Mosaic of Miriam in Jerusalem's Dormition Church of Mount Zion. (Deror Avi/Wikimedia)

Tzaraat and Memory

Miriam's skin condition and the war with Amalek, Amnon and Moab are all examples of memory.

Commentary on Parashat Ki Teitzei, Deuteronomy 21:10 - 25:19

The centrality of memory to Jewish self-understanding emerges with great vividness in Parashat Ki Teitzei, which repeatedly enjoins us to remember events in ways that affect ongoing behavior and practice: ”Always remember that you were a slave in the land of Egypt; therefore … observe this commandment” (24:22, 18). “In cases of a skin affection be most careful to do exactly as the levitical priests instruct you…. Remember what your God did to Miriam on the journey after you left Egypt” (24:8-9). ”Remember what Amalek did to you on your journey, after you left Egypt … you shall blot out the memory of Amalek” (25:17, 19). Clearly, the major events of the Jewish past are not simply history but living, active memory that continues to shape Jewish identity in the present. Through telling the story of our past, we learn who we are and must become.

In insisting on the significance of memory for identity, the portion shows that memory can serve a wide variety of purposes and can be used to support modes of being that seem to conflict with each other. The memory of enslavement in Egypt is repeatedly yoked with injunctions insisting upon justice and compassion: “You shall not subvert the rights of the stranger or the fatherless; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pawn” (Deuteronomy 24:17). “When you reap the harvest in your field and overlook a sheaf in the field, do not turn back to get it; it shall go to the stranger, the fatherless, and the widow” (Deuteronomy 24:19). Because Jews once knew hunger and experienced what it was like to dwell as strangers on the margins of society, we are commanded to create a society in which the marginal are cared for and the hungry are provided with food.

Memories of the deeds of the Ammonites and Moabites and the perfidy of Amalek become the foundation for opposite injunctions. those concerning exclusion and vengeance. Because the Ammonites and Moabites did not provide Israel with food in the wilderness, the descendants of these nations should be excluded from God’s congregation, even to the 10 generation (Deut. 23:3-4).

The memory of Miriam’s skin condition (tzara’at) is still another kind of memory, a highly truncated one. Already in the Book of Exodus when Miriam is introduced. it seems clear that she is not being remembered fully. She appears suddenly, leading the women in song at a central moment of the people Israel’s history (Exodus 15:20-21) as if she materialized out of the desert sands. Later, her death and burial are recorded in one verse (Numbers 20:1). There is no account of her passing or of the community’s response; she vanishes, disappearing, as it were, into the desert sands: In this Torah portion, her tzara’at is remembered (Deut. 24:8-9), but not her leadership; her punishment is recalled, but not the challenge to Moses’ authority that she mounts with Aaron (Numbers 12:1-2).

If memory is foundational to Jewish community, then perhaps this one-sided memory of a very important woman in the Torah is part of what creates the preconditions for some of the sexual legislation in the Torah portion. It makes sense that a community that cannot remember its central female figures in all their roundedness will also have difficulty imagining women as agents of their own sexuality and thus will repeatedly subordinate their interests to those of fathers and husbands. We read that if a woman is found not to be a virgin when she marries, she is to be stoned to death on her father’s doorstep (Deut. 22:13-21); that a virgin who is raped should be forced to marry her rapist (Deut. 22:28-29); that a wife who ceases to please her husband can be given a bill of divorce (Deut. 24:1-4); and that a woman who is widowed before she has children must marry her husband’s brother (Deut. 25:5-10). The Torah in this section offers no store of memories of women’s perspectives and experiences that could provide the basis for an alternative ethic.

What do we do, then, when the demands of memory seem to be at odds with each other — when, for example, the partial and distorted memory of Miriam in this portion collides with the notion of remembering the marginalized, including the marginalized within the Israelite community?

The process of remembering brings with it an obligation to ethical discernment: which memories do we want to affirm and further develop and which do we want to repudiate or transform? We cannot forget the commandments to exclude the Ammonites or blot out the memory of Amalek because their presence in the Torah reminds us of how easy it is to respond to vengeance with more vengeance, or injustice with more injustice.

But we can also consciously cultivate memories that encourage us to stop the cycle of violence and domination. When we remember the courage and initiative of Miriam in helping to save her brother (Exodus 2:1-10), when we appreciate her importance to the Israelites who refused to move on without her (Numbers 12:15), when we honor her insistence that her own leadership be recognized (Numbers 12:2), then we lay the foundations for contemporary communities in which women and other “strangers)’ can take their full and rightful place.

Perhaps the process of sifting through memory also can help to make sense of the last, enigmatic verse of the portion that enjoins us to “blot out” all memory of Amalek and yet “remember” at the same time.

How is this possible? Having grown up in a Reform congregation in the 1950s in which women were on the bimah only to light candles, I am aware of how the enormous changes in women’s roles over the last half century make such memories of prior injustices difficult to believe. We blot out the memory of Amalek when we create Jewish communities in which the perpetual exclusion of some group of people — or the denial of women’s rights — are so contrary to current values as to be almost incredible. Yet, if we are to safeguard our achievements, we can also never forget to remember the history of inequality and the decisions and struggles that have made more equitable communities possible.

Reprinted with permission from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary edited by Tamara Cohn Eskenazi and Andrea L. Weiss (New York: URJ Press and Women of Reform Judaism, 2008).


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