Behaalotecha: Miriam and Tsiporah
What are we doing
In this dark land with its
Yellow shadows that pierce the eyes?
(Every now and then someone says, even after forty
Or fifty years: “The sun is killing me.”)
What are we doing with these souls of mist, with these names,
With our eyes of forests, with our beautiful children,
With our quick blood?
Spilled blood is not the roots of trees
But it’s the closest thing to roots
--Yehudah Amichai (1924-2000), “Jews in the Land of Israel,” trans. Chana Bloch & Stephen Mitchell
The hot, angry disc of the sun burned from an unforgiving sky over the Israelite camp. Tsiporah, wife of Moses, dark-brown of eye and skin, drew her head-covering more closely over her long, black curls, which were only beginning to be streaked with tinges of grey, as she shouldered a tall clay jug of water out of the Israelite encampment, which lay, baking, in the still desert heat. Her sandals kicked up tiny sandstorms of dust as she went on her errand—to the black goatskin tent that had been pitched one mil out of the camp—close enough to supply with dry bread and water; far enough away to signify that the occupant was banished.
The jet-black tent felt steaming-hot to the touch, though she knew it to be well-insulated from the noonday desert sun. As Tsiporah lowered the jug and knelt at the tent-flap, she heard a Voice sobbing from within, while slowly whispering a prayer from between dry, heat-cracked lips:
“O’ God my God—I believe with perfect faith—hear the prayers of a simple woman, my God—that You, Who work wonders, are the Cause of my suffering—and I accept it (sob) with love—You have acted truthfully, while I, a foolish, silly woman, have caused wickedness—Ai!—forgive me, God, for my sins are many….”
Reaching forth a long, graceful, but muscular arm, Tsiporah used a finger to gently open the tent-flap and called softly, “Miriam, my sister—Miriam—it is I, Tsiporah. I have brought you cooling water, on this hot, hot day. Reach forth your hands, and I will pour some over them.”
The Voice stopped, but then, there was a moment of hesitation, as if the hearer were mentally overcome by heat and the loneliness of banishment, and uncertain what to do. Finally, the tent-flap opened slowly, and a pair of hands, all blistered and reddened from the sun, reached out, seeking human contact, shaking with a palsy of fear and aloneness. Tsiporah took them gently, oh so gently, in her own, kissed them, and poured cooling water over them. She then poured more water into a pottery cup, and passed it to the hands; they disappeared, and she heard the sound of the water being gulped down.
“Not so fast, my Sister; not so fast; you will get a griping in your guts,” said Tsiporah softly, “May I come in?”
“It is forbidden, Tsiporah, as you well know,” croaked the Voice, as if rusty from disuse, “I alone have sinned, and the redness and blisters the sun has wrought on my skin might well spread to you. I must stay here, until my Brother, Moses the Wise and the Seventy Elders, determine when my quota of banishment is complete.”
Still whispering, Miriam managed to say Moses’s name a bit sardonically, while Tsiporah smiled to sense Miriam’s continuing rebelliousness. It’s still my Miriam in there, Tsiporah thought; You can lock her up, but she’ll never stop pushing, fighting back.
“And what was your sin? What was its nature?” asked Tsiporah, her voice beginning to rise in anger, “Was it to dare question the judgment of my husband-your-brother, Moses?”
“Hush, Tsippi,” said the Voice, “Or you—(here the Voice permitted itself a bit of a laugh) may find yourself alongside me, or taking my place, in this goatskin bower my prison.”
“Here is olive-oil lotion for your burns, my Sister,” said Tsipporah, handing Miriam a small, covered pottery cup through the flap, “And I care not whom you tell that I gave it to you: tell even the God-Most-High who judges both men and women alike—though I believe He judges us women more harshly. Where is Aaron, your brother, he who is equal in the Sin of Gossip, if gossip it be to wonder why the most-high Leader, our Moses, my husband, is always working at the Godly Tent-of-Meeting, communing with He-Who-Is, and never to be found in his home tent with She-Who-Is-His-Wife? Where, indeed, is punishment for Aaron the Priest, the hearer of gossip, if gossip it be to protect my marital rights?”
The Voice, refreshed now with two more cups of water, came forth from the tent, more patiently: “Tsippi, you know; you, more than anyone else of our Levite tribe, know full well. Aaron’s suffering—not to speak of that of his wife, Chochma, without whose help he would be but a ritual slaughterer, not a Mighty Peacemaker; she is, truly his closest and best adviser and counselor—that is, the loss of his two boys—is enough punishment, in the eyes of the Most-High-God. And so I, and I alone, bear this punishment.”
