The Sensitivity of Jerusalem
Our parsha concludes with the story of Miriam speaking ill of Moshe and God punishing her with tzara’at. While this story does not seem to be of critical importance in relation to the other stories of the parsha, nonetheless, later in the Torah God commands the Jewish people to remember this incident. Some commentators even include this verse in their list of six hundred and thirteen mitzvot, underscoring the critical nature of this story.
Rav Chaim Shmuelovitz explains that this story is central to the Torah’s project since it teaches us the need to be sensitive to the feelings of others. Miriam did not intend to cause Moshe harm and despite her lack of malicious intent she was severely punished by God for a slight lack of sensitivity.
Rav Shmuelovitz adds that looking at the story from this angle helps us understand an otherwise cryptic midrash. On the verse “Remember what your God did to Miriam on the journey after you left Egypt” the midrash highlights the seemingly superfluous words of “on the journey.” The midrash notes that “On the journey” means “when you are unsettled.” What is the meaning of this?
Rav Shmuelovitz explains that this further minimizes Miriam’s actual violation. The Jewish people were traveling when people do not have the time or the space to think things through in a settled manner. One might have excused Miriam’s speech as being a mere byproduct of the tiredness of travel. And nonetheless, Miriam was still punished for her mildly insensitive statement.