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Miriam in the Desert

Consider Miriam’s experience of exile and investigate the parallels between her story and moments of alienation and isolation in your own life.

Overview

Enduring Understandings

  • Difficult times are a universal part of the human experience, as are celebration and joy
  • Stories of exile and exclusion in the Torah can inform our own experiences with isolation and alienation
  • Creating art about women in Torah continues the millennia-old tradition of interpretation, while bringing female characters to the center of the process

Essential Questions

  • Why is Miriam's story important?
  • How can the story of Miriam’s exile help us deal with moments of isolation and alienation in our own lives?
  • How does Alicia’s song contribute to our understanding of Miriam’s story?

Notes to Teacher

We encourage you to make this curriculum your own. For instance, if there isn’t time during your class period to have students sketch out their own creative interpretations, you can either leave this part out or treat it as an extension activity.

We also encourage you to include as much hevruta (partner) study as possible. If you are new to hevruta study, you can think of it as discussion between two partners who can help each other learn by challenging each other’s first impressions. Breaking the group into pairs and having them read texts out loud, rather than silently, is an essential part of hevruta study.

Lastly, when studying the Torah text, we find it helpful to have students identify every problem, difficulty, or moment of confusion they can find in the text, as if they were on a scavenger hunt. This opens up the door to midrash, the Jewish tradition of creative Torah interpretation, which imagines answers to those questions.

Introductory Essay(s)

"Snow/Scorpions and Spiders"

by Alicia Jo Rabins

Miriam’s exile strikes me as particularly harsh for two reasons. First, she is Moses’ older sister and has protected him before. Second, as you probably noticed, both Miriam and Aaron criticize their brother Moses but only Miriam is punished. In my song, I focused on the first issue above.

The young Miriam, who once risked her life to look after Moses as he floated down the Nile under Pharaoh’s rule, is now exiled for criticizing him. I thought about the stark contrast between Miriam’s experience and Moses’, how Miriam would feel as God invites her younger brother up on the mountain to receive the Torah, while telling the women to stay back. I wondered how she would experience God’s mysterious and harsh response to Moses’ prayer for healing: “if her father spit in her face, wouldn’t she have to bear her shame for seven days?”

I could only imagine that, hearing this, she might choose to leave rather than continue this sort of relationship with God. And I wondered what she might learn out in her desert exile. Moses also had to ascend Mount Sinai alone to receive the Torah; I imagine that Miriam also received some wisdom in her desert solitude. But Miriam’s wisdom, rather than a Divinely inspired book of laws, was about the cycles of nature.

Lesson Plan

Intro

  • Invite students to introduce themselves and to share a moment in their lives when they experienced solitude or loneliness.

Core Text

  • Introduce hevruta, divide class, pass out source sheets
  • Hevrutas read source text to each other and explore discussion questions
  • Come back together to discuss what arose in hevruta. Begin by inviting students to share their most interesting questions and listing them on the board. Explain that finding unanswered questions in the text is the starting point of midrash(interpretation of Torah).
  • If you find that students are eager to debate about answers to their questions, this can lead to great discussion, but remind them that the Jewish interpretative tradition allows for multiple answers to a single question.

Song

  • Listen to “Snow/Scorpions and Spiders” with lyrics
  • Discuss questions as a group

Create Your Own Midrash

  • Time for individual brainstorming/freewriting/drawing with “Ideas to Jump-Start Your own Creative Interpretations”
  • If time, opportunity to share creative responses. Students should resist the temptation to critique others’ responses.
  • Share students’ midrashim by adding them to the Gallery of Biblical Women on the Girls in Trouble website

Document Studies

Song Recording

Song Recording

Snow/Scorpions and Spiders

Full image
Audio recording of Alicia Jo Rabins' song, "Snow/Scorpions and Spiders."

Biblical Text with discussion questions

Biblical Text with discussion questions

Numbers 12:1–15

1Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses about the Cushite woman he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman. 2They said, “Has God spoken only through Moses? Has God not spoken through us as well?” God heard it. 3Now Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth.

4Suddenly God called to Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, “Come out, you three, to the Tent of Meeting.” So the three of them went out. 5God came down in a pillar of cloud, stopped at the entrance of the Tent, and called out, “Aaron and Miriam!” The two of them came forward; 6and God said, “Hear these My words: When a prophet of God arises among you, I make Myself known to him in a vision, I speak with him in a dream. 7Not so with My servant Moses; he is trusted throughout My household. 8With him I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles, and he beholds the likeness of God. How then did you not shrink from speaking against My servant Moses!” 9Still incensed with them, God departed. 10As the cloud withdrew from the Tent, there was Miriam stricken with snow-white scales! When Aaron turned toward Miriam, he saw that she was stricken with scales. 11And Aaron said to Moses, “O my lord, account not to us the sin which we committed in our folly. 12Let her not be as one dead, who emerges from his mother’s womb with half his flesh eaten away.” 13So Moses cried out to God, saying, “O God, pray heal her!”

