Parshat Behaalotecha: Family Ties


Families aren’t easy. Bonds between siblings are charged with tension on multiple levels: Resentment. Envy. Greed. Blame. Criticism. The first fraternal relationship in Torah is a story about fratricide. “Sibling Rivalry” is pretty much the bumper sticker of the bible. In short, I suppose that in the course of human evolution, interactions among siblings have been relatively consistent. Sam Levinson remarks: “Siblings: children of the same parents, each of whom is perfectly normal until they get together.” Because the things we say to our brothers and sisters aren’t “normal” per se. We speak to them in a way that would probably horrify our friends if we offered similar remarks. Our judgments are harsher. Our criticisms hit a whole new level. But nevertheless, “Siblings are the only enemy you can’t live without.”

And since our rabbis talk a lot about overall “community” or societal values, this week I’ll offer to make some slight adjustments to their wisdom. Instead of “community” and “fellow,” I’ve replaced them with “family” and “sibling.” After all, a family is really just a subsection of a community:

Hillel says: Do not separate yourself from the [family]. Do not judge your [siblings] until you’ve stood in their place. Do not say something that cannot be heard, for in the end it will be heard. [1]

I don’t think it’s by coincidence that Hillel clusters relationships, judgment, and speech together - because in truth they share a common thread - all three are intertwined. And if I were to render this statement colloquially, it would sound something like: “Never walk away from family. Stop comparing yourself to your siblings. Parents eventually hear everything.” And in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Beha’alotcha, we see all three play out:

“Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married: ‘He married a Cushite woman!’ They said, ‘Has the LORD spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us as well?’ The LORD heard it.” [2]

One commentator remarks, “Even though Miriam and Aaron had this conversation completely privately, and no one overheard them, God was privy to it.” [3] Remember, Parents eventually hear everything. God then scolds Aaron and Miriam, explaining them that God's relationship is merely different with their baby brother Moses: "With him I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles" [4] Similar to how parents regularly remark about how they love each of their children but relates differently to each. Whether that's actually true or not, God seems to think so.

But notice how the first comment about Moses' wife is really a shallow, ugly remark that digs at the underlying issue: Jealousy! They’re jealous of Moses’ relationship with God! Aaron and Miriam feel as if they sit in the shadow of their brother. Again, sibling relationships are the same - day-in, day-out. However, God doesn't let Miriam off the hook just yet. She has to sit in “time out.”

“When Aaron turned toward Miriam, he saw that she was stricken with scales. And Aaron said to Moses, ‘O my lord, account not to us the sin which we committed in our folly. Let her not be as one dead.. So Moses cried out to the LORD, saying, ‘O God, pray heal her!’…So Miriam was shut out of camp seven days; and the people did not march on until Miriam was readmitted.” [5]

In Torah, we read about lots of issues the people of Israel face. Most often, their biggest enemy is themselves. They like to complain. About pretty much everything and everyone. And to be honest, this really hasn’t changed much in the course of Jewish history. Just like sibling relationships. But here’s what I see in our text. I see people. Just like you and I, who from time to time, become insecure. They offer snap judgments. They become possessive about parental figures. And God, as the strict disciplinarian God is at times, punishes Miriam by shutting her off from her community - from her own family. It’s not enough that her skin becomes infected, she is also socially ostracized. However, “Siblings are the only enemy you can’t live without.”

And thus, Moses stands up for his sister though she has spoken ill of his wife. He intercedes for her. He cries to God. Moreover, her family, while they live without her for seven days, they do not abandon her. They wait for her. The entire community of Israel we are told, “did not march on until Miriam was readmitted.” Because while Moses was there for Miriam, Miriam has done the same for Moses. When Moses was free-floating down the Nile in a wicker basket “[Miriam] stationed herself at a distance, to learn what would befall him.” [6] As our sages explain:

Miriam waited for the baby Moses for one hour at the shore of the Nile…Therefore the Jewish people delayed their travels in the desert for seven days to wait for her.” [7]

Let me be clear. The notion that families "stick together through thick and thin" is a myth. Family isn't forever. In reality, they take work, time, and every ounce of patience you can muster. And sometimes we fail. Flat out. We fail to forgive. We fail to support and love. We fail to communicate regularly. We may even make detrimental mistakes that can't be taken back. The knot that fastens us together can loosen over time. And such is our lesson this week. Judaism is a religion of family ties. Of never walking away from family if there's a way to re-patch. Of never abandoning our siblings despite their hurtful words. Because Judaism is a doctrine of learning how to overcome discrepancies. Learning how to sustain familial ties. Because it's often better to have a brother or sister than none at all. Thus, at the end of the day - if we're offered the opportunity to hug it out and reconcile - we should consider ourselves lucky enough to do so.

Family means nobody gets left behind or forgotten.
— Lilo & Stitch

[1] Pirkei Avot 3:5
[2] Numbers 12:1-2
[3] Chizkuni, Numbers 12:2:2
[4] Numbers 12:12
[5] Exodus 2:4
[6] Numbers 12:10-13;15
[7] Sotah 9b, The William Davidson Talmud

Aaron Sataloff