Apart from being a book of teaching, the Torah is packed with riveting stories. And amongst those amazing tales, a yawning gap. So, last Shabbat, the story of the rebellion of Korach, Datan, Aviram and On against the leadership of Moses and Araon. This Shabbat, the narrative returns at Numbers chapter 20 in parashat Chukkat with the death of Miriam, 38 years later.
The Shabbat before last, we read that two years into their journey, the people learnt that they would wander in the wilderness for forty years and die there. Influenced by the evil report brought by ten of the twelve tribal leaders following their reconnoitre of the land beyond the Jordan, the entire generation that had shrunk from the prospect of entering the land, were destined to perish in the desert.
But then, not one word about happened during those long years. Why? A clue lies in another gap in the narrative. How is it that the eldest sibling of the three sibling leaders of the Exodus and wilderness wanderings is largely absent from the Torah tales?
After taking steps with her mother to save her baby brother from Pharaoh’s genocidal decree, the ‘sister’ of Moses – unnamed in that story  – disappears completely from the narrative until she turns up after the crossing of the Sea of Reeds years later. Just two tantalising verses portray vividly her leadership. We read at Exodus chapter 15:
Then Miriam the prophet, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women followed her, with timbrels and dancing. / Miriam sang to them: “Sing to the Eternal, for God is highly exalted. Both horse and driver God has hurled into the sea.”
So, a name and a status: Miriam is a prophet – n’vi’ah – and a dramatic show of her charisma. But then, Miriam disappears from the narrative once again, and only appears two years later in the fourth book of the Torah, B’midbar, Numbers, where, having been linked with Aaron in Exodus 15, she takes the lead in rebelling with him against the leadership of Moses. We read at Numbers chapter 12:
Miriam spoke [Va-t’dabbeir] – and Aaron – against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married: for he had married a Cushite woman. / And they said [Va-yom’ru] ‘Has the Eternal indeed spoken only by Moses? Has God not spoken also to us?’ And the Eternal heard it.
But Miriam’s challenge to Moses was not just about his leadership. Let’s return to that first verse: Va-t’dabbeir Miryam – Miriam spoke – feminine singular. Miriam was the principal objector to Moses’ marriage to the Cushite woman – sometimes translated as ‘the Ethiopian woman’. Why? And who was the Cushite woman? The Rabbinic sages identified her as Tzipporah – the daughter of the priest of Midian, whom Moses had married after taking flight from Egypt after killing a task-master, who was beating a slave. So, why would it have taken so long for Miriam to object to Moses’ marriage to Tzipporah?
In the past few weeks, since the brutal racist killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis, the Black Lives Matter movement has come to the fore again. It would be very easy to conclude that Miriam’s objection to Moses marrying the Cushite woman was racist – a reading reinforced superficially, perhaps, by the tale going on to say that she is punished with a case of leprosy described as her skin becoming ‘like snow’.
But if we really believe that black lives matter such superficial readings must be rejected. Let’s not forget those 38 missing years in the Torah narrative. Just imagine that Miriam, who after all, according to the Torah record did not have a husband, objected to Moses’ marriage because the Cushite woman was her woman. Perhaps, Moses married the Cushite woman in order to try and break up the relationship? And perhaps, he didn’t succeed and the relationship continued?
Of course, we can never know. But the lacuna – the gap – in the text challenges us to use our imaginations. And by us, I mean in particular, ‘us’ as progressive Jews, who do not believe that the Torah is literally the word of God dictated by the Eternal to Moses at Mount Sinai. As progressive Jews, we have a responsibility to consider how the Torah got to be written. Critical scholarship of the Bible has revealed that the Bible was recorded and redacted – that is, edited – over hundreds of years. And of course, those responsible for recording and redacting were men.
The Black Lives Matter movement is also exposing the extent to which the story of the past has been written by men; men with the power and the resources to create a record that reflects their version of the past. And not only a written record: all those monuments and statues to white men who became powerful by exploiting black people torn from Africa; all those buildings built with the profits of the slave trade.
The record, both written, and crafted out of metal and stone, has been created by the oppressor not the oppressed. So, what do we do about it? It’s not enough to demolish statues and put plaques on buildings – although it would make a difference to the established record, if every building built by the profits of persecution carried a plaque saying as much. It’s not enough to protest and to go on marches to express our outrage. All these acts, however tangible they seem, are ultimately, ephemeral.
We have to write the record of our lives ourselves – all of us; of all genders and sexualities, cultures, ethnicities, colours, classes and religions. We have to take photographs and make films, paint pictures and carve sculptures. Just think of those lost wilderness years; the lost record of our ancestors – the descendants of Jacob and Leah, Rachel, Bilhah and Zilpah; and the descendants of the erev rav, the mixed multitude who went out of Egypt with them. Lost because the stories were not written down and transmitted. In the 1970s, in the early days of what became known as the ‘second wave’ of feminism, British feminist historian, Sheila Rowbotham, titled her account of ‘300 Years of Women’s Oppression and the Fight Against It’, Hidden From History. Meanwhile, the Jewish lesbian feminist American poet, Adrienne Rich, spoke in her collection of essays, On Lies, Secrets and Silence, of women having been ‘“gaslighted” for centuries’. In this age of social media and so many plural ways of telling our stories, let’s make sure that we write them down and create artefacts – and transmit our own records of our experiences to future generations.
And let us say: Amen.
Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue
27th June 2020 / 5th Tammuz 5780
Korach, Numbers 16-18. ↑
Chukkat, Numbers 20:1. ↑
Sh’lach L’cha, Numbers 13-15. See, in particular: Num. 14:28-35. ↑
Sh’mot, Exodus 2:1-10. ↑
B’shallach, Exodus 15:19-20. ↑
B’ha’a lot’cha, Numbers 12:1-2. ↑
Sh’mot, Exodus 2:11-22. For the sage’s identification of the Cushhite woman as Zipporah, see, for example, Talmud, Mo’eid Katan 17b ↑
B’ha’a lot’cha, Numbers 12:10 ↑
Uncomfortable with her unmarried status, the sages married Miriam off to Caleb (Sh’mot Rabbah 1:17), who together with Joshua, did not join in the rebellion following the tribal leaders’ reconnoitre of the land (Numbers 13:30 and 14:6-9). ↑
For my extended treatment of the untold story of Miriam, see Chapter 2 of my book, Trouble-Making Judaism (David Paul Books, 2012; 3rd reprinting, 2019, pp. 73-90) ↑
Bo, Exodus 12: 38. ↑
Hidden From History. 300 Years of Women’s Oppression and the Fight Against It by Sheila Rowbotham (Pluto Press, 1974). ↑
On Lies, Secrets and Silence. Selected Prose, 1966-1978 by Adrienne Rich (W.W. Norton & Co, 1979). ↑