“Remember what your God YHVH did to Miriam on the journey after you left Egypt.” — Deuteronomy/Devarim 24:9 — What is this personal remembrance doing in the midst of a portion which consists largely of commandment after commandment? And what might it tell us, in these days leading up to the high holidays, about memory and return ([teshuvah])?
Miriam and Memory
On the journey after leaving Egypt, as related in Numbers/Bamidbar 12, God afflicts Miriam with tzaraat, turning her skin to “scales, white like snow” (whole story and commentary.) In Deut./Dev., the “remember what God did to Miriam” verse is immediately preceded by a tzaraat-related warning:
In cases of skin affection [tzaraat] be most careful to do exactly as the levitical priests instruct you.
— Deut./Dev. 24:8
Judith Plaskow, in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, offers a powerful analysis linking the “remember what God did to Miriam” verse to the apparently paradoxical commandment to remember to blot out the name of Amalek (Deut./Dev. 25:17-19):
What do we do, then, when the demands of memory seem to be at odds with each other — when, for example, the partial and distorted memory of Miriam in this parashah [as the victim of tzaraat, not as woman, prophet, or leader] collides with the notion of remembering the marginalized, including the marginalized within the Israelite community?
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.
— J. Plaskow, The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, p. 1188
Despite her huge presence in midrash and in our imaginations, Miriam appears in only eight verses in the Torah. Plaskow points out how she is described as a leader and a prophetess (at the Sea of Reeds, Exodus/Shemot 15:20-21) but seems to come out of nowhere and returns there just as quickly. Plaskow notes, too, that women throughout much of history were frequently seen — in Judaism and in the wider world — as objects rather than as agents (“remember Miriam’s tzaraat“) and just as often disregarded entirely.
In this context, I have rather perversely insisted that my young adult children and their friends ought to pay attention to the television show Mad Men despite its blatant, unrepentant sexism and bigotry. I am afraid that, without such vaguely historical reminders, young people raised in a more egalitarian world will not understand — or believe what their elders report — about what it was like for women or African Americans or gays in those years.
An Ironic Nutshell
The Plaut commentary of 1962/67, as if to illustrate the point, offers the following remark on Numbers/Bamidbar 12:
Miriam’s pain is short-lived and like most physical ailments quickly forgotten once she is healed. But Aaron’s punishment does not end when the incident is over and probably leaves deep scars. Miriam’s illness is a warning to the people at large that slander and rebellion are evil, but the sight of Aaron, the High Priest, bowing down before Moses and begging his pardon is a warning no less potent and surely more memorable.
— citation is for W.G. Plaut “The Punishment of Aaron, a Commentary on Numbers 12,” CCAR Journal (June 1963), pp35-38.
The Commandment to Recover
In Numbers/Bamidbar 12, Miriam and Aaron speak against Moses; Miriam says something about Moses’ wife; and Miriam is punished with tzaraat. Because of this story, some of the earliest midrashic compilations link tzaraat, wherever it appears, with the sin of lashon hara [“evil speech,” sometimes: gossip].
It is understandable, therefore, that many commentaries through the ages have seen the verses here — Dev./Deut. 24:8-9 — as warning against lashon hara. Or, perhaps, from a more psychological or literary point of view, we can understand that Moses forever links Miriam and tzaraat in his own mind and simply, humanly, blurts out these words about Miriam when speaking about the skin condition. I am not convinced, however, that the real issue here is evil speech or the punishment for it.
If we look carefully at verses 8 and 9 together it seems that the emphasis is on the recovery from tzaraat not on the affliction itself or on the reason for it. The warning is not to watch out for lashon hara: it is to carefully follow the levitical laws regarding handling of tzaraat cases and to “remember what God did to Miriam.”
Most commentaries focus on the skin affliction and not on the recovery. God did not simply afflict Miriam with tzaraat, however. God also demanded: “Let her be shut out of camp for seven days, and then let her be re-admitted” (Numbers/Bamidbar 12:14.)
This is what is emphasized and to be remembered:
- That we have here a precedent for dealing with sin, spiritual troubles, and/or conditions which set individuals in some way apart from the community;
- That an individual dealing with such an affliction may need space and time to recover — and this will require patience;
- That an individual completing such a period of separation is then to be re-integrated into the community.
Remember Miriam: Remember to Re-Integrate
Two other verses in Deut./Dev. chapter 24 tell us to remember, employing the verb-form “zacharta” [you, masc. sing., will/shall remember]:
You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger or the fatherless; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pawn. Remember [zacharta] that you were a slave in Egypt and that your God YHVH redeemed you from there; therefore do I enjoin you to observe this commandment.
When you gather the grapes of your vineyard, do not pick it over again; that shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow. Always remember [zacharta] that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore do I enjoin you to observe this commandment.
–Deuteronomy/Devarim 24:17-18, 21-22
from adapted Plaut translation in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary
The point in these cases seems to be that recalling slavery should inspire the desired ethical behavior.
The “remember what God did to Miriam” verse and the Amalek verses, on the other hand, both employ the imperative verb-form “zachor.” This same verb-form is used in Exodus 20:8: “remember [zachor] the Sabbath day.” All three of these verses are considered positive commandments. Remembering in these cases is a separate action, not just a prompt to another linked behavior.
And so, I think, especially as the high holidays approach, we should take seriously this commandment to remember Miriam’s tzaraat and her recovery:
- We can read Deuteronomy/Devarim 24:8-9 as calling us to remember that teshuvah is a process with a goal of re-integration and that it requires patience.
- We can also use the call to “remember what God did to Miriam” to examine how the narratives of conflict and its resolution can serve re-integration or keep people apart.