“Please heal her”

May 28, 2013 § 2 Comments

Aaron and Miriam speak out against Moses, on account of his marriage to a Cushite woman. It is not clear why there is a problem with her, other than the fact that she is a Cushite. In the Bible, ‘Cush’ is name for Ethiopia, so some modern commentators have assumed it was her skin color.

Personally, I think that is a projection backwards. Frankly, I think it had more to do with her foreignness. In the Song of Songs, for example, it says ‘I am black and comely’ – which would indicate that a range of color was fully appreciated for its beauty. The biblical world was not as fixated on skin color as we are; instead, the overriding concern was with the various tribal cultures: what foods, what languages, and what gods? The foreignness of the Cushite woman is likely the source of their objection.

So, we learn, his two older siblings speak out against Moses, and wonder at his life-choices and gossip about his high position. Are we not as good as him? Do we not also speak to God – and is it not true that God hears us?

As an aside, I would note that it does not seem that Moses was a particularly authoritarian leader, for he faces this kind of challenge to his authority on multiple occasions. And, as we read, the text here emphasizes that he was the most modest among all of those on earth. Folks are always assuming that they could easily step into his shoes.

But, for speaking against Moses, Aaron and Miriam are called onto the carpet, so to speak, to appear before God: that is, God quite literally summons them and tells them in no uncertain terms that Moses is special. God speaks to Moses face-to-face. And no one else can claim that honor. And then God’s presence departs from them in anger.

As the cloud leaves, Miriam is suddenly covered with white scales.

When Aaron sees her, he assumes that it is a punishment for her sin. The timing would suggest as such, given that it happened in quick succession. And he says to Moses, “Please my lord, do not hold a grudge against us for acting foolishly and sinning. Let her not be like a stillborn child…” Aaron’s narrative – the story he tells himself – is that she is now ill because they sinned. In his view, God punishes us through illness and death.

The problem with this explanation, however, is that it makes the unreasonable assumption that illness and death occur as a result of God’s anger with us over having done something wrong.

But notice that Moses does not construct the same story. He does not concern himself with questions as to why she is ill, but rather focuses on the desired outcome: he simply says, “O God, please heal her.”

So was her illness a punishment? You might want say to me, if it is not a punishment, then why does God say in the very next line, “If her father had spit in her face, would she not have been embarrassed for seven days? Let her remain quarantined for seven days outside the came, and then she can return home.”

At first glance, it would be quite reasonable to assume that the disease is a punishment, based on this statement. That is, in fact, how this text is usually understood by commentators. But that is the story that we have created in response to the text. It should be noted that in the text, God never makes that connection directly.

What, then, does the text say? First, let’s look at the spitting metaphor. I believe that the phrase ‘spit in her face’ is intended to call up the image of a father so angry that he is yelling at her, so close to her that he is spitting in her face.

Imagine that her earthly father was so angry as to yell at her in this manner, and imagine that she agreed with him. Wouldn’t she be mortified at her behavior? How much more so, then, if it was God who is angry?

In other words, God tells Moses that Miriam is profoundly embarrassed. In this context, in fact, her scaled skin appears to be a physical expression of her emotional state, a stress reaction to having been reproached by God for her bad behavior.

God explains to Moses that she needs time to heal herself. She needs to sit outside of the camp and watch the world go by for about a week until she has recovered from the shock and anguish.

I think, in fact, that it is important that she is outside of the camp for the span of a week. This process of repair does not involve days of introspective brooding inside her tent. It is better that she be out in the fresh air, where she can watch the clouds scuttle by and listen to the sound of leaves. To heal from her affliction, she needs to pay attention to the movement of ants and become familiar with the play of sunlight on blades of grass. We all need a break sometimes to let it all wash over us, to just be still.

What we see here, in fact, is several different responses to the stress of having been wrong before the Lord.

Aaron does not say anything about his own guilt; he focuses on others. His altruism might also be a dodge of his own responsibility.

Miriam, on the other hand, directs her emotions inward, so that they become physical manifestations of her distress.

Moses, of course, was not one of the guilty parties, but his response is interesting nonetheless. He focuses on the task at hand: to heal her.

And God’s response to his plea is to draw attention to Miriam’s emotional state. God’s response, in effect, is to say, ‘I can’t heal her, as this is a manifestation of her own distress. Only Miriam can heal herself, and they only way to do that is for her to spend some time experiencing the painful emotion directly. And the best way to do that is to spend some time in nature, away from the camp and all its motion and noise.’

Anyone who has ever been to Al-Anon or who has had to watch an addict struggle with that affliction understands the wisdom of God’s response: only Miriam can heal herself.

What we also see here is a certain wisdom as to what kinds of actions are healing for us. God’s suggestion to Moses has several gems for us to use: the first one is the awareness that there is no need to move on just yet, for it is possible to sit still for a while. There are things that need doing, but it is likely that most of the things that need doing can be put off for a few days, particularly if you should need to spend some time to recuperate. Resting is important. God seems to be very concerned with our need to rest: are we not commanded to rest every single week, on Shabbat? Taking a nap on Shabbat is in fact my favorite mitzvah.

Another pearl of wisdom is the observation that spending time in nature is healing. Just knowing that you are a part of a larger chain of being, an endless symphony of movement around you, is comforting. And this observation is one is backed by scientific research: a study of brain waves found that just walking among the trees calms us. It is good for her to go out camping for a while.

And there is another gem: we should note that some of our physical distress has emotional roots. Our mind-body connection is profound; some afflictions require that the emotional scars are healed before the physical ones recede.

In other words, the story we tell in the wake of a tragedy will define how well we respond to that tragedy. There are tales that lead to blind alleys and tales that lead to healing. Listen to God’s response, rather than Aaron’s: give yourself time to heal.

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§ 2 Responses to “Please heal her”

  • David John Kimmel says:

    Hi Rabbi,

    Two things come to mind: First, I hope the next time someone is besmirching my name I am more concerned about their well-being instead of my own. Second, I find Miriam’s humility to be refreshing even though this story is an old one. To the extend that Miriam and Aaron are siblings of Moses, they were likely prominent in their society, in the same way that family members of royalty or politicians are more prominent in most any society. Miriam appears to have experienced some sense of shame for her actions. It would be refreshing if we saw more shame from some of our public figures when they get caught red-handed. Miriam’s response before God is far more appealing to me than Aaron’s.


  • Gabriela Graubart says:

    Hi Rabbi,

    I think this is one of the most beautiful reflections I’ve ever read. The way we choose to hear God is very important and he is very respectful because he doesn’t impose on us, but he gives us space to reflect ♥️

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