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Why Was Miriam Punished So Harshly?

Why Was Miriam Punished So Harshly?

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Question:

I’ve been reading the biblical story where Miriam speaks ill about her brother Moses,1 and her punish­ment seems completely dispro­portionate to her “crime.” She is afflicted with leprosy, and sent out of the camp for seven full days.2 All this for expressing concern about her brother’s marriage?

I have always considered Miriam an example of strength and piety. Without her, Moses would never have been born, and surely would not have survived in the Nile. The way I see it, she spoke to Aaron only out of concern for her brother and his wife, Tzipporah. For this she was punished so harshly?

Answer:

First, let’s consider what we know about Miriam:

As a young girl in Egypt, she midwifed alongside her mother Yocheved. Together they defied Pharaoh’s decree that all Jewish baby boys must be killed at birth.3 We also know that when Pharaoh demanded that all baby boys be drowned, Miriam’s father, Amram, decided to separate from his wife so that they would have no more children. Since he was a leader of the Jewish people, many followed his example. Miriam accused her father, “You are worse than Pharaoh! Pharaoh’s decree is against the boys; you are effectively causing that there are no Jewish girls also!” Through her urging Amram remarried his wife, and Moses was born.4

When her mother placed Moses in a basket on the Nile, it was Miriam who hid in the reeds and waited to see what would happen (she knew that this child was the prophesied redeemer, and that somehow he would be saved), and it was she who arranged that he be nursed by his own mother.5

Later, after the Exodus and the splitting of the Red Sea, Miriam led all the women and girls in song and dance.6 Together with Moses and Aaron, she led the Jewish people for the forty years they were in the desert.7 During this time, the Jews were provided with water in her merit.8

The Talmud teaches that like her two brothers, Miriam died through “the kiss of death” from G‑d. Her soul was so elevated that the angel of death had no power over it.9

Miriam’s Sin

Chana Weisberg puts Miriam’s wrongdoing in a different perspective in her article Lighting Up:

Throughout her life, the focus and essence of Miriam’s life was a determined objective of increasing family unity and harmony. This drive was part of her quintessential self and her path of divine service.

When Miriam witnessed her younger brother willfully separating from his wife, she could not stand by, but voiced her protest, to correct what to her was a reprehensible situation.

Moses differed from all other prophets in that he had to be ready to hear G‑d’s communication at any moment. He therefore had to be ritually pure at all times, meaning he had to refrain from marital relations with his wife, Tzipporah.

Miriam learned of Moses’ conduct by a chance remark of Tzipporah’s. Not realizing that G‑d had instructed Moses to do so, and feeling it was unjustifiable, Miriam criticized Moses to his older brother, Aaron, in the hope of rectifying the situation. Since both Aaron and Miriam were also prophets, but were not required to withdraw from normal family life, in their understanding neither was Moses so required.10

Miriam’s intentions were pure and upright, but she erred in her basic evaluation of Moses. Moses . . . was a unique individual, a prophet like no other. Being such a supreme prophet, standing head and shoulders above others, he was not to be judged by the same yardstick and the same parameters as any other individual—even another prophet as great as Miriam or Aaron.

Miriam was punished for her criticism, despite her proper intentions.

The Great Question

Miriam meant well. She felt that Moses’ behavior was arrogant, and might serve as a poor example for others to follow. She certainly did not intend to slander him! Moreover, she did not even confront Moses directly, but spoke to Aaron, who she felt could better address the situation.

So, why was she punished so harshly?

Because she was Miriam.

As a leader of the Jewish nation, even if she felt uncomfortable broaching the subject with Moses, it was her obligation to do so. Interestingly, this was the one time when Miriam did not speak up fearlessly when she perceived an injustice. The one time she goes to Aaron instead of confronting Moses directly is the one time she fails. And she gets called out on it by G‑d, as if to say, “From you I expect nothing less than total fearlessness.”

Remembering the Sin

In the daily morning prayer we read a paragraph called “Six Remembrances,” which includes:

Remember what the L‑rd your G‑d did to Miriam on the way, as you came out of Egypt.11

Why does this rank among the top six things we’re supposed to consciously remember daily?

