judged for the misdeed.)

The essence of Miriam’s slander was that she equated Moshe’s level of prophecy with that of her own: “Was it only to Moses that Hashem spoke? Did he not speak to us as well?” For this insensitive remark, Miriam was chastised by Hashem who made it unequivocally clear that Moshe’s prophecy was in a class of its own - qualitatively different than that of other prophets. In the wake of the divine rebuke, Miriam was stricken with tzara’as (a skin ailment which was inflicted upon slanderers during biblical times). Aharon turned to Moshe and implored him to pray on behalf of their sister and Moshe obliged. Hashem responded by ordering Miriam to be secluded outside the camp for seven days. The people postponed their journey for a week until Miriam could rejoin them.

There are two critical aspects to the story that link it to an earlier episode in Miriam’s childhood. The first is the topic of Miriam’s slander; the second is Hashem’s introductory remarks before issuing Miriam’s sentence of seclusion. In addition to devaluating Moshe’s level of prophecy, Miriam also spoke “about the Kushite woman” to whom Moshe was married - who, as we know, was Yisro’s daughter, Tzipora. As Rashi explains, Miriam was critical of Moshe’s separating from Tzipora. Moshe had done so in order to remain “on call” for prophecy at all times. Though Hashem had sanctioned Moshe’s decision, this was not known to Miriam. In effect, Miriam’s critique of Moshe had two components: first, she underestimated Moshe’s status as a prophet; second, she considered it wrong for Moshe to deprive himself of a normal family life. And these two components were interrelated. Because Miriam failed to appreciate the uniqueness of Moshe’s prophecy, she saw no justification in Moshe’s decision to divorce his wife. After all, she too was a prophet who nonetheless lived a normal family life. From Miriam’s perspective, it was presumptuous and inappropriate for Moshe to be different.

The clue that this story finds its roots deep in Miriam’s past can be detected in Hashem’s statement prior to ordering Miriam into seclusion: “Were her father to spit in her face, would she not be humiliated for seven days? Let her be quarantined outside the camp for seven days, and then she may be brought in” (v. 14). Simply stated, Hashem offered a logical justification for His sentence - just as a rebuke by her biological father would put her to shame for a week’s time, so does the divine rebuke - by the Heavenly Father - deserve no less. But why, we may ask, did Hashem use the metaphor of a father’s rebuke? Is this analogy merely hypothetical? According to various midrashic and talmudic sources it is not. It is something that Miriam actually experienced in her own life.

If we flash back to little Miriam - age five and a half - we would find her during one of the cruelest, darkest periods of the Egyptian exile. (Even the name Miriam is synonymous with the Hebrew word for bitter.) The Jewish sojourners in Egypt had been transformed into slaves. Originally recruited into building large storage houses for Pharaoh, they gradually found themselves subjected to a daily regimen of back breaking field labor. Their lot grew bitterer by the day and their spirits were demoralized. To make matters worse, Pharaoh had just issued a royal edict ordering every newborn Jewish male to be cast into the Nile. At this depressing juncture, Miriam’s father, Amram, a prominent leader in the community, made a fateful decision to divorce his wife, Yocheved. Amram reasoned: What purpose could there be in bringing children into a world where they might be forcibly drowned! His decision sent shockwaves through the community and many others followed suit. But soon afterwards, Amram was rebuked by his daughter Miriam who argued: “Father, your edict is more drastic than that of Pharaoh! Pharaoh’s edict was directed against the Jewish males, yours is directed at the males and females, for you are not allowing either gender to be born.” Whereupon, Amram reversed his decision and reunited with his wife. This, in turn, led all those who had divorced their wives to return to their former marital relationships. What was it that prompted young Miriam to boldly challenge her father? On one level, it must have been a powerful instinct about the profound importance of family life. Miriam understood that the family is the symbol of Jewish continuity, and that even extraordinary circumstances do not justify breaking up the family unit.

But there was another factor as well – an actual prophecy that Miriam received at this young age – a prophecy informing her that her mother was destined to give birth to a son who would eventually become the redeemer of Israel. Indeed, it was out of this “reunion” between Amram and Yocheved that Moshe Rabeinu was born. [This is why Miriam is referred to elsewhere (in parshas Beshalach) as “Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aharon” - because her first prophecy came to her at a time when was still merely the sister of Aharon prior to the birth of Moshe.] It should now be obvious how Miriam’s critique of Moshe’s separation from Tzipora and her equating of Moshe’s prophecy with her own find their roots in the events of Miriam’s childhood. As we can see, both of these issues were intertwined with the events leading up to Moshe’s birth. It was then that Miriam championed the cause of the family in persuading her father to reunite with Yocheved. And it was then that Miriam began her own career as a prophet in predicting the birth of her brother.

