The Puzzling Story of Miriam's Leprosy

Aaron and Miriam grumble against their brother Moses. Miriam gets struck with leprosy, but Aaron gets off free. Is that fair?

Miriam and Aaron assumed that no one could hear their private conversation. The Torah says, "And the LORD heard it" (Numbers 12:2). (Image: © Bigstock/gianni triggiani/Concept FFOZ)


Regular Shabbat Readings

  • Beha'alotcha (בְּהַעֲלֹתְךָ | When you set up)
  • Torah: Numbers 8:1-12:15
  • Haftarah: Zechariah 2:14-4:7 *
  • Gospel: Matthew 14:14-21

* These Torah and Haftarah chapter/verse references are taken from the Hebrew Bible. Christian Bible references vary slightly when indicated with a *.

Regular readings above are often interrupted with special readings on Jewish holidays, special Sabbaths, and Rosh Chodesh. Refer to the current Torah Portion Schedule for all these variations, and special portions.

Portion Outline

  • Torah
    • Numbers 8:1 | The Seven Lamps
    • Numbers 8:5 | Consecration and Service of the Levites
    • Numbers 9:1 | The Passover at Sinai
    • Numbers 9:15 | The Cloud and the Fire
    • Numbers 10:1 | The Silver Trumpets
    • Numbers 10:11 | Departure from Sinai
    • Numbers 11:1 | Complaining in the Desert
    • Numbers 11:16 | The Seventy Elders
    • Numbers 11:31 | The Quails
    • Numbers 12:1 | Aaron and Miriam Jealous of Moses
  • Prophets
    • Zec 2:6 Interlude: | An Appeal to the Exiles
    • Zec 3:1 Fourth Vision: | Joshua and Satan
    • Zec 4:1 Fifth Vision: | The Lampstand and Olive Trees

Portion Summary

The third reading from the book of Numbers and the thirty-sixth reading from the Torah is called Beha'alotcha, a word that literally means "When you ascend." It comes from the first verse of the portion, which could literally be translated as "When you ascend the lamps" (Numbers 8:2), a reference to the fact that the priest had to step up to clean and light the lamps of the menorah. This portion is jam-packed, telling the story of the consecration of the Levites, the first Passover in the wilderness, the silver trumpets, the cloud of glory, the departure from Sinai, the grumbling in the wilderness, the first Sanhedrin and the punishment of Miriam.

So Miriam was shut up outside the camp for seven days, and the people did not move on until Miriam was received again. (Numbers 12:15)

Even Aaron and Miriam were not above the sin of grumbling. Numbers 12:1-2 relates a few details about their complaint against Moses. Apparently they had something against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married. (The Torah does not tell us the details of their gripe, but people are often irritated by their sibling's spouses.)

The complaint against Moses had to do with his role as leader over the assembly. Both Miriam and Aaron were prophets in their own right. They had both personally received prophecies from God. They began to resent Moses' sole leadership over the assembly. "Has the LORD indeed spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us as well?" (Numbers 12:2), they asked.

Miriam and Aaron assumed that no one could hear their private conversation. It was their own private gripe against their brother. They forgot that God could hear. The Torah says, "And the LORD heard it" (Numbers 12:2).

How many times do we indulge in similar "private" conversations, forgetting that God is listening? A person should always remember that his words are heard and recorded in heaven: "But I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned." (Matthew 12:36-37)

The LORD struck Miriam with leprosy as a punishment for speaking evil speech against her brother. Moses immediately interceded on her behalf with a short, urgent prayer. The LORD relented and removed the leprosy, but Miriam still had to be put outside of the camp for seven days until she was ritually fit again.

The most puzzling thing about the story is why Miriam was smitten with leprosy while Aaron was not. Is that fair? Perhaps Aaron was spared because of his responsibility in the priesthood or perhaps it was that Miriam was punished more harshly because she was the instigator of the gossip. Those are possible explanations, but there seems to have been one ancient tradition that taught Aaron was also struck with leprosy. According to that tradition, the Torah does not explicitly mention Aaron's punishment out of respect for the office of the high priest. Instead, Aaron's punishment was edited out of the record but remembered nonetheless.

We know this was an opinion in early Judaism because one ancient rabbi warns that "Anyone who says that Aaron was also smitten with leprosy will have to give an account [in heaven]. When God has concealed the matter concerning Aaron [how dare we reveal it?]" (Sifre 105). Clement, the disciple of the Peter, preserved the same tradition. He taught that Aaron was also put out of the camp for seven days. Clement says, "On account of envy, Aaron and Miriam had to make their abode outside the camp" (1 Clement 4:11).

Adapted From: Torah Club Commentary Set: Unrolling the Scroll. Learn more about Torah Club and how you can start a Club of your own, or join a Torah Club in your area. Visit TORAHCLUB.ORG

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