Interestingly, we are instructed to remember “what G‑d did to Miriam” and not “what Miriam did.” What Miriam did was so innocuous that it is difficult to even call it a sin!

So why was she punished so severely? To teach us that G‑d does not dispense one-size-fits-all justice. Every individual is judged uniquely according to his or her abilities and potential. And for someone like Miriam, this behavior (which in an average person might be considered meritorious!) is considered sinful.

Consider the way a small stain may not even be noticeable on a plaid shirt, but will stand out sharply on a white shirt. Miriam is the white shirt. A wrongdoing so slight it might not be noticed in another, stands out sharply against her pristine background.

So perhaps the thrust of this Remembrance is: Remember that G‑d dispenses justice to all; even the greatest and holiest can’t “get away” with doing wrong. And remember that G‑d’s justice is custom-tailored to each individual, based on who the person is and what G‑d expects from him or her.

Footnotes
2.

Ibid. 12:10–15.

4.

Talmud, Sotah 12a.

5.

Shemot Rabbah 1:22.

7.

See Yalkut Shimoni, Ki Teitzei 937, and Targum to Micah 6:4.

8.

Talmud, Taanit 9a.

9.

Ibid., Bava Batra 17a.

10.

Sifrei, Behaalotecha 99.

Chaya Sarah Silberberg serves as the rebbetzin of the Bais Chabad Torah Center in West Bloomfield, Michigan, since 1975. She also counsels, lectures, writes, and responds for Chabad.org’s Ask the Rabbi service.
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Jeanne New York City April 7, 2017

Lenroy I also wondered the same thing, if part of Miriam' s punishment was due to her "feelings", about the Kushite woman and G-d's judgement because of it? Guess we'll never really know til we can ask Him "in person". Reply

Lenroy New York June 25, 2016

Where in the Torah does it say Moses was not honoring his marital duties?
I have always felt that Miriam's disapproval of her sister-in-law was the reason for her punishment.
Enlighten me, please. Reply

Anonymous TX February 28, 2016

Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moshe because of the Kushite woman. They spoke against him. Plus they asked "Has Elohim spoken only through Moses?" as if to say 'Aren't we at the same level?' "Hasn't He spoken also through us?" Since Miriam's name was listed first and she was the one punished later in the story, it is right to assume that she was the instigator of this presumptuous talk. Miriam's intentions were not pure...they were out of pride, she was complaining. It mentions that Moshe was the most humble man..so he would not defend himself against anyone, especially his own sister. So Elohim quickly stepped in and said what He did, pretty much that Moshe was not in the same category as a prophet. He spoke to Moshe plainly and without riddles, face to face. Moshe was Elohim's man, His friend and leader of His people. He trusted Moshe over His house and yet Miriam was not afraid to speak against Moshe. That is also speaking against Elohim. Reply

bryan siler Seattle November 28, 2015

Beautiful explanation. Thank You. Reply

Chaya Sarah Silberberg West Bloomfield, MI February 20, 2015

The Torah states that "Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses." In Hebrew, verbs are conjugated as masculine or feminine and singular or plural. The Hebrew word for "spoke" - ותדבּר - is feminine and singular. Our sages derive from this (and from the fact that Miriam's name is mentioned first) that it was Miriam who instigated the conversation, while Aaron merely listened. Reply

Edson Kutyauripo zimbabwe February 13, 2015

It seems to me that Aaron was also guilty of the same sin. What is your take on this Rabbi, he surely did consent with Miriam Reply

Yehuda Shurpin for Chabad.org January 8, 2015

The Talmud (shabbos 87a) explains that the separation was Moses' own idea. The Talmud explains that Moses decided it was necessary after witnessing God's revelation at Mount Sinai. Moses reasoned

