The final section of Parashat Behaalotekha tells the unsettling story of Miriam and Aharon, who spoke critically and disparagingly of their brother, Moshe, for which Miriam was punished with tzara’at. Rashi (12:1), based on the Sifrei, explains that Miriam was punished because she initiated the conversation, which revolved around Moshe’s controversial decision to separate from his wife. Moshe’s measure was deemed necessary due to his unique prophetic stature, which required him to be prepared to receive prophecy at any moment. Miriam, however, condemned Moshe’s decision, noting that she and Aharon were also prophets who heard God speak, and they did not need to discontinue their marital relationships.
Rav Yehuda Leib Ginsburg, in his Yalkut Yehuda, insightfully connects this episode with a different story told of Miriam. The Gemara in Masekhet Sota (12a) relates that after Pharaoh decreed that all the newborn Israelite boys should be killed, Amram, Moshe’s father, divorced his wife, setting an example that others followed. This measure was taken as an expression of despair, as the people decided it was best not to bring more children into the world considering the fate that awaited them. Miriam, however, who was a young girl at the time, sharply opposed her father’s decision, noting that divorcing meant that even girls would no longer be born, and thus Amram’s decree was even worse, in a sense, than Pharaoh’s. Amram accepted Miriam’s criticism, and remarried his wife, and the people did the same. Interestingly, here in Parashat Behaalotekha, too, many years later, Miriam condemns a decision made by a family member to divorce his wife, criticizing Moshe’s separation from Tzipora. Rav Ginsburg further notes that Miriam is commonly identified as one of the two midwives who risked their lives by defying Pharaoh’s order to kill the newborn boys. The importance of bringing children into the world was a matter especially dear to Miriam’s heart, it appears, one for which she stood up to the Egyptian king and to her father. And now, decades later, she stands up to Moshe, as well, expressing her staunch opposition to his decision to divorce his wife.
Sometimes, Rav Ginsburg notes, when a person pursues an important ideal regarding which he has especially strong feelings, he is prone to commit wrongs along the way. When we are consumed with a particular issue or concern, our inherently commendable efforts to address that concern may come at the expense of other important and valuable ideals. In Miriam’s case, Rav Ginsburg notes, her dedication to the vitally important values of marriage and children led her to overlook her brother’s unique stature and to fail to accord him proper respect. The story of Miriam, then, reminds us of the need for balance and perspective even as we pursue important values and ideals, to recognize that Torah life encompasses a wide range of obligations and values, not all of which should necessarily be compromised for any particular cause.