Every individual who grows up in a family with siblings knows that our primary relationships can retain power throughout our lives. Whether we are the eldest, the youngest or in the middle, each of us is shaped and challenged by the connections, or the disconnections, of our earliest years.
The book of Genesis is filled with narratives of sibling rivalry, as well as providing multiple examples of the range of roles that parents play in either fostering or diffusing conflict or cooperation between their children.
In Parashat B'haalot'cha, Aaron and Miriam, after years of serving as leaders of the people, challenge their brother's leadership. "Has the Holy One spoken only through Moses?" they ask. "Has [God] not spoken through us as well?"
God responds as a parent, summoning the three siblings, and making it clear that Moses enjoys a unique relationship with God: " 'with him I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles, and he beholds [my] likeness. How then did you not shrink from speaking against My servant Moses!' "
We read this chapter at a time of year when many families come together for graduations, weddings and other gatherings. As we prepare for these occasions, like Miriam and Aaron, we may bring with us unresolved conflicts and jealousies.
Even when the incidents that may have caused old wounds are long past, we often stoke the fires of old angers, sometimes poisoning relationships between generations. Are we, like our biblical forbears, burdened by hurts and resentments?
As the portion continues, God — incensed by the siblings' conflict — becomes a punishing parent. Miriam is "stricken with snow-white scales," and Aaron turns to Moses in panic. Moses responds by addressing God with five plaintive words: "El na r'fah na la: O God, pray heal her!" These words have become the most oft-repeated Jewish prayer for healing — a compact, clear petition to the Compassionate One, the Source of Healing.
Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann writes: "Except for God's name, each word ends in a vowel, as if each word were an un-ending cry. It is as if each word is punctuated with an exclamation point, the brevity of the syllables giving voice to the tortured helplessness of the supplicant … ."
Moses, the slave who grew up in Pharaoh's palace and became the leader of the Jewish people, the man who was chosen by God to receive and transmit the Torah to the world, opens his heart and cries out as a brother distraught by his sister's affliction.
Our sages teach that "words that come from the heart enter the heart." God hears the cry of Moses, and the people hear their leader's pain. In this moment, the children of Israel see their deep connection with one another and with their leaders; they recognize that they are family to one another.
As the people continue their wilderness journey, Moses' leadership will again be challenged. B'ha'alotekha offers us a glimpse into the heart of our people's story: care and compassion for one another can and finally must eclipse crippling anger and jealousy. Moses cries out to his God in awe and terror. And his plea is answered. The people continued on their way when Miriam returned to their midst. And we continue on our way, moved by the healing power of a brother's love for his sister and his God.
Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, Ph.D., serves as the worship specialist for the Union for Reform Judaism: E-mail her at: [email protected]