This midrash, or haggadic story, takes place amid the Israelites' wandering in the desert. We read in B'haalot'cha :
When they were in Hazeroth, Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married:"He married a Cushite woman!"
They said,"Has the Eternal spoken only through Moses? Has [God] not spoken through us as well?" . . . [God said,]"How then did you not shrink from speaking against My servant Moses!" Still incensed with them, The Eternal departed.
As the cloud withdrew from the Tent, there was Miriam stricken with snow-white scales! When Aaron turned toward Miriam, he saw that she was stricken with scales. And Aaron said to Moses,"O, my lord, account not to us the sin which we committed in our folly. Let her not be as a stillbirth which emerges from its mother's womb with half its flesh eaten away!" So Moses cried out to the Eternal, saying,"O God, pray heal her!'"
But the Eternal One said to Moses,"If her father spat in her face, would she not bear her shame for seven days? Let her be shut out of camp for seven days, and then let her be readmitted." So Miriam was shut out of camp seven days; and the people did not march on until Miriam was readmitted. (Numbers 11:35, 12:1-2, 12:8-15)
In our midrash, Miriam loses her status after she argues with Moses, but strangely, that loss turns out to be a gain. Now, people who come to her are no longer seeking indirect access to Moses. During her struggle with leprosy, Miriam learned about vulnerability and learned what it was like to be banished from the camp for seven days. A week is a short time, but for Miriam it is long enough to view the camp, with its problems and intrigues, from a new perspective. She is still the same person she was before, but not completely. How do you regard your skin when it has once begun to flake with leprosy? And how do you reengage completely with the drama of the camp when you have once lived outside its borders, away from its machinations? Contemplating these questions confirms for Miriam what she always suspected: that it is wewho create worlds of meaning and value, worlds that are suspended on fragile threads of relationships. Experiencing marginality gives her the distance she needs to choose once again to relate to others and to God, or to reject making such commitments.
Miriam always taught about the role of boundaries, but the circumstances surrounding her leprosy show her how important and also how potentially stultifying religious boundaries can be. Thrust out beyond the borders of the camp, she experiences God, an event that brings her to a deeper life. Separated from the community, she can look toward the camp and feel excluded, or she can turn away from the camp and exclude it from her line of vision and concern. Or, as we will see, she can gain a new perspective, bring it back to the people in the camp, and have it stand them in good stead for millennia to follow.
Miriam's marginalization prefigures that of Jews, in one society after another. For two millennia, marginalized Jews have brought fresh perspectives to the societies in which they dwelt and ultimately have contributed great advances in all endeavors such as science, literature, psychology, economics, and the arts. Similarly, Miriam's experience of marginality has given her the tools to bring a new gift to the Jewish people.
In our midrash, Miriam returns to the camp and begins to speak about her time"outside." She teaches the Israelites, and most especially the women, that she has seen how people build worlds of meaning and value in their homes and in their relationships, and how these are the worlds through which they can experience God. She shares with them the knowledge that even outside the camp, one can build structures in which to experience God. These are not the structures of the Levites, and perhaps the aspect of God experienced outside the camp is not the same as that addressed in Levitical worship. Rather, the aspect of God addressed outside the camp is that of the marginalized.
"The God I experienced in the days of my banishment was not that of the kohanim ," she explains."But there is only one God!" exclaim the women. Miriam replies,"Yes, there is, indeed, one God, but we have been told where we may experience God, how we may worship God, and what God expects of us. But we also know, in the Holy of Holies of our own hearts, that we have experienced God outside the structure of the formal offerings." The women murmur a quiet assent.
Miriam talks about something else she experienced outside the camp, something neither seen nor heard, but felt:"I was never alone." The women grow silent, reflecting and remembering. Others must surely have come to Miriam's insight, but she is the first to articulate it to the women. She teaches them to transmit it to their infants as they nurse them:"Wherever you are, God is, and even if someday there are no longer priests or Levites, there will be mothers telling their children of the presence of God."
Dr. Carol Ochs is director of Graduate Studies and adjunct professor of Jewish Religious Thought at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York.
Dr. Ochs insightfully teaches the idea that we humans, we Jews, instill our own lives and experiences with meaning and thereby can find God in all aspects of life. In that light, we must take Miriam's instructions to the women reflectively and apply the lesson to the Torah portion and midrash themselves. We must note that it is God who punishes Miriam. Moses, the victim, is prepared to forgive her completely, but God banishes her from the camp. We must ask, toward what end? As Dr. Ochs has taught, through her isolation, Miriam not only atones, but also grows as a person. She emerges from her isolation with a greater understanding of the relationships between God and the world. And so we learn that punishment is not about retribution and revenge, but rather, punishment is a teaching aid.
Miriam teaches the women that God is always with them and instructs them to share that message with their children. Her example shows them a way to find God's presence in their lives. Just as God experienced by Miriam outside the camp was not the God of the priests, neither were the rules of living outside the camp the rules of the kohanim . Miriam demonstrates that through the unconstrained introspection afforded by her isolation, she is able to grow and develop as a person. Her process of t'shuvah , atonement, and learning from errors is a profound educational experience, both spiritually and emotionally. Sometimes, only through transgressing the rules can we come to understand their wisdom and moral value. From Miriam, we learn that God exists in all of our experiences, the good and the bad, the proper choices and our mistakes. We just need to take the time and do the work to find God there.
Rabbi David Spey is associate rabbi at Temple Beth Ami, Rockville, Maryland.
B'haalot'cha, Numbers 8:1–12:16
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,075–1,100; Revised Edition, pp. 950–973;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 843–868