Parsha Beha’alotcha / בהעלתך: Numbers 8:1 – 12:16
Beha’alotecha is translated as: “When You Go Up or When You Raise Up [the Light].” The root word alah עלה (related to olah and aliyah) means to ascend.
In this d’var Torah, I’m focusing on Miriam’s rise (up) and fall from grace.
From Exodus to this Parsha, Miriam enters the limelight. In Exodus we are introduced to her by name and her status as a prophetess for the first time.
“Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels.“Exodus 15:20–21
Her pivotal role in the Exodus story, is the reason why Miriam’s Cup is included in some contemporary Passover Seders alongside the cup for the prophet Elijah (Eliyahu).
The name Miriam, מרים (mem, reish, yud, mem) is replete with meanings — mar (bitter), meri (rebellion), merim (elevate) and c’mar (drop of water).
The last two letters of her name spell yam ים — the Hebrew word for sea. Water is a central force in Miriyam’s story. She protectively watched her baby brother Moses (Moshe) float down the Nile in a basket, to be rescued by the Pharaoh’s daughter. Seizing her moment, Miriyam approached the princess of Egypt with an offer to find a Hebrew wet-nurse for crying baby Moses, allowing their mother, Yocheved, to secretly care for her baby.
In Beha’alotecha, we see Miriam in an unflattering light, when she and Aaron (Aharon) are caught criticizing their brother’s marriage to an Ethiopian woman and questioning why God chose him as the Israelite leader over them.
And Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married; for he had married a Cushite woman. And they said: ‘Hath the LORD indeed spoken only with Moses? Hath He not spoken also with us?’ And the LORD heard it…Bamidbar/Numbers 12: 1-2
Before you can say OY GEVALT, God swoops in on an angry God-cloud to rebuke them. How did Moses feel about it? All we know is that God was very angry and Moses pleaded for God to have mercy on her. As punishment, God afflicts Miriam with tzara’at and orders her to be quarantined away from her people for seven days.
Why was she punished and not Aharon? The Sages said we know from the sequence of the sentence (Miriam’s name is mentioned before Aharon’s) that she initiated the conversation. In Torah interpretation, the order of the words is always significant.
Moreover, Aaron had already showed himself to be the weak link during the golden calf debacle. (Shemot/Exodus 32). It seems God expected better of Miriam.
Tzara’at is traditionally translated as “leprosy,” but we know from the description that it was not Hansen’s disease (leprosy). The rabbis attributed tzara’at to motzi shem ra (defamation/slander), due to this particular page in Miriam’s story, noting the shared Hebrew letters and the word ra, (evil) in both terms.
Miriam is described as “turning white as snow” when God afflicted her.
That led me to interpret her “skin affliction” as humiliation. A Hebrew term for humiliation is halbanat panim. Halbanat panim means to make a person go white in the face (blanch) from embarrassment, as if all the blood has drained from their face.
During her time out in quarantine, Miriam had to go within to perform tikkun neshama (soul repair). What did she find when she emerged from her seven dark nights of the soul? She found the Israelites camped outside her quarantine area. They had refused to move on without her. She did her time for her crime and they all moved forward together.
As I unpacked Miriam’s story, I saw that her failing was also her prophecy. Prior to their desert wanderings, Miriam was the unnamed sister of Moshe and Aharon — she had no distinct identity.
On the bank of the Reed Sea (typically mistranslated as the “Red Sea”) Miriyam picks up her tambourine and once again seizes her moment.
After her rise up, she has her fall from grace.
Miriyam’s story is transformative and flowing like the body of water that is integral to her name.
Water is a defining element in her life, culminating in the miracle known as Miriam’s Well — a miraculous wellspring of water attributed to her merit, that nourishes the tribe during their stint in the wilderness.
Miriam rose up beyond her failings with the love and compassion of family and community, but she still had to do her self-work alone as part of the healing process. Everyone, even a prophetess, struggles with their demons. (e.g. bigotry, bias, rivalry, envy).
We can fall down and still rise up to nourish like a wellspring in the desert.
©️ Shiur 06/08/2019 – All Rights Reserved
Seven Prophetesses in Judaism: Miriyam, Sarah, Devorah, Chana, Avigail, Chulda, and Esther