No wonder that Miriam felt justified in criticizing Moshe on both of these counts. But the story does not end yet. Both of these issues - Miriam’s strong feelings for family and her identity as a prophet - were destined to become enmeshed with a third dimension - that of her father’s love and acceptance. When baby Moshe was born, the entire house filled with a spiritual light. Amram then turned to his daughter and gave her a warm kiss on the forehead, saying: “My daughter, it seems that your prophecy will indeed be realized.” But a short three months later when the baby could no longer remain in hiding, Moshe was placed in a wicker basket to virtual abandonment and concealed among the reeds of at the bank of the river. At that point, Amram turned again to his daughter - this time in great disappointment – slapped her face, and cynically asked: “My daughter, what has happened to your ‘so called’ prophecy?”

As little Moshe lay in his basket upon the water, a pair of watchful eyes gazed anxiously from afar, waiting to learn the fate of the newborn baby: “Vateisatav achoso merachok le’deah ma yeiase lo” – “And his sister stationed herself at a distance to know what would be done to him” (Shemos 2:4). Miriam, Moshe’s eldest sister - the human being perhaps most responsible for this baby’s existence - stood “merachok” - from a distance - not just distant from the baby in a physical sense - but distant from her father who had snubbed her - distant from her own self who had felt so certain that this baby needed to be born ...“lede’ah ma yei’ase lo” - to know not just what would become of the baby but what would become of her prophecy which now hung precariously in the balance. Miriam knew that the fate of this baby was inextricably linked with that of her own - her belief in the preservation of the family unit, her career as a prophet, and her reconciliation with her father.

So Miriam waited as only a loving sister could. And suddenly Moshe’s life was miraculously saved by the most unlikely of sources - Pharaoh’s daughter, Basya. When Basya requested a Jewish woman to nurse the baby, Miriam suddenly emerged and offered the services of the baby’s own mother, Yocheved. Miriam had now found peace with herself and with her father. Her prophecy was authentic after all... her faith in the power of the family had proved correct... her father’s love would yet return... This was Miriam at age six. Many years later, these same factors resurface, in Parshas Behaaloscha, but in a different context. Once again, we find Miriam championing the cause of family unity - this time in her criticism of her brother, Moshe, for separating from Tzipora. And once again, it was Miriam’s confidence in her own status as a prophet that led her to equate herself with Moshe. This time, however, she was not right. Moshe’s situation was different because Moshe was different. And Hashem knew that Miriam had to learn this lesson in a painful manner.

When Miriam was stricken with tzara’as and sentenced to seclusion for her sin, it reopened old wounds from her past by triggering bitter memories of her estrangement from her father. Now we understand why Hashem drew the analogy of her father having spat in her face - “Ve ‘aviha yarok yarak befaneha.” The divine rebuke was to Miriam at that moment what her father’s slap must have felt like many years before. To Miriam, this experience of abandonment must have indeed kindled a deja vu reliving of the paternal rejection that she felt as a child. But at the same time that Hashem offered rebuke, He also extended a warm, comforting hand: “And the people did not journey until Miriam was brought in” (v. 15). As Rashi explains, Miriam was granted this special tribute of being “waited for” just as she had “waited” in her youth for her baby brother by the river bank.

Yes, Miriam was grossly mistaken in her criticism of Moshe. Her championing of family values in this case was misplaced. Her equating of Moshe’s prophecy with that of her own was fallacious. But her instincts as a young girl were still valid. All that she did to bring Moshe into the world was still appreciated - her standing up to her father... her prophecy... her watchful devotion as a sister... She may not have risen to be a prophet in the caliber of Moshe but she was a prophet nonetheless... And her passionate desire to preserve the family was a positive one. It was just that Moshe was exceptional. Miriam remained beloved even at this vulnerable time. All of this was being conveyed to Miriam’s through the nation’s postponement of its journey.

It is truly remarkable to see how Miriam’s current experience had opened up a window to her past. On the one hand, the divine punishment reawakened old wounds - images of paternal rejection - “Were her father to spit in her face.” At the same time, she was also provided with an opportunity for healing her past - “and the people did not journey until Miriam was brought in.”

As we go about the business of our daily lives, we all carry within ourselves imprints of our youth. We are, after all, an accumulation of our personal histories. We are, at times, inclined to harbor early feelings and to reenact deeds prompted by those feelings. Every so often, we become aware of these forces through powerful experiences that reawaken our past. Sometimes, these experiences – like Miriam’s - re-open old wounds that may be painful. But as with Miriam, the suffering is meant to help us expand our wisdom and consciousness. It is this very process that allows for healing. As we struggle through the hurt of old wounds, we can, hopefully, come to realize that despite our disappointments, we still remain worthy of Hashem’s love - that making a mistake doesn’t mean that our instincts were all bad or all wrong. Life is about living and learning ... and about healing the past.

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From Kol HaMevaser Volume 1 Issue 8

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