Behaalotecha: Miriam and Zipporah
The hot, angry, unforgiving sun burned over the Israelite camp. Zipporah bat Yitro, wife of Moses, dark-brown of eye and skin, drew her cotton headscarf more closely over her long, black curls, here and there streaked with tinges of grey. Leaving her tent—though it was the home of Rabbi Moses, Leader of Israel, it was in an inconspicuous corner of the Levite neighborhood—she gracefully shouldered a tall, clay jug of water and strode out of the Israelite camp, which lay, baking, in the still desert heat. Her sandals kicked up tiny dust-devils as she steadily labored to the solitary, black goatskin tent that had been pitched one mil out of the camp. The lone Black Tent was close enough to supply with dry bread and water, yet far enough away to signify that the occupant was banished, by order of Moses, and God.
The skins of the jet-black tent felt steaming-hot to the touch. As Zipporah lowered the jug and knelt at the tent-flap, she heard a Voice sobbing from within:
“O’ God my God—I believe with perfect faith, and beat my erring breast to prove Your Words correct—I, Miriam, believe that You, Who work wonders, are the Just Cause of my punishment, and my suffering—and I accept it (sob) with love—You have acted truthfully, while I, a foolish, weak-minded, silly woman, have caused wicked gossip, Lashon Ha-Ra, Evil Talk—Ai!—forgive me, God, for my sins are many….”
Reaching forth a long, graceful, muscular arm, Zipporah used a finger to gently open the tent-flap and called softly, “Miriam, my sister—Miriam—it is I, Zipporah. I have brought you cool water, on this miserably 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 Miriam, alone in the heat and darkness, was slowly going mad from thirst, and uncertain what to do. Finally, the tent-flap opened slowly, and a pair of hands, all blistered and reddened from a skin disease, reached out, seeking human contact, shaking with a palsy of fear and loneliness.
Zipporah 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 Miriam. The cup disappeared within, and she heard the sound of the water being gulped down.
“Not so fast, my Sister; not so fast; you will get a pain in your belly,” said Zipporah softly, “May I come in?”
“It is forbidden, Zipporah, as you well know,” croaked the Voice, as if rusty from disuse, “I alone have sinned, and the redness and blisters God has wrought on my skin might well spread to you. I must stay here, until my Brother, the Wise Moses, and the Seventy Elders, determine when my Time-of-Shunning is complete.”
Still whispering, Miriam managed to say Moses’s name sardonically, and Zipporah smiled, sensing Miriam’s inborn rebelliousness.
It’s still my Miriam, my Mimi in there, Zipporah thought; You can lock her up, but she’ll never stop pushing, fighting back.
“And what was your sin?” asked Zipporah, her voice rising in anger, “Was it to dare question the judgment of my-husband-your-brother, Moses?”
“Hush, Zippi,” 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 ointment-cup through the flap, “And I care not whom you tell that I gave it to you: tell even our Israelite-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 also transgressed the Sin of Gossip, if gossip it be to wonder why the-humph!- Supreme Leader, our Moses, my husband, is always working at the Godly Tent-of-Meeting, communing with El-Shaddai, and is never to be found in his home tent with Zipporah-Who-is-His-Wife; that is, with me? 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, and that of his wife, Elisheva—she is, truly his closest and best adviser and counselor—is the loss of his two boys, Nadav and Avihu, who offered the “strange fire” before the Lord. That is enough punishment, apparently, in the eyes of the Most-High-God. And so I, and I alone, bear this punishment.”
“And what was your sin, my Sister?” asked Zipporah, with a bitter edge to her voice.
“It was Gossip, my Sister. Gossip, Lashon Ha-Ra, my sin, and mine alone. I cannot question His judgment—”
“To languish here, in this ghastly-black tent of fire—“ Zipporah did not finish; she saw a shadow lying across her own, and turned quickly, crouching like a lioness, 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 Zipporah, 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 Zipporah, 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, as a sign of personal penance, had eaten only enough to stay alive.
Putting a steadying arm across her sister-in-law’s shoulders, Zipporah 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 Zipporah 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, briskly, 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, Zipporah 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.”
“And, most expressly, she is not”—he cleared his throat, self-importantly—“to dare come into contact with any and all Sacred Scrolls, of the type which we now call Torah-Teaching; these are strictly to be under the purview of Rabbi Moses, High Priest Aaron, or any other male or males designated by them.”
He finished, rolled up the parchment, stuck it in his belt, and grinned like a Cheshire Cat.
“These are the orders of the Seventy Elders which I bear, signed and sealed by them, and, ultimately, by Rabbi Moses.”
Zipporah 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!
“Go now, and tell your Council back: besides Miriam our Prophetess and me, Zipporah bat Yitro, Daughter of a Priest and Wife of a Rabbi, a Counselor in my own right, we represent a mighty army of Israelite women. We are the ones, not you men, who will birth and raise generations of Israelites yet to be, both female and male, who will not submit to your domineering proposals.
“Our daughters in particular will read Torah; they will study it, and lift it banner-high, so that all Israel may glory in their deeds. They will both dance and sing Torah, as only women can. Take that back to your Elders. Tell them that I dare, in Miriam’s name and my own, to challenge their Male 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, Aunty Zipporah. As for my name, I am Korach ben Yitzhar. I pray you, 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.