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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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Discussion (56)
June 25, 2016
Miriam's Punishment
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.
Lenroy
New York
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.
Anonymous
TX
November 28, 2015
Beautiful explanation. Thank You.
bryan siler
Seattle
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.
Chaya Sarah Silberberg
West Bloomfield, MI
February 13, 2015
Miriam's harsh punishment
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
Edson Kutyauripo
zimbabwe
January 8, 2015
Re: Ritually Pure
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).
Yehuda Shurpin for Chabad.org
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.
Aaron
December 18, 2014
ritually pure
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.
michael swnger
USA
September 8, 2014
I don't know . I don't even know if these two skin conditions existed in Biblical times.
mk
ny
September 3, 2014
Jus wondering
That sounds reasonable. Do you think the Cohanim quarantined other skin problems such as eczema or psoriasis?
Doug
Los Angeles