The portion of the week Be’haloteycha opens with reference to light (,אור in Hebrew, ‘or’)
Speak to Aharon and tell him, raise the candles onto the front of menorah, let the seven candles cast their light. (Bamidbar, 8, 1-3)
And it ends with a reference to the skin (עור, also ‘or’ in Hebrew)
“And behold Miriam, whose skin is leprous, white as snow”
The expression” onto the front of the menorah” raises questions:
What is meant by this?
What is the importance of raising the candles in front of the face of the menorah and not from the back of it?
The word פנים ‘panim’ in biblical Hebrew has a double meaning. Panim refers to the outer side of your face, and p’nim means inside, the inner meaning of things.
So perhaps the instruction Aaron receives is related not only to lighting the candles in the menorah in the temple, but also to raising the inner light, in his inner lamp?
And immediately the association brings me to the Midrash (Talmud story) which tells of Adam and Eve, that before they broke the prohibition against tasting the fruit of the tree of knowledge, God clothed them in garments of light (‘or’, (אור and then, after being expelled from heaven, converted them into garments of skin. (‘or’ ,עור in Hebrew).
That is, their decline in spirituality was manifested in the outer attire of skin.
Our skin is the largest organ in our body. And not only is it the largest organ — it is also the most external and, in this respect, – the closest to physical friction with the light of the Creator.
Through the pores in our skin, we breathe the light of the Creator.
And what happens when the skin is damaged? How does this affect the relationship with the Creator?
Maybe something in the intimacy of the direct contact of the exposed skin with infinite light is impaired?
Maybe this is why Judaism forbids tattooing the skin?
The drama that takes place at the end of the affair related to the punishment of leprosy that Miriam suffers makes me wonder even more.
“Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses regarding the Cushite woman he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman. They said, “Has the Lord spoken only to Moses? Hasn’t He spoken to us too?” And the Lord heard. Now this man Moses was exceedingly humble, more so than any person on the face of the earth. The Lord suddenly said to Moses, Aaron and Miriam, “Go out, all three of you, to the Tent of Meeting!” And all three went out. The Lord descended in a pillar of cloud and stood at the entrance of the Tent. He called to Aaron and Miriam, and they both went out. He said, “Please listen to My words. If there be prophets among you, [I] the Lord will make Myself known to him in a vision; I will speak to him in a dream. Not so is My servant, Moses; he is faithful throughout My house. With him I speak mouth to mouth; in a vision and not in riddles, and he beholds the image of the Lord. So why were you not afraid to speak against My servant Moses? The wrath of the Lord flared against them and He left. The cloud departed from above the Tent, and behold, Miriam was afflicted with tzara’ath, Then Aaron turned to Miriam and behold, she was afflicted with leprosy, her skin was white as snow. (Bamidbar, 12, 1-10)
In the skin disease that God has inflicted on Miriam, is it as if he is ending his connection to her?
I hear a kind of pun between the word leprosy ( in Hebrew: ‘tsara’at, צרעת ) and the word sorrow/grief ( ‘tsa’ar’, (צער , and I’m thinking, is this how God responds to the sorrow that saddened him when she spoke blasphemously to Moses , and hence he brings upon her a disease of sorrow / leprosy? To make her sorry for her actions?
And maybe it was the reaction to her looking with “narrow eye” ( in Hebrew ‘Ayn Tsara’ , (עין צרה at Moses, meaning seeing him with diminishing eyes, that brought the leprosy to her?
Miriam, in her sin against Moses, descends spiritually to an even lower degree than the rank of the “skin garments” of Adam and Eve — not only has she lost her “garment of light” but even her “skin garment” has been damaged.
Speaking from a narrow-minded perspective, complaining, lacking in light, is what turned off her inner lamp, and when the inner lamp went out, then so was the outer connection with the Creator also damaged.
Miriam’s punishment is expressed not only in skin disease (leprosy) but also in exclusion from the community for a week.
And when Moses makes his supplication before the Lord
Please God, please heal her!
God answers him:
Quarantine for seven days, outside the camp, and then, gather together, and Miriam should quarantine outside the camp for seven days; and the Children of Israel did not continue their travels, until Miriam returned. Bamidbar, 12, 14-15
The text actually uses the word “be gathered” להיאסף)) twice. It doesn’t use the word ” be healed”. In the word “gathered” my ear picks up a connotation of death, like in the Biblical expression for death “to be gathered to your forefathers”.
That is, God does not actually promise Moses that Miriam will be healed at the end of the seven days, and the possibility that she will be “gathered to her people,” in the sense of death, exists for all seven days.
Miriam lives in this uncertainty throughout the week, enclosed within the tent and within herself, with the ability to observe her life and actions from a distance, in isolation from the community, from a distant perspective.
And maybe during the week she does manage to gather herself again, realizing that she actually “turned off” her inner candles when she looked enviously and unkindly at Moshe and when she uttered an angry and disparaging speech towards him.
And perhaps she does understand — in the deepest sense — why she was punished. Then she is healed.
The solitary tent at the edge of the desert is also a kind of “grave,” in which the “old” Miriam dies, and the “new” Miriam is born, like the serpent shedding its skin, emerges from the shells.
May we all have the privilege of raising the candles in front of our inner lamp.
And let us also remember that complaints and jealousy extinguish the candles.