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Entries in Aaron (2)


Miriam's Trauma/Healing By Water

Let’s talk about Miriam – prophetess, leader, water-bringer. In her life, there are two crucial scenes that take place next to water:


 As a young girl she stands by the Nile, watching her baby brother Moses float in a basket, placed there anxiously by his mother after Pharaoh decreed that all baby boys must be thrown in the Nile (Exodus 2):

3. And when she could not longer hide him, she took for him an ark made of reeds, and daubed it with slime and with pitch, and put the child in it; and she laid it in the rushes by the river’s brink.

4. And his sister stood far away, to see what would be done to him. 

Pharaoh’s daughter takes him and saves him from the genocidal decree by adopting him, and Miriam is instrumental in that.


Much later, as a woman of eighty-five, after the Red sea has split allowing the Israelites to go through and then closed over the Egyptian foe, she witnesses her brother Moses singing the famous song known as “Az Yashir”. Then, following his  lead, she takes up her tambourine and leads the women in song and dance by the sea (Exodus 15):

20. And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines, dancing.

21. And Miriam answered them, Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider has he thrown into the sea. 

In the first instance, she is not named – she is only named in the second story, many decades later. Why is this? And moreover, why don’t hear anything of Miriam in the intervening years between these two scenes? What was she doing in Egypt? Was she not involved in leading the people? What happened to the resourceful little girl who spoke up boldly to Pharaoh’s daughter – why does she vanish from the text?

And since we are asking questions, let us also wonder why Miriam is described here suddenly as “sister of Aaron”?

* * *  

Many answers are possible, but one that ties all these threads together emerged during a Bibliodrama I ran in Rechovot. It goes as follows:

Let’s conjecture that the first incident caused young Miriam to experience a trauma. Yes, her baby brother was saved from death, but he was still ripped away from his family, taken to the palace of the cruel tyrant whom the Israelites hated and feared, and raised there by another woman as an Egyptian. We have no idea if Miriam even saw him from that day forth. Perhaps this took all the wind out of her sails. She was unable henceforth to step up to leadership roles; she could never forget her little brother or stop being worried about him.

Fast forward to the redemption by the sea.

If the first scene took place by the Nile, the god of the Egyptian, water that belonged to the enemy and served its genocidal purposes, this scene takes place by a sea that was friendly to the Israelites, that opened for them and closed over the Egyptians. Finally, they were safe. And now Miriam also sees her brother sing gloriously, leading all the people – something he has never done before. A moment before that, we learned that the Israelites “believed in God and in Moses his servant.” Miriam can finally put her mind at rest. Moses is okay, he is whole – she can see it. She is entirely joyous now - where in the previous scene "she stood", here she dances. 

In this moment, as her trauma recedes in what we in Hebrew call a חוויה מתקנת. a rectifying experience, she can come into the fullness of her being and be named. She can also finally let her anxiety about Moses rest. And if all these years she neglected her middle brother, Aaron, being unable to give him the attention and love he deserved, perhaps now she can finally become his sister.

* * * 
Two verses later, and surely not by coincidence, the letters of Miriam’s name מרים appear again as “Marim”, bitter. But Miriam’s bitterness has now receded, just as the bitter waters will recede when Moses puts a tree or stick into them. The tree of life. A sweet experience of life – and the tree of life, the Torah – can heal bitterness, as it did for Miriam.

Then, in her merit, the well of life-bringing water comes to the people and remains with them until her death.


[1] With thanks to Aviva Harbater-Tsubeiri for her insight regarding the trauma of the first incident, and to other members of the Berman synagogue in Rechovot for their input and ideas.  

[2] For more on how the Israelites' belief in Moses enabled him to sing his song, see here.



Marrying the Kushite woman

At the end of parshat Beha’alotcha we find a mysterious and puzzling narrative. Its first three verses don’t seem to follow on from each other at all:

1. And Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Kushite woman whom he had married; for he had married a Kushite woman. 2. And they said, Has the Lord indeed spoken only by Moses? has he not spoken also by us? And the Lord heard it. 3. And the man Moses was very humble, more than any other men which were upon the face of the earth.

I am intrigued by verses 1 and 2 and the disconnect between them. We need to ask at least a couple of questions:

- What is the complaint here? Is it that Moses has married a Kushite woman (and if so, what is the problem with that?)

- What are Miriam and Aaron trying to say in verse 2 and what does that have to do with the Kushite woman?

The Midrash, Rashi and others suggest a non-literal interpretation – the complaint was that Moses had separated from his wife Tzipporah, and his siblings felt that that this was unnecessary and inappropriate. They too were prophets and yet had not separated themselves thus. This approach adequately explains the connection between the two verses, but it deviates from the plain meaning of the first verse: that Moses indeed married a Kushite woman.

Obviously if we follow the plain meaning, this in and of itself raises questions, such as: Where did he meet this woman? and: Why did he marry her? Rashbam and Daat zekenim quote a work called Divrei Hayamim LeMoshe Rabbenu, that somewhere between age 40 and 80, Moses married an Ethiopian queen (though he did not sleep with her. See further discussion of this interpretation here).

Daat zekenim goes on to explain the second verse as follows: They protested: “Was Moses so proud, because G-d spoke to him face to face, that he married out of the tribe? We (Miriam and Aaron) also had G-d speak to us, and we did not marry out of the tribe.”


I’d like to suggest an alternative reading. Unlike Miriam and Aaron, who grew up in amongst the Israelites in Egypt, Moses grew up in Pharaoh’s palace as a non-Jew. He then fled to Midian, lived once again among non-Jews, and married Tzipporah, daughter of an idol-worshipping priest (as Yitro was then). Moses spent his life among those who were other to him, and was familiar and comfortable with that. Thus, when G-d chose him to receive prophecy on a level never before or since attained, and to give the Torah through him – making him the ultimate Other, a human being with an experience he cannot share with any other person – he already had the inner kli (vessel) prepared and available to contain such a role.

Miriam and Aaron in all their greatness did not have this kind of vessel. Their protest derived from a lack of understanding of the greatness of Moses, who could be the leader of a people to which he was, in some regards, other. They saw him breaking the rules, and thought it was due to hubris in being spoken to G-d; but it was not. Hence verse 3, clarifying for us: No, Moses was humble.

In fact, if I can be bold enough as to take the Kushite woman as a metaphor, but in a different way than the Midrash does, and without meaning to be racist but simply to take the Tanach on its own terms and in its own context: the Kushite is a symbol of the quintessential Other, in that he is dark-skinned and exotic. When Moses marries the Kushite woman, he is embracing (“marrying”) his otherness to the full – perhaps accepting fully, finally, that he will never be just like everyone else, or like anyone else. Perhaps Miriam and Aaron sensed this and could not bear to fully, finally accept the separation from him that this would entail, as their younger brother whom they saved from death in the river.

- With thanks to Dan Goldblatt, through whose Bibliodrama session I arrived at this insight: Tammuz 5773