I adore my son.
And, much as I adore him, much as I would lay down my life for him, without question or hesitation, there are times I would like to sell him to the highest bidder.
"But Mooooom," he whines, "Please mom! Please. I'll be good! Pleeeeeeeeease!"
And then I want to put spikes through my forehead and shout: "Stop. Just stop whining and go away!" Though I adore my son, there are times I'd love to banish him to somewhere – anywhere – that is not here.
Banishment. Exile. It is, for us, in many ways, the ultimate punishment. The story of our people is littered with this threat—God tells us, again and again “Do as I command or you'll have to leave, your houses will be destroyed, nothing will grow, your children will die.”
We stumble, we're exiled, and we yearn for return. Psalm 137, one of the most achingly beautiful of the psalms, captures the essence of this desire, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down/Yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion..."
So what does this have to do with this week’s parasha?
Though the essence of B'haalot'cha, we begin far from exile. God instructs Aaron through Moshe: “raise up the candles of the menorah and light them to shine in the darkness.” How awesome — shine a light into the darkness, and more—do it for eternity. Thus was born our Ner Tamid, the Eternal Lamp, not as a lamp lit to shine eternally, but to be lit every day, for eternity: a light in the darkness. I love that image.
After further instruction on a few other matters, we come to the main event. So much happened along the way, so much peril and danger and disaster—and now we must leave Sinai. The complaining begins: “I don’t like manna!” “Why couldn't You have just left us in Egypt?” “Are we there yet?” Then, to add insult to injury, Aaron and Miraim voice complaints of their own. They moan, “How could he embarrass us so, by marrying that woman? How does it look to the neighbors? Aren't we prophets, too?”
God schools them both, and when they leave the Tent, Miriam is covered in white scales. She's become a leper. Aaron is horrified. No leprosy for him, but horrified nonetheless. Moshe prays “El na r’fah na la—O God, please heal her.” God isn't so willing to forgive just yet, and exiles her from the community for seven days.
For seven days, Miriam is to separate herself, live disconnected from her community. For seven days, Miriam is alone.
There is injustice here, and it's so easy to focus on the whys of it-- why would Aaron escape unpunished? Surely he was just as guilty. In fact—more so! He built the golden calf after all! The rabbis tell us that this, in fact, was his punishment, that he would know, forever, that he had done this.
I don’t buy that. I think it’s an example of capricious Divine behavior. But I was reminded that I could just as easily look, not at the why of it, but ask, instead, what's the lesson we learn from it?
Miriam was exiled for her voice. How often do we exile the dreamers and prophets, the broken and damaged of us? We cringe, and we banish them, proclaiming their apostasy: "Get out. Stay out. You're not welcome here. We don't want your kind here."
Whatever the words, we exile the Other. We look the other way when confronted with need or pain. It's so easy to say “Pull yourself together! You've grieved long enough, suffered long enough, cried long enough, complained long enough-- just get over it."
Worse, we are often way too ready to exile ourselves. We've made it so difficult, so demeaning to ask for help, that we prefer to live in dark exile. For some of us, the pain is so great, the separation so complete, we choose to exile ourselves permanently.
Miki Raver, in her book, Listen to Her Voice, tells us that the lesson of Miriam’s exile is this: just as Miriam had waited by the river to watch over her brother Moshe in the river, so, too, did all of Israel wait for Miriam to be healed.
Not just the people; God waited as well. They moved when God did, so as long as the God hung about as a cloud over the Mishkan, the people stayed put. All during Miriam’s exile, for those seven lonely days, the cloud hovered over the Tent.
Perhaps they could have done more. We can always do more, but we must never forget that, in the desert, in our own exile and darkness, we can only survive as a community.
This parasha began with instructions to raise up the candles, to light the darkness. It is my hope that we will find a way to bring the exile in, help them heal, light their darkness and share the burdens of their journeys, just as we hope and pray to find candles along the way to light our own.
c Stacey Zisook Robinson
c Stacey Zisook Robinson