Sibling Prophets Together Before God

This post originally appeared on Clergy Beyond Borders’ News/Views blog, June 9, 2011.


Sibling prophets argue but find a way to remain together in the third Bible portion in our “wilderness” series. The reading — Numbers 8:1-12:16 — includes a dramatic, rather cryptic, passage* involving the prophet Miriam, sister of Moses, covered in “scales, white like snow” [tzaraat ka-sheleg, in Hebrew] (Numbers 12:10).

The same snowy scales appear on Moses’ arm at the Burning Bush (Exodus 4:5). In the Qur’an (7:108, 20:22), Moses’ arm becomes “[shiny] white without blemish” or “luminous.” In both Islamic and Jewish tradition, the white/shining skin is a sign of prophecy.

In Jewish and Christian tradition, tzaraat — which is often translated as “leprosy” in English bibles — is also associated with gossip and other sins of the tongue. In the passage here, Miriam and Aaron “speak against” their brother. Related commentaries include background tales of conversations involving Moses’ wife and Miriam.

Still, the “speaking against” Moses in the text and the family issues in the commentary center around prophecy. Three prophets in one family — and Moses’ wife Zipporah has her own encounter with the divine (Exodus 4:23-26) — seems to have its challenges.

God chastises the speakers, saying: “How then did you not shrink from speaking against My servant Moses!” However, the prophetic siblings stand up for one another before God and remain together throughout the episode. In fact, Numbers 12 is the only passage in the Torah which mentions Aaron, Miriam and Moses together.

In the Qur’an (2:136), we read:

Say: “We believe in God, and in that which has been bestowed from on high upon us, and that which has been bestowed upon Abraham and Ishmael and Isaac and Jacob and their descendants [literally: “grandchildren”], and that which has been vouchsafed to Moses and Jesus; and that which has been vouchsafed to all the [other] prophets by their Sustainer: we make no distinction between any of them. And it is unto Him that we surrender ourselves.”

Miriam’s episode of tzaraat may be a sign of prophecy or of divisive speech, or both. But the episode is limited by God so that a joint future — with all three siblings traveling together — is possible.

This week’s “wilderness” reading is called in Hebrew “Beha’alotekha” ([“in your lighting (of the lamps)”]. One message we can glean from it is the danger of believing that ours is the only light.
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Acharei Mot: Something to Notice

Acharei mot [after the death].”

This expression refers to the deaths of Nadav and Abihu after they “came near” (elsewhere: “brought strange fire”) before the Lord (see parashat Shemini). For some readers, I imagine, it’s a relatively simple chronology-determining statement: this happened after that. For people who have experienced a cataclysmic loss — the early death of a parent/care-giver, e.g., or the untimely loss of a partner — at some point in their lives, however, “after the death” can be a more powerful divisor: there’s pre-loss life, and then there’s life acharei mot: no simple ordering of narrative events; there’s a fundamental change in the person’s universe “after the death.”

For a long time, I believed that my own father’s death, when I was 16, was simply one of many elements that shaped my life. As I get older, however, I am more and more aware that I have experienced life in two distinct portions: the first 16 years of life in a family with my father, and acharei mot…. So, the title words of this week’s portion usually stop me cold.

This year, untimely loss in a friend’s family laid an even stronger focus on those words, as I watched another family struggle with figuring out how to manage life “acharei mot.” But this year I also noticed some interesting things about the other words that open this portion.

Va-yedaber YHVH el-Moshe acharei mot shnei bnei aharon…dabeir el-aharon achicha…

The LORD spoke to Moses after the death of the two sons of Aaron who died when they drew too close to the presence of the LORD. The LORD said to Moses: Tell your brother

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Tetzaveh: Great Source(s)

“And it [a robe hemmed with bells] shall be upon Aaron when he serves, so that its sound shall be heard when he comes into [v’nishma kolo b’bo-o] the sanctum before the Lord and when he goes out, that he shall not die.”
— Exodus/Shemot 28:31-38, Alter* translation [bracketed material added]

R. Simeon ben Yohai said: The man who enters his own house, or needless to say the house of his fellow man unexpectedly, the Holy One hates, and I too do not exactly love him.

Rav said: Do not enter your city nor even your own home unexpectedly [footnote: without informing your kin of your coming].

While R. Yohanan was about to go in to inquire about the welfare of R. Hanina, he would first clear his throat in keeping with “And his voice shall be heard when he goeth in [v’nishma kolo b’bo-o] ” (Exod. 28:35)
— Bialik & Ravnitsky, Sefer Ha-Aggadah* (citation to Lev Rabbah 21:8)

Alter notes: “In the ancient Near East, the inner sanctum was a dangerous place. Any misstep or involuntary trespass of the sacred paraphernalia could bring death…The sound of the ringing golden bells on Aaron’s hem goes before him as he enters the sanctum, serving an apotropaic function to shield him from harm in this zone of danger.”

Cassuto* says: “…shall be heard… for it is unseemly to enter the royal palace suddenly; propriety demands that the entry should be preceded by an announcement, and the priest should be careful not to go into the sanctuary irreverently. And likewise when he comes out, as he prostrates himself before departing, the sound of the bells, together with the act of prostration, will constitute a kind of parting blessing on leaving the sanctuary. Lest he die for not showing due reverence for the shrine.”

* See Source Materials for full citations. Note: Tetzaveh is also transliterated Tetsaveh or T’tzavveh.

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The “Opening the Book” series was originally presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group which for many years pursued spirituality from a woman’s perspective at Temple Micah (Reform). “A Song Every Day” is an independent blog, however, and all views, mistakes, etc. are the author’s.
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