Many commentators remark on the injunction to remember Miriam’s tzaarat [skin condition] (Devarim/Deuteronomy 24:9). It is the only mention of her in Deuteronomy. Moses’ sister, unnamed, appears in Exodus/Shemot 2:1-10; Miriam is mentioned by name in Exodus/Shemot 15:20-21 and Numbers/Bamidbar 12:1 and 20:1.
Tzaarat and Zipporah
In Frankel’s The Five Books of Miriam, “Our Daughters” ask why Miriam is mentioned only at this point in Deuteronomy and in connection with tzaarat:
BERURIAH THE SCHOLAR ANSWERS: To understand what’s going on we need to widen our lens to take in all of chapter 24 of Deuteronomy. The first four verses discuss the case of a man who sends away his wife because he finds her “obnoxious” but then wants her back, which is forbidden by law. The fifth verse instructs a man to “GIVE HAPPINESS TO THE WOMAN HE HAS MARRIED.” Both cases might apply to Moses himself: In Exodus, we’re told that Jethro brought Zipporah and her two sons back to Moses “AFTER SHE HAD BEEN SENT HOME” (18:2); no reason is given for her having been sent away.
LEAH THE UNLOVED WIFE EXPLAINS: The Midrash claims that Moses stopped sleeping with his wife after he came down from Sinai; Miriam criticized him and was stricken with leprosy. And so now, as Moses reminds the Israelite men of their obligation to make their wives happy, he recalls his own failures on this score. And when he pronounces the word “leprosy,” it triggers his memory of his sister’s rebuke….”
Judith Plaskow discusses the “one-sided memory” of Miriam — based on her skin condition alone — calling it part of “what creates the preconditions for some of the sexual legislation in the parashah.” She argues that a community failing to adequately remember the Torah’s central women “will also have difficulty imagining women as agents of their own sexuality.” Finally, she links the injunction to “blot out” the memory of Amalek and to “remember” with the partial memory of Miriam:
Having grown up in a Reform congregation in the 1950s in which women were on the bimah only to light candles, I am aware of how the enormous changes in women’s roles over the last half century make such memories of prior injustices difficult to believe. We blot out the memory of Amalek when we create Jewish communities in which the perpetual exclusion of some group of people — or the denial of women’s rights — are so contrary to current values as to be almost incredible. Yet, if we are to safeguard our achievements, we can also never forget to remember the history of inequality and the decisions and struggles that have made more equitable communities possible.
— J. Plaskow in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, p.1188
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