I’ve been reading the biblical story where Miriam speaks ill about her brother Moses, and her punishment seems completely disproportionate to her “crime.” She is afflicted with leprosy, and sent out of the camp for seven full days. 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?
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. 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.
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.
Later, after the Exodus and the splitting of the Red Sea, Miriam led all the women and girls in song and dance. Together with Moses and Aaron, she led the Jewish people for the forty years they were in the desert. During this time, the Jews were provided with water in her merit.
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.
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.
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.
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.