14But God said to Moses, “If her father spat in her face, would she not bear her shame for seven days? Let her be shut out of camp for seven days, and then let her be readmitted.” 15So Miriam was shut out of camp seven days; and the people did not march on until Miriam was readmitted.

Translation: JPS, edited

במדבר יב

1וַתְּדַבֵּר מִרְיָם וְאַהֲרֹן בְּמֹשֶׁה עַל־אֹדוֹת הָאִשָּׁה הַכֻּשִׁית אֲשֶׁר לָקָח כִּי־אִשָּׁה כֻשִׁית לָקָח׃ 2וַיֹּאמְרוּ הֲרַק אַךְ־בְּמֹשֶׁה דִּבֶּר יְהוָה הֲלֹא גַּם־בָּנוּ דִבֵּר וַיִּשְׁמַע יְהוָה׃ 3וְהָאִישׁ מֹשֶׁה ענו [עָנָיו] מְאֹד מִכֹּל הָאָדָם אֲשֶׁר עַל־פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה׃

4וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה פִּתְאֹם אֶל־מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל־אַהֲרֹן וְאֶל־מִרְיָם צְאוּ שְׁלָשְׁתְּכֶם אֶל־אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וַיֵּצְאוּ שְׁלָשְׁתָּם׃ 5וַיֵּרֶד יְהוָה בְּעַמּוּד עָנָן וַיַּעֲמֹד פֶּתַח הָאֹהֶל וַיִּקְרָא אַהֲרֹן וּמִרְיָם וַיֵּצְאוּ שְׁנֵיהֶם׃ 6וַיֹּאמֶר שִׁמְעוּ־נָא דְבָרָי אִם־יִהְיֶה נְבִיאֲכֶם יְהוָה בַּמַּרְאָה אֵלָיו אֶתְוַדָּע בַּחֲלוֹם אֲדַבֶּר־בּוֹ׃ 7לֹא־כֵן עַבְדִּי מֹשֶׁה בְּכָל־בֵּיתִי נֶאֱמָן הוּא׃ 8פֶּה אֶל־פֶּה אֲדַבֶּר־בּוֹ וּמַרְאֶה וְלֹא בְחִידֹת וּתְמֻנַת יְהוָה יַבִּיט וּמַדּוּעַ לֹא יְרֵאתֶם לְדַבֵּר בְּעַבְדִּי בְמֹשֶׁה׃ 9וַיִּחַר אַף יְהוָה בָּם וַיֵּלַךְ׃ 10וְהֶעָנָן סָר מֵעַל הָאֹהֶל וְהִנֵּה מִרְיָם מְצֹרַעַת כַּשָּׁלֶג וַיִּפֶן אַהֲרֹן אֶל־מִרְיָם וְהִנֵּה מְצֹרָעַת׃ 11וַיֹּאמֶר אַהֲרֹן אֶל־מֹשֶׁה בִּי אֲדֹנִי אַל־נָא תָשֵׁת עָלֵינוּ חַטָּאת אֲשֶׁר נוֹאַלְנוּ וַאֲשֶׁר חָטָאנוּ׃ 12אַל־נָא תְהִי כַּמֵּת אֲשֶׁר בְּצֵאתוֹ מֵרֶחֶם אִמּוֹ וַיֵּאָכֵל חֲצִי בְשָׂרוֹ׃ 13וַיִּצְעַק מֹשֶׁה אֶל־יְהוָה לֵאמֹר אֵל נָא רְפָא נָא לָהּ׃

14וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל־מֹשֶׁה וְאָבִיהָ יָרֹק יָרַק בְּפָנֶיהָ הֲלֹא תִכָּלֵם שִׁבְעַת יָמִים תִּסָּגֵר שִׁבְעַת יָמִים מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה וְאַחַר תֵּאָסֵף׃ 15וַתִּסָּגֵר מִרְיָם מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה שִׁבְעַת יָמִים וְהָעָם לֹא נָסַע עַד־הֵאָסֵף מִרְיָם׃

Discussion Questions

  1. What are the most compelling questions that arise as you read this text?
  2. Can you think of a modern story (from your life, or from film or literature) where a contemporary person’s experience echoes Miriam’s in some way?
  3. How might Miriam’s experience of being “shut out of the camp seven days” impact her sense of self? How might it affect her relationship to God, Moses, and her community?

