Friday, June 13, 2008

Women on Miriam

I was thinking about Miriam this week (the one in the Torah portion) and her sin of slander against Moshe and its related punishment of tzara'as. I decided to look in a recent book -- Moses' Women by Shera Aranoff Tuchman and Sandra E. Rapoport -- and see if there was anything of interest there. I had previously been hesitant to look in the book because I'm not interested in "Women's Interpretation" which sounds like some sort of reinterpreting the Bible so that all the men are lazy couch potatoes while the women do all the work and save the day.

I took the plunge because I figured: How bad could it be if R. Meir Soloveichik would write a blurb for it? As it turns out, the book is actually just a well-organized collection of a host of commentaries on episodes in the lives of the women in Egypt and the Desert. There is no "Women's Interpretation" but just standard Torah about women, and a good selection as well from commentators throughout the generations. I didn't see anything radical or non-Orthodox in there. The only additional aspect that I thought was kind of nice is that there is a noticeable "women's touch" in a few sensitive comments about relationships and camaraderie.

Click here to read moreAll in all, I thought it was a nice book. Below is an excerpt about the people waiting for Miriam to be healed and lessons we can learn from it. I really wanted to post the discussion of Miriam's sin but it is way too long.

Even so, notwithstanding the righteous life she led, or a lineage as exalted as Miriam’s, or her words privately spoken, or her nearly pure motivation; even though Moses took no offense at her words, spoken as they were by the sister who raised him and saved him from death on the Nile river (Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, Taharah Laws of Impurity and Tzora‘at, ch. 17, para. 10), the commentators emphasize that still, Miriam must suffer the extreme punishment and follow the humiliating biblical rubric of tzora‘at. The lesson Moses is teaching the Israelites is that they must take serious heed from what the Lord God did to Miriam, and must refrain from tale-bearing. For there is no exit from the inexorable punishment that the people will suffer otherwise. They can expect no leniency for their behavior if even Miriam was accorded none.

Ramban considers the command in Deuteronomy 24:9 (Remember what the Lord your God did to Miriam...) to be one of the positive commandments, for the dual purpose of exhortation to proper behavior, and, adds Rashbam, in order to accord Miriam the importance she deserves. The commentator reminds us that the Israelite encampment tarried at its stopping place for a period of seven days—the period of time that a leprous Miriam was in an enforced cloister outside the camp—until she was cured of her tzora‘at and re-admitted into the fold. This was not a trivial honor that the Israelites paid their beloved leader. According to Sifrei, this voluntary waiting period actually delayed the Israelites’ redemption for a full week! The tribal standards were at-the-ready, flying at the heads of the twelve stationary encampments. Nevertheless, the people put off their march until the full complement of three leaders—Moses, Aaron and Miriam—took their rightful places at the front of the column.

We can liken this waiting period to a collective holding of the Israelites’ breath, as they watched anxiously and from a distance for Miriam’s affliction to pass. She was exalted, yet always remained one of them. As such, the people never forgot the brave duality that Miriam embodied: she birthed their babies yet prophesied from God. She stood her ground in the face of the Pharaoh yet danced among the people communing in their ecstasy at the miracle of the Red Sea. And of course, while it was God who daily fed the Israelites mannah from heaven, the people credited Miriam with the life-sustaining water that they found in the wilderness. The midrash and commentaries (Sha’arei Aharon) point out that during Miriam’s seven days of banishment the people recalled that it was Miriam’s Well that magically traveled with them from one desert encampment to the other. The people adored Miriam, and it was a strong object lesson for them to witness her suffering with tzora‘at for her whispered confidences with her brother Aaron. And as a visible measure of her greatness the Cloud of Glory continued to hover over the camp (Sha’arei Aharon), a signal that even God sanctioned awaiting Miriam’s return. Moses’ lesson to the Children of Israel was thus crystal clear: no one—neither Miriam, nor, as the commentaries point out, even Moses and Aaron—is above the law.

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