By Rabbi Valerie Joseph
A lot happens in this week’s Parshat Beha’alotcha.
G-d tells Moses to assign his brother Aaron to “lift up” and light the golden menorah;
The Levites purify themselves as they begin their service in the Tabernacle;
Pesach Sheni, a second Passover, is created for those who couldn’t partake in the first Passover offering;
A cloud cover covers the Israelite camp and lifts when they are to continue on their journey;
Silver trumpets are made to call the people to assembly;
The Israelites complain about the taste of manna and wish for meat; prophets prophesize;
Miriam and Aaron are stricken by Tzaraat (skin disease) after Miriam speaks lashon hara.
The last event — Miriam’s sudden illness — brings forward a remarkable response by Moses as he recites one of the shortest prayers in the Torah:
“And Moshe cried unto the Lord, saying, ‘Please God, heal her (Miriam), I beseech you” (Numbers 12:13).
In “El Na Refah Na Lah,” we learn greatness from this simple and humble act by Moses. Just a few sentences earlier his sister (and Aaron his brother) had spoken against him; the siblings accuse their brother of making a poor choice in marriage. It was an act that could have started a rebellion among the grumbling masses and angered G-d so much that he called a family meeting and struck Miriam with Tzaraat as punishment.
Many of us would have reacted as G-d did, with anger. But Moses, the self-effacing leader, had forgiven Miriam already, and his behavior provided enlightenment and a model of behavior. Moses then responds to G-d’s punishment with forgiveness and prayer for her well-being, her refuah shlemah (complete healing). Perhaps he remembered with gratitude that as a young girl:
Miriam in her greatness saved his infant life, an event that was instrumental in Moses growing up in the home of Pharoah’s daughter and initiating the Exodus;
Sparked the enthusiasm and appreciation of the Israelites by leading the dancing with timbrels after walking through the Red Sea;
Created the well that bears her name, which provided fresh water in the desert for the Israelites.
The custom of praying for the sick comes from this parshah.
Among the many actions that we can admire in Moses, one of the most significant — and one which we can emulate to this day — is holding the sick in our thoughts and prayers by reciting a mi sheberach (prayer for healing).
“So Miriam was shut out of camp seven days; and the people did not march on until Miriam was readmitted” (Numbers 12:15).
Equally important, for seven days the Israelites stopped in their tracks. Arguments, complaints and disagreements were set aside. The delay must have seemed interminable. The Israelites did not journey on, despite their constant impatience and complaints in other matters during 40 years in the desert.
In turn, Miriam was given veneration due to her, and the community’s supportive willingness to stay brought honor in the eyes of G-d not only to an ill sister but also to her family member, Moses.
In reading the text, we see and understand what the Torah considers most important in life. When the community — including Moses — cries out for healing, the power of their love and connection to each other comes to the forefront. While it’s not possible to know if prayer works or G-d exists, “Ninety percent (range 84-90%) of medical schools have courses or content on spirituality and health (S&H)” (G. Lucchetti, 2012).
We know that Moses lived a long life of 120 years, and Miriam lived a long life also. There may be many reasons for this, but one common explanation is that their lives were extended by virtue of humbleness in the face of interpersonal conflicts.
In the Talmud, there is a discussion on why certain rabbis lived long lives.
“Rabbi Nehunya ben Hakana was asked by his disciples: Why were you blessed with longevity? He said to them: ‘In my days, I never attained veneration at my fellow’s degradation. Nor did my fellow’s curse go up with me upon my bed. And I was openhanded with my money’” (Talmud Megillah 28).
Another sage, Rabbi Zeira, cites similar virtues for growing quite old:
“Rabbi Zeira was asked by his disciples: Why were you blessed with longevity? He said to them, ‘In my days, I was never angry inside my house. Nor did I ever walk ahead of someone who was greater than me.’”
Quite a few more rabbis cite that their meriting a long life is not only due to Torah study, but also being generous, charitable, respectful, forgiving, not holding on to anger, and kind to others.
May we all be reminded of what is dear to us and treasure those moments. JE
Rabbi Valerie Joseph is a National Association of Veterans Affairs Chaplains and Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains certified retired Veteran’s Hospital chaplain. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.