This week's portion: apart
Heading for the Gulf Coast

Offering God compassion (Radical Torah repost)

Here's the d'var Torah I wrote for this week's portion back in 2006, originally published at Radical Torah. Enjoy!

The story of Miriam being struck by snow-white scales is a veritable soap opera. Miriam and Aaron, we learn, are jealous of Moses because he married a Cushite woman, and because Moses has the Divine ear in a way that his siblings do not. "Aren't we special too?" Aaron and Miriam ask.

God is incensed by the question. He calls them on the carpet for doubting their brother's primacy and the purity of his ability to hear the voice of God, and then presto! -- when God departs, Miriam is afflicted with white scales. Moses is so startled that he bursts into spontaneous prayer, "el na, refa na la!" (Please, God, heal her!)

In the end God decides to leave Miriam outside the encampment for a week, as punishment, and when she is brought back into the fold she is healed, and the Israelites go on their way.

Why are Miriam and Aaron jealous of Moses' marriage -- what it is about the Cushite woman in particular who rubs them the wrong way? Why does God respond with such fury to the suggestion that God has spoken through Miriam and Aaron too, and not just through Moses? Why is only Miriam afflicted with tzara'at, and not her rebellious brother as well?

Torah doesn't explain any of these things, but the text shows us some fascinating interplay between the characters in the scene. Aaron and Miriam are jealous of Moses; God, in turn, is angry at the siblings, and protective of Moses' uniqueness. When Aaron and Miriam seek to rise beyond their previous stature, God is angered, maybe disappointed; when Moses pleads with God for his sister to be healed, God huffs that she should be ashamed of herself, and casts her out of the camp for a week.

This is high drama. This is a soap opera. I'm chagrined to admit it, but this is manifestly human nature. It's also a fascinating look at divine nature, at least seen through a human lens.

It's easy to come away from this story shaking one's head at everyone in it. Again and again, during the story of the Israelites' wanderings in the wilderness, the children of Israel disappoint God. They fail to live up to God's expectations. They make poor choices, they are driven by greed, they allow their fears to rule the day. What's interesting here is that I think an argument can be made that God occasionally disappoints the children of Israel, too. This week's narrative is one of flashing anger and vindictive punishment -- not the boundless compassion and limitless understanding we might have hoped for.

But that's part of the point. We can't always (or ever?) entirely live up to what God dreams we can be. Neither does God always entirely live up to what we dream -- at least, not in the modern age, when our prayers are so rarely answered in a form we can understand. And that's okay. Maybe there's something we can learn from the soap opera of missed expectations. Maybe God needs our compassion as much as we need God's.

There's a beautiful story in Talmud which depicts God asking a rabbi for a blessing. The rabbi in the story prays, "May it be Your will that that Your mercy suppresses Your anger, and that Your mercy prevail over Your other attributes, and that You deal with Your children with the attribute of mercy, and that You deal with them beyond the letter of the law." As our relationship with God continues to unfold, what might change if we allowed our own mercy to flower, granting God our compassion, too?