Parsha Behaalotcha by David Hartley Mark

This parsha/Torah portion shows the Israelites developing their rituals in the wilderness, with the Levites taking charge of the portable sanctuary, lighting the menorah/seven-branched candlelabra and purifying themselves to serve God. A now-defunct Pesach Sheni/Second Passover is described, for the benefit of those Israelites who had been tamay/ritually impure and thereby unable to observe the first one. The people complain of their manna-only diet, and God sends a covey of quail for them to trap. While they are gluttonously gobbling their quickly-cooked catch, God strikes them down with what is apparently food poisoning for their rebelliousness. Carnivores can’t catch a break: is God nudging His people toward vegetarianism?

Moses, worn out by the complaints of the people, appoints seventy elders to assist in their governance. A controversial episode follows, wherein Miriam and Aaron seem to gossip about Moses’s choice of wife, Zipporah, an Ethiopian—a sad bit of racism, taken at face value. Only Miriam is punished for her sin of talebearing, by being stricken with—leprosy? She is quarantined outside of the camp for seven days, but the Israelites, out of respect for her, and perhaps in silent protest against God for His mistreatment of a dynamic woman prophet, refuse to decamp until she is healed. I would like to believe that today’s progressive Jews, with their liberal social views, stem directly from that wilderness community, who were willing to oppose even God Almighty on Miriam’s behalf.

What was the nature of Miriam’s sin, and why did Aaron get off scot-free again, as he did at the sin of the Golden Calf? Modern feminist Bible scholars claim that Miriam was speaking against, not her sister-in-law Zipporah, but her brother Moses’s workaholic ways, and his refusal to share a normal domestic home life with his wife and two sons, who vanish into Jewish history; all we have are their names, Gershom and Eliezer. (It is often a curse to be the child of a famous person; it is almost impossible to measure up.) Miriam was, therefore, instrumental behind Moses’s idea to appoint seventy elders to bear some of the leadership burden, as old age wears him down.

As for Aaron’s exclusion from punishment—therein lies the mystery. I can only surmise that God pitied him for the loss of his two sons, Nadav and Avihu, who were slain by God for offering “strange fire” when they officiated at the inauguration of the sanctuary (Lev. 9:22-24). And yet, to be excused twice from punishment, first for the sin of the Golden Calf, and secondly for gossiping against his brother, Moses? Did Aaron’s priestly rank and function give him special merit, as opposed to Miriam, a mere woman, although prophetic? Was the text’s author predisposed to favor the Aaronide line? I cannot objectively justify God’s actions in the text; my questions meet only silence.

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