Song lyrics with discussion questions

Song lyrics with discussion questions

Snow/Scorpions And Spiders, by Girls in Trouble

Well my mother named me bitter
Although as a child I was so kind
Hiding myself in the trees to watch over my brother

But still my name was bitter
Bitter the taste of the sea
Bitter the cries of the horses drowning behind us

If anybody had asked me
I might not have chosen to go
But everyone knows
Sometimes you don't have a choice

So when he said You’re banished, Seven days in the desert alone
I just started walking
I knew there was nothing to say

The scorpions and the spiders
Crawled up to me and stopped in my shade
Together in silence we watched
As the sun crossed the sky

And if your father spit in your face
Wouldn’t you want to leave that place
And if your skin should turn to snow
Wouldn’t you have to go
And if your God should turn from you wouldn’t you turn too.

Still I don’t regret a minute
And I don’t regret an hour
of the week that I lived all alone
at the top of the mountain

Though no voice came down from heaven
and I never saw words written in fire
I did see the birds of prey pick all the carcasses clean

If anybody had asked me
I might not have chosen to go
But everyone knows
Sometimes you don’t have a choice

And if your father spit in your face
Wouldn’t you want to leave that place
And if your skin should turn to snow
Wouldn’t you have to go
And if your God should turn from you
wouldn’t you turn too.

Discussion Questions

  1. Apart from the words, what does the artist convey about the emotional experience of Miriam through the music? (listen once more if that would be helpful.)
  2. “If anybody had asked me / I might not have chosen to go / But everyone knows / Sometimes you don’t have a choice.” The Miriam of this interpretation is resigned; how would your Miriam respond to her leprosy and exile?

Footnoted song lyrics

Footnoted song lyrics

Snow/Scorpions And Spiders (Annotated), by Girls in Trouble

Well my mother named me bitter1
Although as a child I was so kind
Hiding myself in the trees to watch over my brother2

But still my name was bitter
Bitter the taste of the sea3
Bitter the cries of the horses drowning behind us4

If anybody had asked me
I might not have chosen to go
But everyone knows
Sometimes you don't have a choice

So when he said You’re banished, Seven days in the desert alone
I just started walking
I knew there was nothing to say

The scorpions and the spiders5
Crawled up to me and stopped in my shade6
Together in silence we watched
As the sun crossed the sky

And if your father spit in your face7
Wouldn’t you want to leave that place8
And if your skin should turn to snow9
Wouldn’t you have to go
And if your God should turn from you wouldn’t you turn too.

Still I don’t regret a minute
And I don’t regret an hour
of the week that I lived all alone10
at the top of the mountain11

Though no voice came down from heaven
and I never saw words written in fire12
I did see the birds of prey pick all the carcasses clean13

If anybody had asked me
I might not have chosen to go
But everyone knows
Sometimes you don’t have a choice (cont’d)

And if your father spit in your face
Wouldn’t you want to leave that place
And if your skin should turn to snow
Wouldn’t you have to go
And if your God should turn from you
wouldn’t you turn too.

1 The Hebrew etymology of “Miriam” can be read in various ways. One common way to interpret her name is “bitter waters,” since the first two letters, mem-resh, mean bitter (“mar”), and the last two, yud-mem, mean ocean or sea (“yam”).

2 In Exodus 2:1-10, the Torah describes Miriam, as a girl, watching over her baby brother Moses as he floats down the Nile in a basket of reeds. (Their mother has disobeyed Pharaoh’s commandment to kill all Israelite boys, but eventually can hide him no longer and sends him off down the river.) Miriam watches Pharaoh’s daughter draw Moses from the water, offers to find a Hebrew nurse for the baby, and brings him back to their mother to be nursed.

3 See #1.

4 This detail is a midrashic note of my own—building on the Torah’s description of the Israelites passing through the Sea of Reeds, and then the waters closing over Pharaoh’s army in their horse-drawn chariots of war. I couldn’t help but imagine the cries of those horses and how terrifying they must have been.

This line is partially inspired by the famous midrash in which God rebukes the angels for rejoicing in the Israelites’ safe crossing, since Egyptians were dying at that very moment:

As the Egyptians started to drown in the Red Sea, the heavenly hosts began to sing praises, but God silenced the angels, saying, “The works of my hands are drowning in the sea, and you wish to sing praises!” (Talmud, Tractate Megillah 10b)

5 People often ask me where these scorpions and spiders came from. The truth is I once met a spider in the desert who made quite an impression on me. When I was in my early twenties and studying in yeshiva in Jerusalem, I made a solo pilgrimage to the desert in the south of Israel to spend the night alone. I had no tent, just a sleeping bag. So I slept under the stars. In the middle of the night, I awoke to find myself staring at a very large black spider a couple feet from my head.

