Now when a man becomes aware that he is falling asleep and begins to nod and he is afraid that a strong, heavy sleep may overcome him, the best advice for him is for him to request his friend to wake him from time to time or that he should go among people where a light shines brightly….the friend should know something of the great loss sleep brings and how necessary it is to awaken the sleeper…
— from R. Aaron Roth‘s “Agitation of the Soul” [1934] IN The Schocken Book of Jewish Mystical Testimonies: A unique and inspiring collection of accounts by people who have encountered God from Biblical times to the present, NY: Schocken, 1997. Louis Jacobs, translation/commentary

Passover seems to me one of the times when Jews are called upon to reflect on past awakenings and to commit to awakening themselves and others.
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“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])?
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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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One Woman’s Conclusion (a Haftorah) for Exodus 24:1-11 I’m sure I’ve mentioned before how glad I often was that I was not destined to fully join my husband’s prophetic family. I, for one, was perfectly content as one of the ones who stayed far off [1]. I already knew I couldn’t — and wouldn’t care […]

Drawing Back A Midrash on Exodus 4:24-26 [18] Moses and I have long agreed that our journey left us in very different places. Only recently, though, have I come to wonder if we even shared a starting point… In the beginning, I remember, both boys [1] were almost trampled to death when the elder tried […]

There are several significant shifts of number in this week’s portion. One occurs earlier in the portion, when “Egypt” and “the Egyptians” chase the Israelites. In Shemot/Exodus 14:9, the Egyptians are plural and take a plural verb: Va-yirdefu Mitzrayim achareihem [The Egyptians set out after them] In the next verse, however, the Israelites view “Egypt” […]

How does Yokheved react to the death of her last child, Moses?
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