Our Torah reading this week opens with the command to Moses: “Speak to Aaron and say to him: When you light the lamps, the seven lamps shall give light towards the body of the menorah; And Aaron did so….”
The Hebrew phrase “V’yaas kayn” followed by the phrase “Ka-asher Tziva Adonai” is a common biblical idiom used to express obedience by the individual or community to the command of God.
In contrast to this view of obedience the parsha ends with an act of rebellion by Aaron and Miriam against their brother Moses.
On the surface, the concluding narrative in this week’s Torah reading (Numbers chapter 12) is a story of sibling rivalry and jealousy. Aaron and Miriam’s true complaint against Moses is that God, the ultimate parent, appears to love Moses more. They therefore try to raise themselves up by putting Moses down, criticizing him for marrying a “Cushite” woman. Cushite refers to Ethiopian and the racist nature of their comments is emphasized by the fact that Miriam’s punishment is her skin turns white with leprosy. (The sexism implicit in the fact that Aaron seems to escape punishment is a drash for another year.)
When Miriam is stricken, Aaron comes and pleads with Moses on their sister’s behalf. The natural human response would have been for Moses to send Aaron away saying, “Her punishment was God’s will. Aaron, since you claim to be a prophet equal to me why don’t you plead her case yourself?” Another response could have been, “Aaron, she got what she deserved. You should be grateful that you were spared.” Instead, we find here in Numbers 12 Moses uttering a phrase that may be the oldest Jewish prayer for healing: El na R’fa na La – Please God, heal my sister.
The biblical narrative here once again answers the question Cain posed to God in the opening chapters of Genesis: yes, we are our brother’s keeper (and here it clearly states our sister’s as well). We also see in this story that words matter; both words of slander and words of prayer have impact.
In reading this familiar story once again this week I see many clear messages directed to 21st century American Jews. The first is that free speech is not a license to say anything we want. Miriam and Aaron’s ability to say whatever they wanted – including slandering their brother by making a statement that was factually true, but meant to be derogatory and defamatory – may have been an exercise of their ability to freely speak their mind, but it was a form of lashon hara, evil speech, and it did have consequences. Another lesson we can learn from using the opening description of the menorah as a light in this story is that instead of always seeking to put ourselves in the spotlight we should see that beauty often is enhanced by reflected light. If Miriam and Aaron had appreciated the reflected divine light in which they stood and had done “as God commanded” the story of their lives would have had a different ending.
We live in an age in America where all public officials – be they in government or the non-profit world – are fairer game for criticism than even poor Moses in this week’s Torah reading. In part, it may be due to leaders seeking the spotlight. In part, however, it is also a result of the same envy that drove Miriam and Aaron to badmouth Moses.
My questions to myself and to you this Shabbat are:
Does our American right to free speech, which we so proudly and rightfully cherish, not come with some responsibility?
When I disagree with others’ politics or their religious views, do I have the right to speak out against them in the way that Miriam and Aaron criticized Moses?
Can we who hold leadership positions learn that our role is to be a light, not to seek out ways to stand in the spotlight?
Why are so many of us so quick to call fellow Jews with whom we disagree on issues concerning Israel either self-hating Jews or right-wing fanatics?
My prayer for us on this Shabbat when we are taught to stand in the reflected light of the menorah is an emendation of the call of Moses Al na Ref na lanu. Please God, heal US. May God heal the self-inflicted wounds that our slander of each other have left on the body of our people Israel. May this story of sibling rivalry inspire each of us to, in the words of the Talmudic sage Mara bar Abba, guard my tongue from evil and my lips from speaking guile; and to those who slander me give no heed; May these become the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts; May the actions commanded by these words be acceptable to God and inspirational to each of us so that we can choose to lower the volume of our rhetoric and shine a light on a path toward peace in our community; peace in our homes; peace in our nation and peace in our world.