Growth in the Wilderness

Headshot of Rabbi Pat Fenton
Headshot of Rabbi Pat Fenton
Rabbi Patricia Fenton
posted on June 19, 2014
Torah Reading
Haftarah Reading

This week's parashah continues the teachings concerning the sanctuary. It discusses lighting the menorah, the observance of Pesakh Sheni for those unable to observe Passover in its proper time, laws of the first-born and the Levites, and the procedures for breaking camp and walking in the wilderness. In chapter 10:35-36, we see the beloved words from our Torah service: "And it came to pass, when the ark set forward, Moshe said: 'Rise up, Lord, and let your enemies be scattered, and let those who hate you flee before you.' And when it rested, he said: 'Return, Lord, to the ten thousand thousands of Israel.'"

Just after these lovely words, we learn that our people begin to complain. Freed from slavery, gifted with freedom, Torah and manna, they yearn for the fish, meat and good foods of Egypt. God sends them an abundance of quail, and while they are eating, they are struck by a deadly plague. This plague is traditionally seen as punishment for their ingratitude.

Our parashah concludes with the story of Miriam and Aharon speaking out against their brother Moses. God punishes Miriam with a skin disease, and she is shut out of the camp for seven days. During this time, "the people did not travel on until Miriam was readmitted" (12:16).

Why do the people wait for Miriam? Rabbinic Midrash sees this as an example of middah keneged middah, "measure for measure," or "what goes around comes around." Just as Miriam waited by the waters of the Nile to intervene in the fate of her brother Moses (Exodus 2:4), so the people now wait for her. Because the girl Miriam waited, the adult Miriam is blessed by the people waiting for her.

But is middah keneged middah the only reason that the people wait for Miriam? This is the same people who had recently experienced the catastrophic results of their whining after the foods of Egypt: the plague and deaths in the wilderness, and the pain of burying their dead. They had felt the terrible power of God's wrath, and now they see God's wrath strike Miriam. Their whining after food implies their weakness, their short-sightedness and inability to see the big picture. It would make sense that they would fear that if they showed Miriam mercy, God's wrath might strike them again too.

Why, then, do the people have the courage to wait for Miriam? When reading this part of our people's story, I am reminded of Exodus 10:9. When Pharoah gives the Israelite men a chance to escape Egypt, Moses rejects his offer, saying, "We will all go, young and old; we will go with our sons and our daughters..." And this courageous people is the People Israel I think of when I read Jeremiah 2:2: "...Thus says the Lord: I remember in your favor the devotion of your youth, your love as a bride, how you followed me in the wilderness..." I like to think that God remembers us with favor because the whole people followed God, the old and the young, the men and the women, the sons and the daughters, and Miriam.

This is a moment of growth in the wilderness. We rebel against God and we are severely punished. We witness Miriam speak against Moses, and behold her frightening punishment. Yet, despite our weakness and our whining, we do not abandon Miriam to her punishment. We wait for her. Even Moses, whom she had allegedly wronged, waits for her. And then we all go on with our wilderness walk - together as a people. We will rebel and be punished again, but in this moment, I am proud of my people and our courage.

As we walk in this week with our freedom and our newly-gifted Torah, may the Blessed Holy One help us to appreciate our gifts and our sacred obligation to use them well. May we be blessed with the ability to see who is left out and, despite our fears, to act with courage to include them.

Shabbat Shalom.