“Let there be spaces in your togetherness, And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.” – Kahlil Gibran
As described in the next few Torah portions, Moshe’s leadership is about to be repeatedly challenged. In next week’s Torah portion he must contend with 10 of the 12 spies, and the week after he is challenged by his cousin Korach and 250 followers. This week, our parsha closes with his older siblings, Miriam and Aharon, in conversation with each other, indicting Moshe for having separated from his wife, Tzipporah. They allege that Moshe’s singular devotion is to Hashem and this unjustly denies Tzipporah the (sexual) attention that she deserves. Hashem immediately calls them out and tells them that Moshe is unique, implying that Moshe received special Divine instruction to separate from his wife. Hashem’s anger flares, before Hashem exits the scene.
The next verses tell us that Miriam is inflicted with tzaraas (a death-like illness characterized by skin decay), Aharon beseeches Moshe to pray for her recovery, and Moshe calls on Hashem to heal her. The Talmud (tractate Arachin) offers a smorgasbord of suggestions as to the cause of tzaraas, indicating that tzaraas has many spiritual causes. Because of the incident in our parsha where Miriam seems to speak ill of Moshe and almost immediately receives tzaraas, it is often seen as a punishment. Specifically, a punishment for harmful speech. However, exclusively viewing tzaraas as a punishment denies us the opportunity to see deeper nuance in this parsha and beyond.
Given that Moshe is the only other identified person in the Torah that receives tzaraas, his hand having turned snow-white at the burning bush (with no explicit indication that this was a punishment), it seems that tzaraas primarily serves to highlight the connection between the 2 siblings. And it reminds us about the context in which the Torah first introduces tzaraas i.e. as a sign to the Children of Israel that Moshe is a unique leader and messenger of Hashem. By giving Miriam the same sign originally bestowed on her brother, Hashem reminds her of Moshe’s “chosenness”, and simultaneously intimates that she too is unique and chosen in her own right.
According to the medrash she was an early leader and prophet from a family of leaders. Her parents had separated because they saw no point in bringing more children into a world where their future was death or slavery. As communal leaders, many Jews had followed their example. Miriam convinced her parents to get back together and they then gave birth to Moshe. (Following their lead, Jewish husbands and wives reunited and a new generation was born.) Not long after that, at the Nile, the verse says she stood “ledeah mah yeaseh lo” – to see what would be done “to him.” Homiletically, this is interpreted to mean that she stood to see what would happen “to her prophecy” regarding Moshe’s eventual leadership.
Using the mechanism of tzaraas and enforced quarantine, Hashem causes the entire Jewish people to wait for her as a tribute and a hark back to the time she stood in anticipation of her prophecy coming to fruition. Hashem reminds her both of her early greatness – she was prophesying before Moshe was even born! – and of Moshe’s greatness and uniqueness (that she had been the first to envision in the prophecy from long long ago).
When we recall this early period in the life of Miriam and Moshe, our episode becomes less enigmatic. Miriam is appropriately worried that history was repeating itself and like his parents, Moshe’s separation from Tzipporah would cause all the other prophets to follow suit and lead to the absence of a new generation of children and future prophets. For Miriam, the union of husbands and wives brings eventual redemption, and Moshe was mistaken in following their father’s footsteps, separating from his wife. How many future leaders and agents of redemption would this prevent?
Hashem shows Miriam that she needn’t worry, providing her with the same sign (tzaraas) that Moshe had once received. In this way, Hashem conveys that just as at the burning bush Moshe had been given signs and instructions, his actions now were also under Divine orders. While no one else was witness to that moment in history, doubtless Miriam knew of it, and understood the not so subtle visual message that accompanies her tzaraas i.e. that Moshe was unique as exemplified by the unique signs (only) he received at his earliest face to face encounter with the Divine. For better or for worse, she could rest assured that no other prophets would experience God the same way and none of them need to separate from their spouse.
Miriam’s tzaraas and subsequent exile from the machaneh (camp) is the culmination of a theme that weaves through episodes that play out throughout her and Moshe’s life. Dr. Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg in her captivating piece on our parsha in her book Bewilderments, writes that “…it is her prophecy that brings Moses into the world; and it is her prophecy, too, that isolates her from her family.” She quotes the medrash that relates how Miriam was ostracized when the time came to put Moshe in the bulrushes as a baby; her parents asking “where is your prophecy now?”
After this initial exile of both siblings, Moshe was again exiled forcibly from Egypt, finds his wife (and God) alone in exile, and is later exiled from his wife by Divine decree. Now it’s Miriam’s turn once again to experience exile. It’s as if God is saying that I alone will decide who lives together and who apart from others, and affirming that it was not Moshe’s choice to separate from Tzipporah, contrary to what Miriam may have believed. Hashem reminds Miriam that she has an elevated stature above all other prophets except Moshe; she too is worthy of being separated from family and society (albeit for a short period).
Imagine if we too could experience a glimpse into the inner workings and reasoning of the Divine, just like Miriam and Aharon. Imagine if the “price” of our speaking up against perceived injustice was a sudden encounter with and revelation from God. What is the cost of our silence?