Parashat Beha’alotcha: ‘Yedid Nefesh’: Unpackaging one verse

As Moses was able to rise above the moment and ask that God heal and not punish Miriam, we must – so we can enter the peace of Shabbat – let go of any acrimony we may have with any family members.

 RELEASE ACRIMONY: Jerusalem’s Hansen House, built in 1887 as a treatment center for Hansen’s Disease (modern leprosy), is now a cultural center. (photo credit: YAAKOV NAUMI/FLASH90)
RELEASE ACRIMONY: Jerusalem’s Hansen House, built in 1887 as a treatment center for Hansen’s Disease (modern leprosy), is now a cultural center.
(photo credit: YAAKOV NAUMI/FLASH90)

“Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman” (Num 12:1).

They were jealous of their brother Moses because of his special relationship with God, as well as his position of leadership. If we thought we had left sibling jealousy behind in the Book of Genesis, it reappears here with its usual destructive force.

They cloaked their charge against Moses with the implication. How could he have his extraordinary rapport with God and be the political leader of the Israelites if he married someone who was not an Israelite? That is to say, they played the dual loyalty nativist card.

One opinion in the Talmud takes a more generous angle: “But is her name Cushite? Zipporah is her name. Rather, just as a Cushite is distinguished by their (dark) skin, so too, Zipporah was distinguished by her actions” (Moed Katan 16b).

Miriam and Aaron continued, “Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has God not spoken through us also?” (Num 12:2).

 SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)
SCRIBES FINISH writing a Torah scroll. (credit: DAVID COHEN/FLASH 90)

‘O God, please heal her – please’

Moses in the shortest prayer in the Torah, Numbers 12:13

It was well known that God did in fact speak with Miriam and Aaron. Miriam was called a prophetess (Ex 15:20 & Megillah 14a). God also spoke only with Aaron (Lev 10: 8; Num 18:1), and on many occasions God spoke with Aaron and Moses together (Ex 6:13; Lev 15:1; Numbers 20:12; etc.). It is also stated, “Furthermore, did I not assign to you three special tutors, Moses, Aaron, and Miriam?” (Numbers Rabbah 2:1).

“And the Lord heard it. Now the man Moses was very humble, more than all people who were on the face of the earth” (Num 12:2-3).

Of all the moments in the life of Moses, why do we learn about his humility at this point? Why not at the burning bush when he stated he did not want the position of leadership? (Ex 3:11). Or after the incident of the Golden Calf, when Moses offered his life rather than allow God to wipe out the Israelites? (Ex 32:32).

Because in some ways, a personal insult/attack, and in this case by family members, is harder to let go of. In relation to this, we read in Avot deRabbi Natan (41:11), “Condition oneself to tolerate distress, and be forgiving of insults.”

To which the sages in the Talmud (Shabbat 88b) add, “Those who are insulted and do not insult, who hear their shame and do not respond, who act out of love and are joyful in affliction, Scripture says: ‘And they that love God are as the sun going forth in its might’” (Judges 5:31).

AND SUDDENLY the Lord said to Moses and to Aaron and Miriam, “Come out, you three, to the tent of meeting.” And the three of them came out. And the Lord came down in a pillar of cloud and stood at the entrance of the tent and called Aaron and Miriam, and they both came forward.

And God said, “Hear my words: If there is a prophet among you, I, the Lord, make myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses. He is faithful in all my house. With him, I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the Lord” (Num 12:4-8).

That is to say, while God communicated with Miriam and Aaron, as well as the prophets, Moses was on a different level of contact, communication, and transmission. In the Talmud we are told, “All of the prophets observed through an obscure looking glass (aspaklaria). Moses our master observed through a clear looking glass.” (Yevamot 49b). Rabbi Ismar Schorsch adds to our understanding of this dynamic and connects it into the humility of Moses:

“The glass through which he peered was crystal clear while that of the others was simply not. Rashi’s gloss on the text brings out the paradox in their distinction. ‘The prophets thought they saw God, but really didn’t. Whereas Moses, who had the benefit of a clear glass, knew he never saw God face to face.’ Moses’s humility was a function of his greatness. Penetrating more deeply into the unfathomable mystery of things than anyone before or since, he was more acutely aware of his ignorance. As the Torah relates at Mt. Sinai: ‘Moses approached the thick cloud where God was (Ex 20:18).’”

“Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses? And the anger of the Lord was kindled against them, and God departed” (Num 12:8-9).

SIMILARLY, GOD’S anger would also ignite, in two parshiot from this week, against Korah, a distant relative of Moses also from the tribe of Levi, who, like Miriam and Aaron, was jealous of the position of Moses (Num 16:1-35).

“When the cloud removed from over the tent, behold, Miriam was leprous, like snow. And Aaron turned toward Miriam, and behold, she was leprous. And Aaron said to Moses, ‘Oh, my Lord, do not punish us because we have done foolishly and have sinned. Let her not be as one dead, whose flesh is half eaten away when he comes out of his mother’s womb.’ And Moses cried to the Lord, ‘O God, please heal her – please’” (Num 12:10-13).

Why was Miriam struck with leprosy?

Why Miriam? Why leprosy? Why white? Rav Kook comments:

“In fact, the Sages taught that Aaron did not get off scot-free. They understood from the words, ‘God displayed anger against them,’ that Aaron was also disciplined. His punishment, though, was less severe than Miriam’s, since it was his older sister who instigated the verbal attack against Moses. (Miriam’s leading role in the incident is indicated by the fact that she is mentioned first: ‘Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses…’).”

Miriam’s comment that the wife of Moses was from Cush means on some level she was referring to Zipporah’s darker skin color. Miriam’s punishment is therefore about her skin, making her own skin color the opposite of what she had said about Zipporah.

The land of Cush played an important role in the history of ancient Israel. Jennifer Drummond of the Biblical Archaeological Society explains:

“The Kingdom of Cush, Egypt’s neighbor to the south, played an important role in biblical history despite being one of the lesser-known kingdoms. According to 2 Kings 19:9, “Tirhakah, King of Cush” came to the aid of Hezekiah against Sennacherib, king of Assyria, when his forces laid siege to Jerusalem in 701 BCE. Without such aid, it is hard to imagine that the Kingdom of Judah would have survived. Judah would have likely gone the way of the Kingdom of Israel – spread to the four winds, never to return.”

Kabbalat Shabbat, Friday evening services, begins with the singing of “Yedid Nefesh” (You who love my soul). It was written by Rabbi Eleazar Azikri of the famous and influential Kabbalistic circle of 16th-century Safed.

It speaks of the human soul’s desire to cleave to God. It was placed at the start of the Shabbat liturgy as a reminder that our souls need the remedy of Shabbat so we can return to a healthier relationship with God and, by extension, ourselves and the people we come in contact with.

That is exactly why the words of Moses, the shortest prayer in the entire Bible, from this week’s parasha, Beha’alotcha – “O God, please heal her – please/el na refa na lah,” are incorporated into “Yedid Nefesh.”

On one level, it says our souls are sick and need repairing from the pace of the work week. On another level, it is saying remember the context of when Moses said these words – the worst of family dynamics.

As Moses was able to rise above the moment and ask that God heal and not punish Miriam, we must – so we can enter the peace of Shabbat – let go of any acrimony we may have with any family members. In that way, we can have a Shabbat shalom and, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, “call the Sabbath a delight/oneg” (Isa 58:13).  ■

The writer, a Reconstructionist rabbi, is the rabbi emeritus of the Israel Congregation in Manchester Center, Vermont. He teaches at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies at Kibbutz Ketura and at Bennington College.