By Rabbi Valerie Joseph
A lot happens in Parshat Beha’alotcha, including that Miriam and Aaron are stricken by Tzaraat (skin disease) after Miriam speaks lashon hara (negative, defaming talk).
Miriam’s sudden illness brings forward a remarkable response by Moses as he recites one of the shortest prayers in the Torah.
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).
Among the many actions that we can admire in Moses, one of the most significant 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, so to speak. Arguments, complaints and disagreements were set aside. The delay must have seemed interminable. The Israelites did not journey on, despite their impatience and complaints in other matters during 40 years in the desert.
In turn, Miriam was given veneration, 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 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 their humbleness in the face of interpersonal conflicts.
Rabbi Valerie Joseph is a National Association of Veterans Affairs Chaplains and Neshama: Association of Jewish Chaplains certified retired Veteran’s Hospital chaplain who volunteers with the American Red Cross in disaster spiritual care.