"G-d spoke with all of Israel only on one occasion and at a predetermined hour. Nevertheless, the Torah cautioned [the Israelites at Sinai], "Do not go near a woman." Certainly I, with whom the G-d speaks at all times and with no set hour, must do the same."
The Talmud notes that Moses' reasoning was sound and God approved of his decision, for after the revelation at Sinai, G-d told the people, "Return to your tents" [i.e., return to your families]. But to Moses He said: "You, however, shall stay here with Me" (Deut. 5:27-28). Reply

Aaron December 19, 2014

I love that explanation. I think it's beautiful.
People sometimes say Judaism is sexist.
But I just read wonderful things about a women who was a leader of Israel. Written by a Jewish rebbetzin. Baruch H-Shem. Reply

michael swnger USA December 18, 2014

I would like to know where is scripture it says that Moses had to be ritually pure to stand before God? He was a married man and as such had no right to refrain from martial relations with his wife nor she with him. I can understand Aaron at certain times having to be ritually pure because he was the high priest and Moses was not. Reply

mk ny September 8, 2014

I don't know . I don't even know if these two skin conditions existed in Biblical times. Reply

Doug Los Angeles September 3, 2014

That sounds reasonable. Do you think the Cohanim quarantined other skin problems such as eczema or psoriasis? Reply

MK ny September 2, 2014

I don't know where in the Torah there is mention of a temporary break with Moshe. The Cohanim were rigorously trained to differentiate between different types of leprosy let alone hives. Hives or heat rashes would be skin conditions that any parent in the societies that lived in the desert would be able to diagnose easily. Reply

Douglas Kihn Los Angeles August 28, 2014

Don't forget that back then, ANY skin problem was suspected of being dangerously communicable and lableled "leprosy", requiring quarantine. My guess is, Miriam was so upset at her temproary break with Moses that she probably developed something like hives, which generally only lasts a week or so. Reply

M K August 11, 2014

I understand that a person gets to choose - to a certain extent - who will guide their lives. If they choose G-d then their lives will gradually demonstrate that involvement with these too good to be true "coincidences", more insightful living, more pleasure in spiritual involvement, more boredom with physicality. If they believe that Nature rules then the rules of nature will be more manifest in their lives. Of course G-d created the system of Nature so He is directing the person's life as well but in a more hidden way.

there was no question that Miriam used her time alone during her punishment/rehabilitation to reconnect with G-d's will for her. Reply

Rishe Brooklyn August 10, 2014

Bella, no such things! Reply

Bella US August 9, 2014

Or perhaps the biblical writer and Hebrew people were trying to explain the inexplicable - that good people get illnesses and even die. A people trying to understand the universe and God before the understanding of disease and chance, often ascribe purpose to God rather than nature and chance. Reply

Richard Phila. Pa. March 25, 2014

The very fact that Miriam's "punishment" of leprosy (usually a fatal disease) lasted a mere week is reason to believe that G-d sympathized with her throughout, and gave her a mere slap on the hand. She was indisputably a first-class biblical heroine. Reply

MK March 25, 2014

I don't believe her criticism was justified because of what she did not know. There is more than one way of knowing. There is knowing these facts which Miriam did not know like you say R. (Phila). But she had other knowledge to "Pass the test that Hashem set up for her" . She had the knowledge that Moshe alone was spoken to by Hashem while in an awakened totally alert state. She knew he was distinguished in that way and it should have made her pause and reevaluate. What she knew could have overpowered what she did not know.. Easy to say, not easy to live by.
nice to be discussing this with you. Reply

R Phila. March 23, 2014

So, in effect, Miriam's criticism was entirely justifiable. How was she to know that her brother, Moses, was commanded by G-d himself, to leave his wife, and lead the entire tribe of Jews...into and across the desert?. Even G-d Himself only gave her a slap on the wrist, by giving her leprosy for one week!! It's a fatal disease!) Reply

RICHARD March 19, 2014

This is one of those times when one has to believe that the punishment far outweighs the "crime", unless there is more to the story than we know, which may not be an unreasonable explanation. Miriam is a great woman among women of the world to this day, for both Jewish and non-Jewish women and men.. She retains her ability as a prophetess and is an example to follow. (We should all be half as great as Miriam was in our lives!!) Reply