In a Torah study group the other day, a congregant offered an insight that really gave me pause. I'm even somewhat reluctant to write about it, yet, at the same time I feel strangely compelled to do so. One the one hand, it challenges the way Jews have sentimentally viewed a piece of the text-one that has won great affection in the hearts of Jews for thousands of years.
It's a rather unflattering thought about the one who uttered these words-none other than Moshe rabbeinu himself. Yet Torah has already painted a portrait of Moses that, while chosen by Gd, even he had his share of flaws, so why should one more "dig" trouble us?
Now, the plain fact of the matter is that Rashi asked the very same question about these words, and proceeded to provide some explanations (or perhaps rationalizations?)
And the Talmud itself seizes upon these same words as a paragon.
By now, I imagine that some of you have figured out the text to which I am referring. For those of you who haven't, here's the setup:
Miriam and Aharon speak against Moshe, first exclaiming "He married a Cushite woman!" Then they go on to claim that Gd has spoken not only through Moshe, but through them as well. Gd overhears the exchange. Then a brief interjection stating that Moshe is very humble. Next thing, Gd summons Moshe, Aharon and Miriam to the Ohel Moed, the Tent of Meeting. Gd comes down in a pillar of cloud, and calls to Miriam and Aharon, who come forward [visions of the initial encounter of Dorothy and friends with the Wizard dance through my head.-AAD] Gd tells them to listen up, that when Gd speaks to human prophets, it is through dreams and visions. But with Moshe, Gd speaks mouth to mouth, in plain language without riddles [here's fodder for a future discussion-AAD] and Moshe can even behold my likeness. Gd asks then how Miriam and Aharon could be so bold as to speak against Moshe? Then Gd, still angry, stomps off. As Gd did so, Miriam was stricken with snow-white scales [but no dwarves-AAD] and Aharon turned to Miriam and saw this. Aharon addresses Moshe as Adoni, "My lord" and asks to not be called to account for their folly. It should not be that Miriam is as one who is dead, or a stillborn child. [connections to tzara'at-AAD.] The Moshe says, simply "El na r'fa na la." "Please, Gd, heal her please."
[The story goes on with Gd equating what Miriam did with spitting in the face of one's father, and saying she deserves to be punished for seven days. She was removed from the camp for 7 days, and everyone waited around until she was able to return before the whole kit and caboodle set out on the march again.-AAD]
As sages had done in years past, this member of our discussion and study group suggested that Moshe had merely gone through the motions as it were, offering this simply and short prayer.
And now I'll add to the mix that, near the beginning of this Torah study session, another person present, a newcomer, expressed a personal disdain for the way we often try to "sweeten up" the ugly parts of the Torah.
So we have one person urging us to not pretty things up, and another one asserting that what Moshe did was perfunctory-he offered the shortest, quickest, most ordinary prayer he could. Moshe did the "bare minimum" required of him for his sister. And, while some sages (like Rashi) may have believed that Moshe acted in a perfunctory and obligatory manner, they also felt compelled to "sweeten it up."
One explanation offered is tied to the sentence on Moshe's humility (and perhaps to political astuteness.) It is said that Moshe knew if he offered a longer prayer for Miriam, people would murmur and complain that he offered a nice big prayer for his sister, but for them, he's led them out in the wilderness to alternately starve and then be overly-sated with quail. Thus Moshe kept his words simple. It's a nice read, but surely a sweetening up.
The rabbis, Talmudists, and others involved in shaping rabbinic Judaism were so taken with these words that they become the basic model for Jewish prayer as it evolved into the fixed keva of the siddur. Say please first, then ask. Be humble and to the point.
For the kabbalists, and now, in our own times, these words have again taken on a powerful healing power. And I am not at all loathe to admit that I, too, find great power in these few, short words. In many ways, it is a prayer more powerful than others of far greater length. Their very simplicity is their elegance.
Yet I need to accept the challenge presented to me by these others I have been studying Torah with. It may indeed be the case that Moshe was really angry with his sister and simply doing the bare minimum.
[This might be a good time to interject the reminder that Aharon was not punished as was Miriam-at that time. This is another question that has puzzled Jews for millennia. There is a suggestion that Aharon did get his just reward for his engagement in lashon hara in that he had to live with what he had done, but that, too, seems to be a bit of sweetening.]
If Moshe's words were a quick bare minimum of obligation, then we have a case of unintended positive consequences, with these very words becoming such a key part in shaping how Jews pray. In addition, they have been given even deeper meaning with their use today in many healing prayer settings.
And there you have it-from bare minimum, to sweetening, to paragon, to adding even deeper meaning to healing prayer in our own time. Unintended results? Hmmm...
What do YOU think?
©2005 by Adrian A. Durlester
Some previous musings on this parasha:
Beha'alotekha 5762 - Redux 5759 - The Kiss of Moshe
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