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Where's the Beef?

Sermon by Rabbi Aron

Saturday, June 18, 2016

In her Dvar Torah this morning, Mia asked whether the wife whom Miriam and Aaron are criticizing is the same Tzipporah who Moses married when he first fled to Midian, after striking the taskmaster. It’s an interesting question to puzzle out but I wonder if the story at the end of our parashah isn’t really about something else. It seems that the tension might be less about Moses’ wife, and more truly about Moses as the first among equals.

In Jewish tradition Moses is definitely the third child in his family, but the text in Exodus is confusing on that point as it says: “A certain man from the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman. The woman conceived and bore a son.” Doesn’t it sound like that would be a first born son? But that son is Moses and later in the text, it becomes clear that he has an older sister Miriam, who watches over him, and still later in the text, an older brother Aaron, who will help him speak to Pharaoh. This confusion has occasioned an explanation in the Midrash, with the surprising conclusion that Moses would never even have been born without Miriam’s intervention. Let me explain.

The Midrash tells us that once the Egyptians called for the death of all the Israelites boys Amram, Moses’ future father, lead the Israelites in each man divorcing his wife, so they would not produce to sons for the Egyptians to kill. Miriam objected saying:  Pharaoh decreed only against the boys, but you have decreed against the girls as well. This convinces Amram to remarry his wife Yocheved, and leads eventually to Moses’s birth.  Thus the text can talk about Amram taking Yocheved as a wife, while it can still be true that they already have a son and a daughter. It’s a story told about Moses, but Miriam is really the hero.

We have some evidence that the earliest readers of the Torah may have seen both Miriam and Aaron as more central that we do today.  Micah, an early prophet, reports God reminding the people that: “I sent before you MosesAaron, and Miriam, “(Micah 6:4), making them sound equal in stature and importance.

But Moses’ special and unique status is proclaimed several times in the Torah, including in the reading this morning, where we are told : “When a prophet of the Eternal arises among you, I make Myself known to him in a vision. I speak with him in a dream. Not so my prophet 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 Eternal.” This idea is reinforced in the very last words of the Torah as well:  “Never again did there arise in Israel a prophet like Moses- whom the Eternal singled out, face to face.” But all through the book of Numbers, that special status will be challenged.  In particular we know that it will be others from Moses’s own family, his cousin Korach most notably, who resents his special status and leads the most serious rebellion against Moses’ authority.

So which is it?  Is Moses one of three great leaders of the Jewish people during their desert wanderings? Or is he of such great status, that Aaron and Miriam are also rans?

Now, as a third born child, Mia, I imagine you would not be disappointed if I concluded that Moses was really #1. And in some ways that can’t be disputed. But what’s particularly interesting to me, is how Moses handles this special status that he has.

In the section of the Torah that you read for us, Moses doesn’t seem to hold any grudge against his sister and brother for criticizing him or whatever it was he was doing. Seeing Miriam’s plight, he responds with one of the most heartfelt prayers in the entire Hebrew Scriptures- el na refa na la, the shortness of the prayer revealing the depth of his emotion. After all, Miriam not only watched over him as a child, she was, according to the Midrash again, key to his acceptance as a leader by Israelites, who didn’t know him when he came back to Egypt after the burning bush. And we know that later in the text, when Miriam dies, Moses is overwrought and unable to deal with Israelite insurrection or God’s commands. It is at this very point, that God decides he must retire.

But even more revealing than that, is Moses’ reaction in an earlier part of the portion. The Israelites are complaining and God instructs Moses to find leaders of the tribes to help him. 70 of them gather appropriately by the Tent of meeting, but two of them carryon as prophets in the camp.  Joshua sees this as more trouble and urges Moses to shut down this alternative leadership, but Moses is unperturbed. “Would that all God’s people were prophets,” he says and that seems to be his attitude all along. God seems much more concerned about Moses’ unique status, than he himself is. Instead Moses recognizes that these additional prophets would only add to the service of God.

Way back in the 1970’s as women emerged as rabbis and took on new roles in Jewish life, much of the criticism seemed like Joshua’s criticism of Eldad and Medad, the two prophets in the camp.  Stepping up in this way was viewed as competitive, as if in doing so women were taking something away from the men. “Why can’t you just be a Sunday school teachers?” we were asked, as if taking on new roles in Judaism was all about ego and not about something more. But I hope over time the changes brought by women’s changing roles have come to be seen as enrichment, about adding something to Jewish life, rather than subtracting. Women rabbis and cantors, female lay leaders taking on new leadership positions,  Bat Mitzvahs for girls and for adult women, baby namings for girls and women speaking at their own weddings, a different kind of focus in our congregations on being caring communities and on spirituality, a giving of voice to the stories of women in the past and in our own day, the changes that have occurred since 1972 are striking. Miriam’s voice was needed alongside her brother Moses’- and in the end Moses’ attitude was the one that carried the day, “would that all God’s people were prophets-  would that all God’s people could express God’s spirit within them- the women as well as the men.

 

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