The reverberation of words

The reverberation of words

I am sometimes asked if God has a sense of humor. I think the answer is obvious — after all, where do we get our sense of humor if not from God?

Not long ago, a friend e-mailed me and asked if there were any examples of humor in the Torah. I mentioned the obvious one — the story of Balaam and his talking ass (Bamidbar 22:21-35). I suggested that she also might want to look at the story of Ehud in the Book of Judges (Shoftim 3:12-26).

As it happens, there is a lovely bit of irony in this week’s parasha, in which we begin the account of the Israelites’ 39-year journey in the wilderness. After some final details having to do with the service of the Mishkan, the portable sanctuary, we read about how God guided the Israelites’ travels with a pillar of cloud and the order of march when the camp moved forward. And at the end of the parasha, we find an unpleasant episode in the relationship between Moses and his siblings, Aaron and Miriam.

The Torah says: When they were in Hatzerot, Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married: “He married a Cushite woman!” They said, “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us as well?”

It’s clear from the text that what is really bothering Miriam and Aaron isn’t Moses’ wife, but his relationship with God. They are jealous of their brother. They claim that their prophecy is equal to that of Moses and so they should share his leadership as well.

And so, God calls the three siblings to the Mishkan and then summons Aaron and Miriam inside. God says: Hear these My words: When a prophet of the Lord arises among you, I make Myself known to him in a vision. I speak with him in a dream. Not so with My servant Moses; he is trusted throughout my household. With him I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles, and he beholds the likeness of the Lord. How then did you not shrink from speaking against My servant Moses!

But God isn’t finished. When the divine presence withdraws from the Mishkan, Aaron discovers that Miriam has been stricken with tzara’at, snow-white scales. Why tzara’at? The Torah says that Miriam (actually Miriam and Aaron, but Miriam is seen as the instigator) complained that Moses had married a Cushite woman. Various commentators offer several suggestions of just what this means, but in the Tanach “Cushite” means Ethiopian. Apparently Miriam was unhappy that her brother had given her a black sister-in-law.

So what did God do? He punished her lashon hara, her evil speech, with a disease that turned her skin snow white. And even though Moses prayed for her recovery, Miriam was barred from the camp until she was cured and had undergone the required purification rituals.

And what do you want to bet that Miriam never again even hinted that a person should be judged by the color of his or her skin?

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