“And your sin, my Sister?” asked Tsiporah, with a bitter edge to her voice.
“It remains Gossip, my Sister. Gossip, Lashon Ha-Ra, my sin, and mine alone. I cannot question His judgment—”
“To languish here, in this tent of fire—“ Tsiporah did not finish; she saw a shadow lying across her own, turned quickly—her hand on the dagger she always carried in her belt—stood up, and faced a man standing behind her, “You are--?”
A young man, bright of eye and black-bearded, white-toothed, grinning, proud of himself and his mission, stood before Tsiporah, arms on his hips, legs spread wide, triumphantly. He carried a newly-rolled parchment in his belt. “I am a Messenger—from God, if you will—sent by the Council of the Seventy Elders, to tell Mother Miriam that her Sentence of Banishment-from-the-Camp is done. She may return to her family, and her tent in the midst of the People of Israel.”
“That is good news,” said Tsiporah, and went to open the tent-flap, gently guiding her sister-in-law out, out into the sunlight of freedom. The older woman, weary, dirty-faced, with froth around the corners of her mouth and unsteady of foot, sagged in her arms, blinking in the sun like a mole. Miriam’s bones protruded, like a skeleton’s; she had been given little food during the week of her Banishment-Prison, and had eaten only enough to stay alive. Putting a steadying arm across her sister-in-law’s shoulders, Tsiporah turned toward the camp, almost dragging Miriam behind, but determined to get the older woman there quickly, for fear of sunstroke.
The young messenger raised his hand, blocking the path of the sisters-in-law: “Hold, Women! I neglected to say—that there are Conditions,” he said.
“And what are they?” snapped Tsiporah testily, gently lowering her sister-in-law to the ground. Miriam modestly covered her legs as best she could with her filthy, stained robe, and, blinking, looked up, puzzled, at the Messenger, who drew a scroll out from his belt and unrolled it, briskily, self-importantly.
“Is my sentence not yet complete--?” she began, but the Messenger, glaring at the helpless crone on the ground, stamped his foot to get their attention, and cleared his throat loudly.
“In the Name of God the All-Judging, the All-Compassionate, I, His Messenger, will read the further sentence of Miriam bat Amram v’Yocheved,” he began, holding the parchment, with his arms straight out before him, like a king’s herald. Watching his self-important antics, Tsiporah expected to hear a blast from the silver trumpets of the Sanctuary, but none came: she saw a largish lizard poke its head out from behind the young man’s heel, wag its tongue at her, and then disappear. This heat is getting to me, she thought.
“Speak your piece, Young Man,” she said, impatiently, “I must be getting my Miriam back to camp. She needs food, a bath, and rest.” The Messenger knitted his brows at her, and scowled. He read:
“From the Lord God’s High Council of the Seventy Elders: Hear the Sentence of Miriam!
“She is no more to offer sacrifices for the women, whether for harvest, birth of babies, or other thanksgiving offerings. She is no more to interpret Jewish Law for them; no more to question male authority. She may, however, lead the women in song—not so loudly that it leads the men to lascivious thoughts—and, occasionally dance, but only behind a screen, and only in such a way and place as will not distract the men. These are the orders of the Seventy Elders which I bear, signed and sealed by them, and, soon, we hope, by Rabbi Moses.”
Tsiporah bristled, “And who is the author of these paltry, confining laws? Where would the Elders be without the strength of us women reinforcing theirs? This will not stand, young Messenger, and you may tell them back: besides Miriam our Prophetess and me, Tsiporah bat Yitro, there is a mighty army of Israelite women, we who will birth and raise generations of Israelites yet to be, both female and male, who will not submit to your dominating proposals. Our daughters in particular will read Torah; they will study it, and lift it banner-high, and Israel will glory in their deeds. They will both dance and sing, as only women can. Take that back to your Elders. Tell them I dare, in Miriam’s name and my own, to challenge their authority. And what, pray, is your name, young Messenger?"
The boy-man smiled, licked his lips slowly, and folded his arms, as if ready for a fight: “I will return your words, Aunt Tsiporah. As for my name, I am Korach ben Yitzhar. Remember it.”
Drorah O’Donnell Setel, “Exodus: Liberation Theology & Central Female Characters” in Carol Newsom & Sharon Ringe, Eds. The Women’s Bible Commentary. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992.
Rabbi Aharon Roth, “Prayer for Accepting Suffering with Love,” in Rabbi Yaakov Iskowitz, Trans. Aneni: Special [Women’s] Prayers for Special Occasions: A Book of Tekhinote. Nanuet, NY: Feldheim, 2003.