Be like Miriam
Parshat Beha’alotecha, Numbers 8:1-12:16
There is a Hebrew song that I sang often in my NFTY days: Mitzvah goreret mitzvah, averah goreret averah, “one good deed leads to another good deed, one transgression leads to another transgression.” Its lyrics taken from Pirkei Avot, it was a song with an upbeat melody that we sang a lot because we liked it, not because we took to heart the meaning of its words.
The message, as I understood it, was that doing one good deed would lead to doing another and another and so on — until it led to the performing of mitzvot regularly, becoming a habit. And then the reward would be so great — feeling good about one’s actions and seeing that those actions truly made a difference — one good deed would lead to another without thinking twice about it.
In light of this week’s Torah portion, Beha’alotecha, I think I now understand this text a bit differently. It’s not just about me and the good deeds I do, but also about how what I do can set an example for others to follow. Let me explain.
This week we read of Miriam’s punishment when she and Aaron publically criticize Moses due to the woman he marries. By all accounts, it is a case of sibling rivalry: Miriam and Aaron have not attained the status of Moses and they are angry about it. But there are repercussions — for her rebellious behavior, Miriam is covered with leprosy and exiled from the camp. Aaron is not punished physically, but emotionally. He must beg Moses to treat Miriam and lessen the length of her exile.
Miriam leaves the camp as instructed and begins her exile of healing. What happens next is what is most relevant here: The people stay and wait for her to be able to return to the camp. That might not seem significant, but it would have made sense for them to move on, expecting her to catch up later when she was able to rejoin them. But they wait. Why?
The commentators suggest that the waiting was a reward for an earlier action. The people waited because Miriam herself had waited. Thinking back to the beginning of the book of Exodus, we know that as a child, Moses was placed in a basket and put in the water. The commentary tells us that Miriam walked up and down along the shore to await the child’s fate. And she became instrumental in arranging for Moses’ mother to nurse and care for him throughout his childhood. Miriam didn’t turn her back; she waited to see what had happened to him, to know that he was safe. Because of this, the people waited for her. They did not move on until she recovered. One good deed led to another.
Now, Miriam could not have known that her actions would lead to an entire community waiting for her to heal. She could not have anticipated that she would be setting an example for others to follow. And I am certain she was not concerned with what was in it for her. She did what she did because it was the right thing to do. The commentary suggests that she was rewarded for her actions. Because she looked out for Moses, when she needed compassion and caring, there was a community ready and willing to do a good deed on her behalf.
This week then, when we read the Torah portion, we acknowledge that Miriam’s behavior was not acceptable, and she was punished accordingly. But we can also understand her illness in a new way: It gave the community an important opportunity to follow her example, to wait for her, and to truly let one good deed lead to another.
So we ask: What will each of us do this week that will make us worth waiting for? Whatever it is, may we be a shining example for all.
Rabbi Jessica Locketz is the associate rabbi at Temple Emanuel of South Hills. This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.