Numbers 8:1 to 12:16
The Israelites are full of complaints. We learn about the people’s desire for a greater variety of food and Miriam’s complaints against Moses. Additional complaints will follow in future text.
This week’s text can be divided into three differing sections: First, a continuation of laws for the community… The second section, presents instructions for the Israelites when the community moves from its current location… The third section begins a recounting of the discontent that engulfs the community. For the next several weeks we will see how this discontent spreads throughout the entire community. It so dominates our readings that I have named the section The Book of Kvetch.
At first, the people began to complain before God who heard the complaints and was incensed. A fire breaks out at the edge of the community. The people call to Moses for help. Moses prays to the Eternal and the fire subsided.
Next, the people from all the tribes complain that they want meat. In reality, they had plenty to eat and drink when the manna and water that the Eternal provided is considered. Again, Moses takes the complaints to God. The Eternal is angered by the demands for meat. Many commentators claim the cries for meat were not caused by a lack of food; but, by the boredom of desert life and discontent arising as a result of the laws and commandments they had to follow.
God sends flocks of birds that actually cover the ground. And, the people eat and eat and eat until they are sick. Then, God sent a plague in response to the people’ unjustified complaints.
Until now, in Torah, we have seen God react to the Israelites complaints in two different ways. If the complaint was justified … like when the people were thirsty because of a lack of water – or hungry because of a lack of food, God rapidly provides water and food. However, when the complaining is unjustified, as was in this case, God punishes the people in an effort to teach them a lesson.
Then, at the end of the parsha we have a section where Miriam, Moses’ sister, complains… or kvetches… to Aaron. She has two complaints: First, she “spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married : ‘He married a Cushite woman!’” (Num. 12:1) “Then, [Mirian and Aaron] said, ‘Has [God] spoken only through Moses? Has [God] not spoken through us as well?” (Num. 12:2)
Miriam offers two completely different k’vetches: Speaking against Moses and his “Cushite” wife… and a complaint that she and Aaron should have more status because they are also leaders with whom God has communicated in the past. God punishes Miriam by inflicting her with a white scaly disease. Many commentators see this as a punishment for the gossip about Moses and his wife. Aaron seems to avoid God’s punishment.
God calls Moses, Miriam, and Aaron to answer Miriam’s complaints. He doesn’t seem to directly answer the complaint about Moses and his “Cushite” wife…. Or maybe the Eternal does respond. Miriam refers to Moses’ wife as a Cushite – a black people from Africa. This Cushite reference could have been a derogatory slur referencing her color… if so, how ironic for Miriam to be inflicted with a “white” skin disease.
In reference to Miriam’s second complaint, God states that Moses is indeed his prime spokesman. Moses is the only person with whom God has spoken “face-to-face.”
Now, this passage about Miriam brings up another question that has been on the mind of this writer. According to the Exodus story, there are three major leaders – Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. Yet the Torah only includes five very brief passages about Miriam. We are told that she was instrumental in saving the baby Moses… We read that she led the Israelite women in song and dance after crossing the Sea of Reeds… We also read the episode in this parsha. It is the longest of all the references to Miriam… And we learn that when she died, the Israelites mourned… The fifth reference is a genealogical statement naming her parents and brothers.
Why so little information about her? We assume that she was a leader of the women based on the fact that she led the women in song and dance. Stories in Midrash tell us that Miriam was responsible for the community’s water. Because of Miriam, God provided a rock that gave water as needed and traveled with the community until Miriam’s death.
Why is so little included about her? Was her absence in the text due to her beliefs or teachings? Or was she omitted simply because she was an important woman in a man’s world? Miriam seems like such an interesting leader. It is a shame that we can’t learn more about her. I’m sure it would be fascinating.