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Moses, Miriam, and Divine Light

I should have known that my sister would be the one to usher me through this moment of danger, possibility, and divine intervention. After all, at the beginning of my life, it was Miriam who watched over me as I floated down the Nile and then courageously suggested to Batyah, Pharaoh's daughter, that she could find a nursemaid for the baby (me) that had been drawn from the water. And now, as I once again found myself floating in uncertain waters, it was Miriam who kept me from sinking beneath the eddies and waves of God’s power.

I was struggling. Something within me had felt different from the moment I began my descent from God’s mountain. I was overwhelmed by the power of the experience and I couldn’t find the time or space to process this intense journey of mine.

I thought I had already acclimated myself to the constant transformations and upheavals that had made me both a divinely-appointed guide for my people and a man  lonely in the middle of thousands. At the burning bush, my life’s purpose was refocused, and when Aaron arrived to partner with me, I realized that every aspect of my life would be remade to fulfill God’s needs. My heart hurt when something shifted in my relationship with my beloved, Zipporah, the changes so subtle that I wondered if she even noticed them. After I had spoken to God, Zipporah began to treat me differently, giving me more space than I would have liked. At times, it felt like she had begun to see me as a prophet even though I was desperate to just be her husband and fall into her arms.

When I returned to Egypt, the Israelites treated me as if I was entirely foreign to them. After I successfully followed God’s instructions and brought forth those ten plagues, the people - mine and the Egyptians - gave me a wide berth. Did they fear me? Were they in awe of me? It was as if the closer I became to God, the greater the distance grew between me and my people.

Even my mothers seemed to hold back. At the Red Sea, God’s power coursed through my veins, almost taking me out, and in that moment, I knew that two mothers - Batyah and Yocheved - were aware of my increasing weakness. But they didn’t come to me as they so often had when I was a child. When they looked at me, did they recognize their son? Or was I someone completely transformed? Perhaps into someone who was no longer theirs?  

Remaining on top of God’s mountain for forty days and nights was incredible- overwhelming, disorienting, transcendent, and more. I knew even as I experienced God’s presence that I would never be able to adequately explain what had happened.  

As I descended from the mountain, I felt… different.

All the moments that had come before, when I thought I had been utterly transformed, paled in comparison. Now that I had experienced Sinai, it was as if a world of meaning- once opaque and hiddened- was now brightly illuminated. I could now see through the surface of things and could perceive clearly- what was and what is- in both the wilderness and in people’s souls. It felt like my mind was on fire. Everywhere I looked, it was as if everything was being illuminated by the light of a thousand candles.

And yet, even as I probed my newfound abilities, I saw how they again separated me from my people. Now even my kinsmen refused to meet my gaze. I perceived an intermix of wonder and fear on my people’s faces. I was standing among multitudes and yet I felt shunned and alone.

Suddenly, I felt the tides of divine and human power rising up to my throat, threatening to pull me under. But then, out of the sea of strangers who wore the faces of friends, my sister swam into view. Miriam hurried to me, pushing people out of her way and calling my name. She grabbed hold of my hands and guided me gently into my tent.

She helped me settle onto the floor, and then, looking so deeply into my eyes that she seemed to speak directly into my soul, she told me what everyone was seeing: I was aglow.

She told me I was radiating a bright light from my eyes, my face, my whole being. I was startled by her explanation, worried that I had transformed from a man into something else entirely. How could I be a father, a husband, a brother, a son, if I was not a man? Had I become something foreign?

We sat together for some time. Miriam did not try to comfort me with hollow words. Instead, she used her presence to remind me of the human connections that bound me to this earth. Eventually, I began to understand. I was still Moses, but I was no longer only the man I had been. I had been transformed: by the encounter with God and by the process of inscribing the holy utterances of the Torah itself.(1)

I covered my face with my hands trying to blot out this strange, new knowledge, as God had blotted out the sun back in Egypt. I turned to my sister and unburdened my soul. I confessed to her that I was exhausted from facing the stares and the fears of our people. I wept as I explained how I felt that I must always be strong and resolute- the kind of leader that people prefer to remember. She let me cry and share without comment, without judgement.

The tent fell into silence, and for a long time, we simply sat together, drawing strength from one another and our connection. Then Miriam slowly removed my hands from my face, and looked deeply into my eyes. She offered me a lesson that had been hard won from her own experiences with the yolk of prophecy. She explained that the connection that we have with God is both a burden and a blessing. She reassured me that over time, I would learn to balance both elements just as she had done. She told me that eventually I would understand that the light of God’s love, of God’s trust, was a precious gift, offering great insight. My connection to our God would help me clarify my confusion about people’s intentions and differentiate between friends and foes.

She counseled me to embrace God’s light and to find ways to preserve my own identity lest it be burned away by the power of divine illumination.

Suddenly her eyes lit up, and, after telling me to wait, she ran out of the tent. Moments later, she returned with a large piece of cloth. She explained, “We hang curtains between the Holy of Holies and the Israelites, cloth that protects our people when the power of God is too much. With a veil you would be able to do the same. You could cover your eyes when the the light is too much for you or for the people. It could give you the space to just be Moses the man.

Her solution was simple and reflected both the wisdom of a prophet who understood the burdens of another, and the love of a sister who knew the heart of her brother.

We hugged. I thanked her, telling her how much I valued her strength, advice, and partnership. And, then we left the tent where we had stolen time as brother and sister and went out to handle our responsibilities to our people. She offered me a confident nod, and I walked on, clasping my veil in a tight grip.

I went to speak to Aaron and the elders. And then to the people. As the day ended and my feet dragged with exhaustion. I felt exhausted and fragile. But rather than become overwhelmed by the toll that prophecy had taken on me, I followed my sister’s advice. I put a veil upon my face (Exodus 34:33) and wrapped myself in privacy and peace.

1-Midrash Tanchuma and Prof. Aviva Gottleib Zornberg


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