Beha-alotkha: Miriam Looks Back

May 24, 2021 at 7:18 pm | Posted in Beha-alotkha | Leave a comment

(I am writing a Torah monologue from the viewpoint of Reuben for my book on Genesis.  As Jacob’s firstborn son, he keeps trying to do the right thing and manage his eleven brothers, but he keeps getting it wrong.

So for this week’s Torah portion in the book of Numbers, Beha-alotkha, I am sharing a Torah monologue I wrote back in 2008 from the viewpoint Miriam as she tries to figure out what she did wrong.)

Miriam Looks Back (Beha-alotekha)

My God, my God, why did you do this to me?  One moment I’m Miriam the Prophetess—old, healthy, strong, respected, looked up to.  The next moment—I’m an abomination, afflicted with tzara’at, shedding scales like drifts of sand.  Unclean, unclean! —shamed and shunned, seven days outside the camp.  And I’ve only been here for one day.  I’ve got six more days to get through.

Why did you do this to me, God?  The itching is unbearable!  No, I take that back.  The itching is a temporary inconvenience, but it’s all part of God’s plan, and I accept it humbly.

Rrrr!  Look at me now!  Scaly as a snake, white as—salt.  Reminds me of Lot’s wife, when she looked back at Sodom burning, and she turned into a pillar of salt.

Because she looked back—

But I never look back.  I always look forward, because I have faith in you, God.  Whenever the men whine about the cucumbers, melons,  leeks, onions, and garlic they used to eat in Egypt, what do I do?  I invent another recipe for manna.

Women Dancing, by J.J.J. Tissot

And when we left Egypt, grabbing whatever we could, I packed my timbrel.  Because I knew we’d have a reason to celebrate.  Even when the Pharaoh’s chariots came after us, I knew sooner or later we’d be singing and dancing and praising you, God.

I bet you didn’t expect an old lady to dance like that, did you?

Hey, I was forward-looking even when I was young, before Moshe was born.  Remember when Pharaoh ordered the Egyptians to drown every Hebrew baby boy?  How my father, Amram, told the other Hebrew men to separate from their wives?  He said, it’s better not to make a baby at all, than to see him drowned in the Nile.

But I said, what about the girl babies?  I said, I had a vision about a boy who escaped.  I said, someday God’s gonna hear our groaning and rescue us.  I said, in the meantime, let’s grab as much life as we can, even under the shadow of death.  I said, I’m going ahead with my wedding, and you should tell all the married men to go back to their wives’ beds, and bring some light into the night!

And my father did just what I said.  Turned out well, didn’t it?

But now, when I try to give my little brother Moshe some advice, hhhh!  God strikes me with tzara’at, and I’m shedding scales all over the place, and everyone turns away from me because I’m unclean, and here I am stuck outside the camp, waiting out my sentence, seven days of shunning, and why did you do this to me, God?

But I’m not complaining.  I have a good attitude.  I know this is all for the best.  Somehow.

*

One, two, three …  Day four.  I’m halfway through my seven days outside the camp.  Halfway through this long, long week.  But I’m not complaining!

Though I still don’t know why I’m being punished for giving my brother some advice.  Listen, I know Moshe is way above my level.  I mean, the man has to wear a veil over his face!  Because he’s been exposed to so much of Your divine light, that his own face glows.  Me, I’ve just got a regular old woman’s face.  Or I used to, before You crusted it over with these white scales.

But just because You turned my little brother into the prophet of all prophets, am I supposed to treat him like a king?  Like a god?  Is that why You punished me for criticizing him on account of the Cushite woman he married?

All I did was point out that just because he talks with God all the time, it doesn’t mean he can’t go to bed with his wife once in a while.  The poor thing is shriveling up from lack of affection.  My God, you give us life, you give us desire, you give us joy like fire when two people come together.  Is it right to reject Your gifts?  Is it right for Moshe to turn away from his wife?  Isn’t that turning away from life?

