Tending to a Hungry Infant
A Single Gesture toward a Baby Reverberates Throughout History
By: Rabbi YY Jacobson
Miriam’s Skin Disease
At the end of this week’s portion (Behaalosecha), we catch a rare and fascinating glimpse into the interpersonal relationship of Moshe, his brother Aaron, and their sister Miriam.
Miriam, speaking to her brother Aaron, was critiquing Moses’ marriage. The Bible is decidedly cryptic about what exactly she was criticizing, stating merely that “Miriam and Aaron spoke about Moses regarding the Cushite woman he had married.” There are various explanations as to what it was she said and who this Cushite woman even was. Whatever the case is, an older sister voicing criticism of her baby brother’s marriage is easy enough to understand—even if that younger brother happened to be Moses himself.
The plot thickens: G-d hears their conversation, and decides to clarify, unequivocally for Aaron and Miriam who their younger brother is. He says to them: “Please listen to My words. If there are prophets among you, I make myself known to them only in a vision or a dream. Not so is My servant Moses; he is faithful throughout My house. With him, I speak mouth to mouth… he beholds the image of the Lord. So how were you not afraid to speak against My servant Moses?”
G-d departs in a huff, and Miriam – and according to Rabbi Akiva in the Talmud, Aaron too—is left stricken with leprosy, the biblical punishment for slander. Moses then intervenes, crying out to G-d: “I beseech you, G-d, please heal her!” G-d limits her affliction to merely seven days, that she, like all lepers, must spend in isolation outside the camp. Following these seven quarantined days, she would be healed and could reenter the camp. In the words of the Torah:
“She shall be quarantined for seven days outside the camp, and afterwards can she re-enter.”
And the Torah finishes the story: “And the people did not travel until Miriam had re-entered.”
The greatest biblical commentator, 11th century French sage, Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki, quoting the Talmud, tells us that the nation waiting for her was a unique honor conferred upon Miriam in the merit of something she had done eight decades earlier. In the beginning of Exodus, Pharaoh decreed that all male Jewish children be drowned in the Nile River. Moses’ mother had placed her infant Moses in a basket and had set him afloat in the Nile. It is here that Miriam debuts in biblical history: “His sister stood from afar, to know what would happen to him.” It is the merit of her waiting for Moses that the nation now waited for her.
Although the nation was ready to embark on the next leg of its journey, they stopped for seven days, waiting for Miriam who was quarantined outside of the camp, as a reward for her noble deed decades earlier when Moses was an infant floating in the river.
Would They Let Her Die?
Yet, upon deeper reflection, this explanation by Rashi is deeply disturbing.
Is the only reason the nation waited for Miriam, while she was quarantined for a week, because she once waited for Moses as an infant? What was the alternative? Not to wait for Miriam and leave her alone in a parched and barren desert, without food, water or any protection, a place the Torah describes as “a desert great and awesome, full of snakes, vipers, scorpions, and drought, where there was no water?”
Suppose Miriam would have never watched over Moses as an infant. Would she have then not been rewarded this “honor” and left to die in the desert alone? For not waiting for her infant brother, she deserved to be left in a desert?
Equally disturbing is the expression Rashi uses that the Jewish people waiting for Miriam was an “honor” (a “kavod”) bestowed upon her. Yet, this was no honor; it was a matter of life and death. It is impossible for any human being, let alone an elderly woman (Miriam at that time was 87, being seven years older than Moses, who was 81 at the time), to survive alone in a dangerous desert.
And what happened to the other lepers expelled from the camp, who did not receive this special “honor” of the nation waiting for them? Were they simply abandoned to die whenever the people continued their journey?
In an ingenuous presentation, the Lubavitcher Rebbe (in an address delivered on Shabbos Behaalosecha 1965) presented a wonderful explanation.
We must draw attention to two words in the text. The verse states: “She shall be quarantined for seven days outside the camp (mechutz lamachaneh), and then she should reenter.” Each word and expression in Torah is precise. The words “outside the camp” intimate that her exclusion and expulsion would be effective when the people are encamped, when they are dwelling in one place as a camp (“machaneh” in Hebrew means to dwell in one place, as in the term “vayachanu”), and she would remain outside of the camp.
