Shabbat Shalom from Bruce Washburn:
May you find peace and fulfillment as you celebrate Passover in your
Here is this week’s D’var Torah:
Pesah: History begins at Home
Moshe and Miriam, two of the three siblings who play a key role in the drama of the Exodus, are a study in contrasts. Though he is hardly mentioned in the Haggadah, Moshe is the clear hero of the Exodus story. He conveys God’s words to Pharaoh and to the Israelites, brings the plagues upon Egypt, and leads the people in their departure from Egypt. But Moshe’s starring role on the national stage comes at the expense of his personal life, as several biblical stories suggest. Miriam, on the other hand, is deeply involved in family dynamics, where she effects change in the most personal realms. In this sense, brother and sister are counterparts to one another – he is a leader on the national level, and she on the familial level. Their intertwined stories shed light on the types of leadership required to ensure the survival and continuity of the Jewish people.
Moshe’s personal family drama plays out on the sidelines of the Exodus story. Born to Jewish parents in Egypt and raised in Pharaoh’s palace, he has a complicated identity, though it is clear from the first time he leaves the palace that his sympathies lie with the oppressed Israelites: When he sees an Egyptian beating an Israelite, he instinctively strikes the Egyptian overlord. On account of this crime, he flees to Midian, and it is only there—while hiding out as a fugitive from Egypt—that he gets married and has a child. Moshe’s marriage to his wife takes place during the brief interlude when he leaves Egypt, as if it is a digression from the main story. Although Moshe departs Midian for Egypt with Tziporah and his sons, he keeps his family at a distance so that he can concern himself with the fate of his nation. The midrash teaches that Aharon intercepts Moshe on his way back to Egypt, and instructs him to send his wife and children back to Midian; Egypt is no place to raise a Jewish family (Mekhilta deRabbi Yishmael 18:2). And so Moshe is living on his own in Egypt when he enters the high echelons of Pharaoh’s court to plead on behalf of the people’s liberation. Moshe’s family rejoins him only in the wilderness, when his father-in-law brings Tziporah to him “after she had been sent away” (18:2) along with their children. Unlike Moshe, who seems to regard his family as a distraction from his national mission, Miriam is intimately bound up in the life of her family, and single-handedly keeps her family together. The midrash teaches that Miriam’s father, Amram, tried to separate from his wife when he learned about Pharaoh’s decree that every son must be cast into the Nile. He said, “We are laboring for nothing!” What was the point of bringing children into the world if they would only be killed? He thus divorced his wife, and his fellow Israelites followed his example. But Miriam would not stand for it. “Father, your decree is harsher than Pharaoh’s,” she said (Sotah 12a). Pharaoh decreed that all the males would die; her father was preventing even the females from being born. Miriam’s father heeded her, and reunited with his wife; then Moshe was conceived. Unlike Moshe, who separated from his wife so as to play a leadership role, Miriam’s leadership was about bringing a husband and wife back together.
Indeed, this is not the only time Moshe separates from his wife, and it is not the only time Miriam tries to bring a husband and wife back together. Later on in the Israelites’ wilderness journey, Miriam and Aaron speak ill of Moshe “on account of the Cushite woman he took” (Numbers 12:1). The midrash identifies this woman as Tziporah, recounting an intimate exchange between the two women. When Moshe appointed seventy leaders to assist him in judging the people, Miriam declared, “Happy are these men and happy are their wives!” Tziporah objected, insisting that being married to a national leader was no
occasion for happiness. “Do not say “‘happy are their wives’ but rather ‘woe to their wives,’” she tells Miriam, “For from the day that God spoke with your brother Moshe, he has not had relations with me” (Sifrei Zutah 12:1). Tziporah reveals that not only did Moshe send her away throughout the entire drama of the Exodus, but he has also not been intimate with her throughout the wilderness wanderings. It is at this point that Miriam “speaks ill” to Aaron about Moshe. She insists that she and Aaron have also received prophecy from God, and yet they never felt the need to separate from their respective spouses; why, then, has
Moshe left his wife? Miriam is a leader on the familial level; she cannot conceive of a leader who would sacrifice his family life for the sake of his mission.
Moshe, who was hardly ever intimate with his wife, does not seem to have much of a relationship with his children either. The Torah is surprisingly silent about the fate of Moshe’s two sons; Moshe seems closer with his nephews than with his own children, as per a midrash on a verse from the book of Numbers. The Torah states, “These are the children of Aaron and Moshe on the day that God spoke to Moshe on Mount Sinai” (3:1), and then proceeds to list only the names of Aaron’s sons. The Talmud teaches that Aaron’s sons were like sons to Moshe, because Moshe taught them Torah (Sanhedrin 19b). Moshe, perhaps having created a rupture too painful to redress in his own family, taught Torah to his nephews instead. He was unable to be a parent to his own sons so that they might lead the nation after him. When it comes time for Moshe to choose a successor, there is no mention of the possibility of one of his sons taking over. In contrast, Miriam had illustrious progeny. The Torah teaches that the midwives who spared the Israelite babies were rewarded by God and granted “houses” (Exodus 1:21). The Talmud identifies these midwives with Yocheved and Miriam, and teaches that the “house” Miriam was granted was the “house of royalty”: She married Caleb, and they became the progenitors of King David (Sotah 11b). We know nothing of the ultimate fate of Moshe’s descendants, whereas Miriam’s descendants include David, and, by extension, the Messiah.
In a moment of frustration with the Israelites’ stubbornness and querulousness, Moshe cries out to God, “Was I pregnant with this people, did I give birth to them, that You should say to me: ‘Carry them in your bosom as a caregiver carries an infant’?” (Numbers 11:12). Moshe has no interest in bearing, birthing, or nursing. He is not a family man. In contrast, Miriam—who convinces her parents to bear and birth another child, and then finds a nursemaid for that child—believes that public life begins at home, with the fostering of relationships that give rise to great leaders. As we sit around the table with our families for the Pesah seder, we remember that what takes place in our homes may ultimately be just as consequential as what takes place in the public square.