So I told Moshe he should go back to her bed, just like my father and the other men of Israel went back to their wives in Egypt.  But I couldn’t tell if I was getting through to him; it’s hard to read his expression, through that veil.  And Aharon the Eloquent just stood there like a dummy.  So I kept talking.  I told Moshe, look at me and Aharon, we’re prophets, too.  But Aharon still gives Elisheva a kiss whenever he steps into their tent.  And me, I was good to my own man, right up to the day he died.

Was it so awful to say that we’re prophets, too?  We are.  You do speak to us.  You spoke to us right then, telling us to report to the Tent of Meeting.  And when we got there, we heard your voice again, from the pillar of cloud, and you said plenty.  All three of us heard you.  And then hhhh!  I’m covered with tzara’at.  Skin like scales.  Like salt.  Like death.  Me, not Aharon.  Why me?  Because I was doing the talking?

You know, God, you always did let Aharon off the hook.  Like when he made the golden calf.  You hold me to a higher standard.  Maybe it’s a compliment.  Maybe this scaly skin is actually a sign of your favor.  I just need to look at it the right way.

But I have to confess, my good attitude has been slipping, these past four days outside the camp.  I guess it’s easier to keep smiling when I have people to smile at.  Now that I’m alone, I—I’m starting to lose faith that you make everything work out for the best.

But I know it’s just a passing weakness.  I never really break down.  I can get through all seven days of tzara’at with my chin up.

*

I still can’t get used to this itching!  But this is the seventh day.  I just have to stick it out until sunset, and then it will be over.

I’ve got to remember to thank Moshe for begging God to heal me.  If it weren’t for him, I’d be stuck like this for the rest of my life.  Not just itching, but shamed and shunned.  Thanks to Moshe, I can come back into the camp tonight, and be myself again.

But it won’t be the same, will it?  Everyone will remember what you did to me, God.  When I walked out of the camp seven days ago, nobody would meet my eyes.  When I come back—I bet they won’t look at me the way they used to.

Could be worse.  At least I won’t have to wear a veil, like Moshe.  Only time I ever wore a veil was for my wedding.  I remember the moment when my husband lifted the veil and kissed me.

Now Moshe, he only takes off his veil to talk to God, or to tell the people what God said.  Nobody’s going to argue with a man when his face is glowing like the sun.

It’s hard to look at.  Most people take one glance at his face, then look off to the side until he’s done talking.  You can see everyone relax when he puts the veil back on.  It’s a kindness he does, covering his face so he won’t frighten anyone.

I suppose if he wanted to kiss his wife, he’d have to kiss her through the veil.  Not so easy.  And their eyes can’t meet, not really.  But if he took off his veil, she couldn’t bear to look at him at all.

I never thought of that before.  Since Moshe speaks face to face with you, God, that means he can’t speak face to face with anyone else.  Not even his wife.  Nobody ever looks him in the face.

I wonder if he feels like he’s being shunned.

I got seven days of shunning.  Moshe gets a lifetime sentence.  Poor man.  Maybe that’s why he’s so humble.

Maybe I was wrong to criticize him for being a bad husband.  His life is a lot harder than I realized.  I wonder if he ever looks back on the old days in Midian, where he was just a shepherd and a family man.  I wouldn’t blame him.

Actually, I can’t blame Lot’s wife for looking back at Sodom.  What good was it to escape, when her older daughters were dying in the fire?  Hey, maybe I shouldn’t even blame the children of Israel for looking back on our life in Egypt as if it were a good thing.  At least in Egypt there was always garlic.

To think I’ve been proud of not looking back!  How did I get to be such an old woman without ever turning my head around?

You know, even after my husband died, I didn’t let myself look back and long for him.  I thought I was so important, Miriam the Prophetess, I had to set an example.  I had to keep my chin up and my face toward the Promised Land every day, every moment.  I thought I was so righteous, I could tell everyone else how to behave, too.

Hah!  What a stiff-necked Jew I’ve been.

Blessed are you, my God, who blessed me with seven days to look back.

(by Melissa Carpenter)

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