Only if she is quarantined for seven days outside of the nation’s dwelling, when it constitutes a “camp”, would she fulfill her duty and would be able to heal and reenter the community.
What this meant was that travel time did not count for this seven-day quarantine period. Even if Miriam were to travel in isolation behind the rest of the nation, this would not be counted as part of her seven day quarantine necessary for her healing and reentry, since she was not quarantined “outside the camp”, because during their traveling the Jews did not constitute a “camp”,a “machaneh.”
Thus, if the nation would not have waited the seven-day period for Miriam, she would have certainly traveled along with them. But she would not have had the ability to go into isolation for seven days to heal, until the nation would cease traveling and become a “camp” once again. This would have delayed her healing process as long as they were on the move.
This, then, was the special honor bestowed upon Miriam. By delaying their journey for seven days, Miriam could be quarantined immediately outside of the camp, and at the conclusion of the week, reenter the camp after a full recovery. Her leprosy would not linger for even one extra day.
81 Years Earlier
Why did Miriam deserve this honor?
Let us now go back 81 years earlier. Let us see what Miriam actually did for her baby brother Moses, and then we can begin to appreciate the spiritual dynamics of history – how all of our actions return to us: what we put out there comes back to us.
Picture the scene: The king of the country, the most powerful man on the planet, the leader of the most important civilization at the time, had decreed that all Jewish newborn boys must be drowned. Miriam’s baby brother is one of those slated for death.Their mother had just sent the infant to his divinely ordained fate by letting him sail into the Nile, which happens to be the longest river in the world, This desperate act was carried out in the hope that perhaps an Egyptian would, against odds, be aroused to compassion and save the innocent Jewish boy.
Miriam goes to the river. “His sister stood from afar, to know what would happen to him (6).” She gazes at her brother from a distance to see how things would play themselves out. Miriam was a seven-year-old girl at the time. If he is captured by Pharoah’s soldiers, she knows she cannot save him; she is also probably too far away to help if the basket capsizes, nor will she be able to do much if an Egyptian takes the baby to his own home.
So what does she actually achieve by standing guard (besides finding out what happens to him)? She achieves one thing. We may see it as a small achievement, but in the biblical perspective it is grand.
When Pharaoh’s daughter, discovers Moses wailing, she naturally attempts to find a wet-nurse to feed him. Moses, although starving, refuses to nurse from an Egyptian woman. That was when Miriam steps in: “Shall I go and call for you a wet nurse from the Hebrew women, so that she shall nurse the child for you?” she asks the Egyptian princess. The princess, Batyah, agrees. Miriam calls the mother of the child. Batya gives her the child so that she can nurse him. Moses is curled up again in the bosom of his loving mother. He survives, and the rest is history.
Let’s now engage in the “what if” hypothesis. Suppose that Miriam was absent from the scene, what would have occurred? It is likely that after observing that the baby is not taking to any Egyptian women’s milk, Batya would have eventually realized, that Moses, whom she knew was a Jewish child (as she states clearly, “he is a child of the Hebrews”), was insisting on nursing from a Jewish woman. She would have summoned a Jewish woman and Moses would have received his nourishment. It would have taken longer, Moses would have cried for another hour or two, but eventually he would have been fed.
So what did Miriam accomplish? Miriam’s actions caused Moses’ hunger to last for a shorter period of time. Miriam alleviated Moses’ hunger pangs sooner, shortening the span of his discomfort.
Miriam caused a young Jewish baby, a “Yiddish kind,” to weep for a few moments less. She alleviated the distress of a baby.
Eighty-one years pass. Miriam is experiencing discomfort. She has a skin disease. The nation is supposed to travel, on route to the Holy Land. (This was before the sin of the spies, and the people were still moving towards the Land of Israel, hoping to fulfill the great dream.) But if they begin traveling now, Miriam’s agony would be prolonged, maybe a few hours, maybe a few days, as long as the Hebrews are journeying. On the road, she would not have the opportunity to be quarantined for the requisite seven days.
Because she diminished the discomfort of her brother eight decades later, an entire nation—around three million people, men women and children—plus the holy Tabernacle, the Ark, Moses, Aron, all of the leaders, and G-d Himself — all waited. She minimized her brother’s pain, and now millions of people waited patiently to minimize her own.
