Be-Ha'alotekha: Is that really what you're mad about?

Sibling jealousy is common in the Hebrew Bible.  Cain and Abel.  Jacob and Esau.  And, most famously, Joseph and his brothers.  Seldom mentioned, though, is that between Moses and his siblings, Aaron and Miriam.  Yet, arguably, this is the most significant sibling rivalry of all.  Why?  Because G-d takes “personal” umbrage, directly intercedes to stop it, and metes out punishment even when the siblings close ranks in mutual support.     

This week’s Torah portion, Be’ha’alotekha, contains a short but fascinating vignette, at Numbers Chapter 12.  Here is the English translation (JPS Tanakh) of the entire text:

When they were in Hazeroth, Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married.  They said, “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us as well?”  The Lord heard it.  Now Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth. Suddenly the Lord called to Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, "Come out, you three, to the Tent of Meeting." So the three of them went out. The Lord came down in a pillar of cloud, stopped at the entrance of the Tent, and called out, “Aaron and Miriam!” The two of them came forward; and He said, “Hear these My words: when a prophet of the Lord arises among you, I make myself known to him in a vision, I speak with him in a dream. Not so with My servant Moses; he is trusted throughout My household. With him I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles, and he beholds the likeness of the Lord. How then did you not shrink from speaking against My servant Moses!” Still incensed with them, the Lord 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, “Oh my Lord, account not to us the sin which we committed in our folly. Let her not be as one dead, who emerges from his mother’s woman with half his flesh eaten away.” So Moses cried out to the Lord, saying “Oh God, pray heal her!” But the Lord 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 originated. After that the people set out from Hazeroth and encamped in the wilderness of Paran.

I find this passage instructive for several reasons. 

1.  Aaron and Miriam speak out against Moses for marrying a Cushite woman.  But their actual complaint has nothing to do with that.  Instead, they are jealous because of his status as Prophet.  This is how envy – and indeed anger, in general, often manifests itself.  A person will lash out, but the stated reason is only a cover for the real reason, which he or she may be embarrassed to acknowledge or perhaps even be unconscious. 

We can learn from this that before we get angry or lash out, we should stop and ask ourselves, What is the true reason for our anger? 

If we hear anyone else lash out, we should ask ourselves the same thing: Is their actual complaint the reason for their anger, or is there something else?  And, of course, if someone is angry at us and lashes out, we should resist reacting angrily or defensively to the stated reason until they can calm down.  Then, we can ask: Is that what you are most angry about?    

2.   G-d defended Moses not because he was always right, but for his humility!  Rashi teaches (commentary on Numbers 12:3) that the most important characteristics of humility are tolerance and modesty for the views of others.  They may be right, and we may be wrong! In any case, we can learn from their understandings and perceptions, even if we disagree.  

3.  When G-d heard Aaron and Miriam bad-mouthing their brother, He could have taken instant and harsh action against them, as He does numerous other times in the Bible.  Instead, G-d “took the trouble” to summon them to the Tent of Meeting.  There, He told them exactly why He was incensed with them.  Rashi (commentary on Numbers 12:9) also tells us that this teaches that we are obligated to tell people why we are angry with them.  As a practical matter, this obligation also gives us time to cool down (or not!), to reflect, choose our words, and consider the likely consequences before we express our anger. 

4.  Both Moses and Aaron pled on their sister’s behalf (it is interesting that nothing is reported about whether Miriam was repentant).  But G-d refused to pardon her and afflicted her with a terrible and, presumably extremely painful, skin aliment.  This made a lasting impression upon Moses, who later admonished the Israelites to, “Remember what the Lord your G-d did to Miriam on the journey after you left Egypt.” (Deuteronomy 24:9).  

As we all know, anger, like fire, can flash and burn, particularly through reactive -- radioactive? -- speech.  Whenever we get angry, witness anger in others, or incur the wrath of others, remembering this long-ago incident in the desert among Moses, Miriam, Aaron – and G-d – may save us and others much pain and regret. 

Shabbat shalom! 

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He who guards his mouth preserves his life
Proverbs 13:3