My heart was racing, but there was nothing I could do unless I wanted to keep vigil all night long. I ended up drawing a circle around my sleeping bag in hopes of some vague protection and going back to sleep. In the morning I awoke – no trace of the spider, who (since hadn’t bitten me or crawled into bed with me) now seemed like a friendly visitor instead of an antagonist.

But there are some other cool scorpion and spider sources in Judaism, too. It seems to me that these insects represent the parts of life that seem ugly, that we wish would go away. These parts actually may be the thing to save us one day. The following story is a good illustration of this idea.

The midrash tells the story of King David, one of the most intelligent men in Jewish history who as a young boy once asked for what purpose G-d created spiders on this earth. G-d answered that there would come a day when King David would need a spider and then he would thank G-d for creating the spider. Many years later, when David incurred the wrath of King Saul, and was on the run from Saul’s soldiers, David escaped into a cave to hide. He heard the soldiers near the cave and knew they would find him.

Suddenly a big spider appeared in front of the cave, and spun a web across the opening. When the soldiers came they did not look in David’s cave, because they assumed that he would have torn the web when he entered the cave. David’s life was saved by a spider, and on that day, David understood that G-d was wise, and thanked G-d for creating all creatures. Ben Sira 23B, Otzar Midrashim 47

Source: http://www.jewcology.com/resource/Parshat-Emor-Our- relationship-to-Other-Creatures

6 I liked the idea of Miriam, in her banishment, being able to provide safety and shade to these desert creatures in a way she never could have from the relative comfort of her normal life.

7 People often assume I made this up, but as you know if you just read the text, this “spitting” metaphor is straight from the Torah story, Numbers 12:14! I’m fascinated by how God uses this harsh language to describe God’s own actions, rather than making apologies or excuses.

8 Perhaps the exile, from Miriam’s perspective, was welcome—perhaps she couldn’t have just gone on as if nothing happened, and she herself needed to recover from this event as much as G-d “needed” to punish her.

9 Snow-white scales on a person’s skin is the Torah’s classic description of Biblical leprosy (which, by the way, is totally different from medical leprosy.) in this case, Numbers 12:10.

10 Numbers 12:17

11 This, and the following two lines, implicitly compare Miriam’s experience to Moses’. I find it interesting to think about them side by side: this brother-sister pair of leaders, with their shared histories, similarities and differences. Earlier in the Torah, God invites moses up to receive the Ten Commandments alone on a mountain; here, God sends Miriam away for a seven-day exile in the wilderness.

Both of them are singled out and experience isolation from the community; but Moses is invited up a mountain, drawn closer to God during that time, and given a sacred text, while Miriam is sent further away, out into the desert. What does she learn out there? Is there a Torah out there, too, a different kind of wisdom that comes from being excluded rather than invited in?

12 The Zohar, perhaps the most important book in Jewish mysticism, famously describes the letters of Torah as “black fire on white fire.”

13 I am interested in what Miriam might have learned out there in the wilderness. Sometimes I imagine her desert week as the ancient equivalent of a seven-day silent meditation retreat. As opposed to the Torah Moses received on Sinai, her wisdom would not be increased through words or specific instructions, but through observing the natural world around herself—the cycles of day and night, life and death, perhaps even sadness and joy. I like to think Miriam returned with her own Torah of solitude and maybe was able to pass that on to some of her disciples, as Moses passed down the scrolls he received on Mount Sinai. Maybe some of that wisdom can comfort us in our own times of personal moments of exile or isolation.

Ideas to Jump-Start Your own Creative Interpretations

Ideas to Jump-Start Your own Creative Interpretations

Ideas to Jump-Start Your own Creative Interpretations

  • Write a journal entry by Miriam during her time in the desert
  • Write a letter from Miriam to someone in the story (God, Moses, Aaron, the Israelites)
  • Does this story remind you of any experiences in your own life, or the lives of people you know?
  • Sketch what you think Miriam looked like before, during, or after this experience
  • Write a dialogue between Miriam and God, Moses or Aaron at any point during this story
  • If you’re a dancer, choreograph a dance about the moment Miriam is struck with leprosy
  • Write a traditional-style midrash solving one of the difficulties you found in the text
  • Summarize Miriam’s story in six words
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Cover Art for "Miriam in the Desert"
Full image
Cover art by Uri Berkowitz for "Miriam in the Desert," a lesson plan from the "Girls in Trouble" curriculum by Alicia Jo Rabins.

How to cite this page

Jewish Women's Archive. "Miriam in the Desert." (Viewed on December 16, 2017) <https://jwa.org/teach/girlsintrouble/miriam-in-the-desert>.

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