Because the energy you put out there is the same energy that comes back to you, in one form or another form.
Your Weeping Child
How many times a night do you wake up to your crying infant who yearns to be fed or just held? Mothers often awake every few hours (if they even get that amount of rest) to cradle and nurture their little wailing angels. Some husbands do not even take note; they sleep through the night and then wonder why their wives are exhausted the next day…
It can become stressful to tend continuously to the needs of our little ones. Babies certainly know how to let themselves be heard and we caretakers can often become overwhelmed and drained in the process. The serene corridors of office buildings seem so much more promising and interesting.
Yet, as this Miriam episode teaches us, real history is not created in office buildings. It is created in the arms of mothers and fathers nurturing the souls G-d granted them to create our collective tomorrow. On a single day, a little boy was spared, for a short time, hunger-pangs. Eight decades later, millions of people and G-d himself, interrupted their journey to pay homage to that individual gesture.
All of us can be Miriams each day of our life. We meet or hear of children or teen-agers who are in pain, starving for nourishment, love, validation, confidence, and meaning. We may say: They will grow up and learn how to manage. Or we may tend to them, be there for them, embrace them, and shorten the span of their agony.
And when we do that, like little Miriam did, millions will be thankful to us for making a difference in that one individual’s life.
Yoni and Yair
I read the following story in one of the Israeli websites (if anyone has verified the source of this story, please notify me).
A number of years ago, Yoni, an Israeli Defense Force soldier stationed in Hebron, was shot by an Arab terrorist. It happened very early in the morning, and no one else was awake to hear it. Yoni passed out, was bleeding, and his life was slipping away.
But another soldier nearby heard the shot and went to investigate. He tried the best he could to stop the bleeding and called for help. Waiting for help to arrive, he kept applying pressure to the wound—literally holding Yoni’s life in his hands.
Yoni was taken to a hospital where he underwent surgery and survived. The soldier who helped stop the bleeding left the hospital when he heard that Yoni would survive. Yoni’s mother was bothered by not being able to thank the mystery soldier, and tried unsuccessfully for a year to trace his identity through the Army. But to no avail.
But then she had an idea.
Yoni’s parents put up a sign at their grocery store which they owned, describing what happened. They reasoned that Israel is a small country and eventually they might find the soldier who saved their son.
Months passed with no response. Finally, one morning about a year later, a woman customer noticed the sign hanging by the door of the store. She recalled how happy her son Yair was when he came home one Friday night and told them how he heard a shot and was able to save another soldier’s life in Hebron. She went back and told the owner of the store. The stories matched.
After a tearful thank you and embrace from Yoni’s mother, Yair’s mother said, “Look at me — you don’t remember me?” “No”, Yoni’s mother said, “I’m sorry. Did we meet before?”
“Yes,” Yair’s mother said. “I used to live here many years ago, and this time I was just passing by. I wanted to give you my business, even though I was only buying a few things.”
“You see”, the woman said, “Twenty years ago I used to live around here and I came all the time to buy basic groceries. One day you noticed that I looked really down and you were so nice and asked me why I was down. I told you that I was going through a very difficult time and on top of that I was pregnant with my first child and planning on having an abortion. As soon as I said “abortion” you called your husband over and the two of you didn’t seem to care about your own store but sat and patiently listened to my story and my challenges. I still remember what you said.
“You told me that it is true that I was going through a hard time, and that you understood how stressed out I was, but sometimes the greatest things in life come through the biggest difficulties. You spoke of the joy of being a mother and that the most beautiful word to hear in the Hebrew language is “Ima” (mother) when spoken by one’s child… You explained how all the challenges pale in comparison with the inner joy coming from raising a child, from embracing your little one, from cultivating a living miracle. You explained how with each child born, a new channel opens up in our lives, generating a greater consciousness, and more livelihood. You both spoke for a while with so much empathy, love and sensitivity, until I was convinced that I should have this baby.
Yair’s mother continued, “I gave birth to the baby twenty years ago. My son Yair wouldn’t have been alive if not for you. Two decades later, he was the one who saved your son, Yoni’s life.”
You see, you saved HIS life and HE saved your son’s life.