Miriam’s illness, Moses’ prayer to heal


Rabbi Valerie Joseph | Special to WJW

This week’s Torah portion is Beha’alotecha, Numbers 8:1-12:16.

A lot happens in Beha’alotcha.

• God tells Moses to assign his brother Aaron to “lift up” and light the golden menorah, the symbol of the Jewish people;
• The Levites purify themselves as they begin their service in the Tabernacle;
• Pesach Sheni, a second Passover, is created for those who couldn’t participate in the first Passover offering;
• A cloud covers the Israelite camp and lifts when they are to continue on their journey;
• Silver trumpets are made to call the people to assembly;
• The Israelites complain about the taste of manna and wish for meat; prophets prophesize;
• Miriam and Aaron are stricken by tzaraat (skin disease) after Miriam speaks lashon hara (negative, defaming talk).


The last event — Miriam’s sudden illness — brings forward a remarkable response by Moses as he recites one of the shortest prayers in the Torah:

“And Moshe cried unto the Lord, saying, ‘Please God, heal her (Miriam), I beseech you,” (Numbers 12:13).

In “El Na Refah Na Lah,” we learn greatness from this simple and humble act by Moses.

Just a few sentences earlier his sister (and Aaron his brother) had spoken against him; the siblings accuse their brother of making a poor choice in marriage. It was an act that could have started a rebellion among the grumbling masses and angered God so much that he called a family meeting and struck Miriam with tzaraat as punishment.

Many of us would have reacted as God did, with anger. But Moses, the self-effacing leader, had forgiven Miriam already, and his behavior provided enlightenment and a model of behavior. Moses then responds to God’s punishment with forgiveness and prayer for her well-being, her refuah shlemah (complete healing).

The custom of praying for the sick comes from this parshah. Among the many actions that we can admire in Moses, one of the most significant — and one which we can emulate to this day — is holding the sick in our thoughts and prayers by reciting a mi sheberach (prayer for healing).

“So Miriam was shut out of camp seven days; and the people did not march on until Miriam was readmitted” (Numbers 12:15).

Equally important, for seven days the Israelites stopped in their tracks. Arguments, complaints and disagreements were set aside. The Israelites did not journey on, despite their constant impatience and complaints in other matters during 40 years in the desert.

In turn, Miriam was given veneration due to her, and the community’s supportive willingness to stay brought honor in the eyes of God not only to an ill sister but also to her family member, Moses.

In reading the text, we see and understand what the Torah considers most important in life. When the community — including Moses — cries out for healing, the power of their love and connection to each other comes to the forefront.

We know that Moses lived a long life of 120 years, and Miriam lived a long life also. There may be many reasons for this, but one common explanation is that their lives were extended by virtue of their humility in the face of interpersonal conflicts.

In the Talmud, there is a discussion on why certain rabbis lived long lives.

“Rabbi Nehunya ben Hakana was asked by his disciples: Why were you blessed with longevity? He said to them: ‘In my days, I never attained veneration at my fellow’s degradation. Nor did my fellow’s curse go up with me upon my bed. And I was openhanded with my money’” (Talmud Megillah 28).

Rabbi Zeira cites similar virtues as the source of his good fortune to grow quite old:

“Rabbi Zeira was asked by his disciples: Why were you blessed with longevity? He said to them, ‘In my days, I was never angry inside my house. Nor did I ever walk ahead of someone who was greater than me.’”

Quite a few more rabbis cite that their meriting a long life is not only due to Torah study, but also being generous, charitable, respectful, forgiving, not holding on to anger, and kind to others.

Rabbi Valerie Joseph is a board-certified chaplain and a retired rabbi.

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