Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah–B’haalot’cha

There are some moments in time that stay with you no matter what. As “geeky” as this will sound, as a Rabbi, some of those most profound moments involve studying Torah. It was probably my third or fourth year of Rabbinical school, and I was leading a study of this week’s Torah portion at my student congregation (Then known as Glen Manor Home For The Jewish Aged). As we got near the end of the portion, I read that after speaking badly about Moses, Miriam’s skin immediately turned scaly and flaky. Somewhat expecting someone to regurgitate what I had just said, I asked, “What did Miriam do wrong?” As if already cued and ready to spew, one of my seniors shot back, “She was a girl! That’s what she did!” As a budding third-year Rabbinical Student, I was not sure what to do with this outburst. I ventured a meek follow-up, “And?” “Well, God did not punish Aaron, did God? The Bible hates women!” At the same time that I took solace in knowing that God was not a woman hater, this was the first time that I ever really had to wrestle with the issue. The senior was right. The text says that Aaron and Miriam spoke badly about Moses, but only Miriam suffered punishment.
That was a watershed moment for me. As a rising third year student, I had the technical skills to lead a Torah conversation, but lacked the self-confidence in those skills to nuance text, to interpret text, to look beyond the already existent commentaries to which I had access. To read the vast majority of commentators, Miriam was solely responsible for the incident. Some try to argue that she was making a righteous claim against Moses. One sage (RASHI) proffers the argument that Miriam spoke because her name was mentioned first (even though the verb is a plural verb). In Midrash Tanchuma, we read that Miriam was upset with her brother because he had been ignoring his own wife, even as he served God. While there is certainly an important lesson to learn from this perspective, the commentator argues that God instructed Moses to ignore his wife and so, Miriam needed to mind her own business.
I even read one commentary arguing the point that Miriam deserved to be afflicted, because, as a woman, God held her to a higher standard for she had better judgment than did Aaron. Effectively, we expect this ugly behavior from men, but not from women. I remain unmoved by any of the above arguments validating God singling her out for punishment.
So, it was from that morning of Torah study, now, 20 years ago, that I learned that Torah’s true value lay not in its literal reading, and not in even the voices of a select sampling of sage voices. Torah begins conversations. The ambiguities in text, and even more so, the morally challenging texts scream at us to read them with investigative and argumentative eyes. So, here is the gospel according to Marc (Rabbi Marc). I have no idea why only Miriam gets punished. I do know, however, that because of the problem raised in the text, I have been part of amazing conversations about gender discrimination and bias. The inequity of the text screams at us to debate its morality, and in every such engagement, our eyes open wider allowing us greater understanding and pathos in how we see, treat, care for, and respect each other. As the medieval sage Bachya ben Asher put it, the magic of Torah is not in what it says, but in what it says to us … each of us and each time we pick it up to study. Join a text study somewhere, push the envelope of understanding. Make sure that you read the text with 2017 eyes, knowing that your 2016 reading has a vote but not a veto in what it can mean for your life today. Shabbat shalom.