MOSHE’S FAMILY SQUABBLE

  • Rav Yaakov Beasley

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In memory of Yakov Yehuda ben Pinchas Wallach
and Miriam Wallach bat Tzvi Donner

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PARASHAT BEHA'ALOTEKHA

 

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This shiur is dedicated in memory of Shmuel b'reb David Ehrenhalt, z"l,
father of our alumnus Steve.
May the entire Ehrenhalt family be comforted among the mourners of Tzion  and Yerushalayim.

 

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Yeshivat Har Etzion mourns the death of Yona Baumel, z"l.
Mr. Baumel died on Friday without fulfilling his heart's deepest desire:
to discover the fate of his son – and our talmid -  Zecharia,
last seen on the Sultan Yakoub battlefield in Lebanon 27 years ago.

We continue to pray for Zecharia's return.
Ha-Makom yenakhem etkhem be-tokh she'ar avelei Tzion ve-Yerushalayim.

 

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MOSHE’S FAMILY SQUABBLE

 

By Rabbi Yaakov Beasley

 

 

A.        INTRODUCTION

 

Our parasha is the watershed not only of Sefer Bamidbar, but of Jewish history.  Parashat Beha’alotekha is a parasha of transition and motion.  The people leave Har Sinai, scene of their encampment for almost a year, the place where they had remained from the time they triumphantly left Egypt, and head towards the promised land of Eretz Yisrael.  As the people begin to move, the complaints, absent while living in the Divine shadow of the mountain, reappear.  The Jewish people challenge Moshe to provide them with meat - "If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost - also the cucumbers, melons, leeks, onions and garlic. But now we have lost our appetite; we never see anything but this manna!" Their desire for meat distresses Moshe, as does their false nostalgia and ingratitude, so much so that he prays to die.  Ultimately, with the appointment of new leadership to assist him, the crisis passes, but then a new challenge arises:

 

And Miriam and Aharon began to talk against Moshe because of his Cushite wife, for he had married a Cushite. "Has Hashem spoken only through Moshe?" they asked. "Hasn't he also spoken through us?" And Hashem heard this.  (12: 1, 2)

 

B.        THE COMPLAINT

 

Let us analyze the nature of Miriam and Aharon’s complaint against Moshe.  The connection between the story's first two verses appears tenuous.  If the Cushite woman is the source of the contention,[1] why does the comparative level of prophecy between the siblings matter?  The commentators attempt to connect the two issues:

 

And Miriam and Aharon began to talk against Moshe – as she initiated the conversation, the text mentions her first.  How did Miriam know that Moshe had separated from his wife [Tzipporah]?  R. Natan answered:  Miriam was with Tzipporah when it was told to Moshe, “Eldad and Meidad are prophesying in the camp” (11:27).  When Tzipporah heard this, she exclaimed, “Woe to their wives if they have anything to do with prophecy, for they will separate from their wives just as my husband separated from me!”  From this cry, Miriam learned about it, and she told it to Aharon.  Now, if Miriam, who did not intend to disparage him, was nonetheless punished severely, how much more so one who deliberately speaks in a disparaging manner about their fellow! (Rashi)

 

Miriam said:  The Divine Word came to me, yet I did not separate from my husband.  Aharon said:  The Divine Word came to me, yet I did not separate from my wife.  The Divine Word came to our forefathers, yet they did not separate from their wives.  But he [Moshe] prides himself on his prophetic accomplishments, so he separates himself from his wife. (Avot De-Rabbi Natan)

 

According to this approach, the criticism of Moshe regarded his excessive seclusion and withdrawal from domestic life. This complaint seems justified at first glance, as the Rambam points out:

 

One might think [it virtuous to live an ascetic life] to the point that one refuses to eat meat or drink wine, to not marry or live in a beautiful home, and to not wear handsome clothing… as do the pagan priests – this too is an evil way that is prohibited.  One who chooses such a path is a sinner…

 

Regarding such ideas, and others of this genre, Shlomo Ha-Melekh enjoined and said:  Don’t be over-righteous and don’t be a wise man to excess! (Kohelet 7:16) (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot De’ot 3:1)

 

For this reason, the midrashic approach (as echoed in Rashi) came under heavy from the medieval commentator Joseph Ibn Caspi:

 

I am surprised at the ancients, who are so much more perfect than me… how it ever occurred to them to explain a text in the Torah the very reverse of its written meaning…

 

I therefore maintain that the text bears no other interpretation but that Moshe took a Cushite woman.  What happened was that after Moshe married Tzipporah, he took another wife, for reasons that we know nothing about, and it is not our business to pry into his motives…

 

Had Moshe separated himself completely from women, adopting a life of celibacy as the ancients averred, Moshe would not have been the most perfect man that had ever walked the world.  Our Sages have stated, “Whoever is greater than his fellow, his impulses are greater than his.”  His natural vitality and activities had not become weakened at eighty and even at a hundred (Abraham begat a son at a hundred).  Accordingly, we cannot accept that Moshe became celibate, since he was no Franciscan, Augustine, or Carmelite monk.

 

While the polemical, anti-Christian message is clear, Ibn Caspi’s assertion that the text cannot carry a contradictory message is less solid.  Either way, according to this approach, what was the sin of Miriam and Aharon in criticizing Moshe, and how does Ibn Caspi view the connection between the first two verses?

 

Miriam and Aharon criticized Moshe for taking another wife because they were ignorant of his motives in doing so. They said: "Has Hashem spoken only through Moshe?"  They did not take into account Moshe’s superior wisdom… and the motives leading him to taking another wife… They should have said: “He knows what he is doing, and if it appears to be a vain thing, it is only so to us.”  But because they were equal in prophecy, they equated themselves to him in all facets…

 

Accordingly, their claim to being Moshe’s equal in prophetic accomplishments was correct; their sin was of pride in assuming their equality to him in all matters, which led them to criticize without delving into his motivations or giving him the benefit of the doubt.  If so, however, why does Hashem intervene specifically upon their claim of equal prophetic accomplishments, as it states, “And Hashem heard this”?

 

C.        DIVINE INTERVENTION

 

Let us analyze the nature of Hashem’s words to Miriam and Aharon to help us elucidate the true nature of their complaint and their error. 

 

3 Now the man Moshe was very humble, above all the men that were upon the face of the earth. 4 And Hashem spoke suddenly unto Moshe, and unto Aaron, and unto Miriam: "Come out you three unto the tent of meeting." And they three came out. 5 And Hashem came down in a pillar of cloud, and stood at the door of the Tent, and called Aharon and Miriam; and they both came forth. 6 And He said: "Hear now My words: if there be a prophet among you, I Hashem do make Myself known unto him in a vision, I do speak with him in a dream. 7 My servant Moshe is not so; he is trusted in all My house. 8 With him do I speak face to face, even manifestly, and not in visions; and the similitude of Hashem he beholds. Wherefore, then, were you not afraid to speak against My servant, against Moshe?" 9 And the anger of Hashem was kindled against them, and He departed. 10 And when the cloud was removed from over the Tent, behold, Miriam was leprous, as white as snow; and Aharon looked upon Miriam; and, behold, she was leprous.

 

We note here the irony – Moshe, who himself once received tzara’at (translated as leprosy) for speaking ill of the Jewish people at the beginning of his stewardship, is now the victim of unwarranted slander, not from strangers, but from his own flesh and blood.  The two people who had accompanied him from the beginning of his path – “And Miriam stood afar to see what would become of him;” “And Aharon your brother rejoices, and he is coming to greet you” –have become the source of Moshe’s suffering. 

 

The interjection in verse 3 before Hashem’s response stands out: “Now the man Moshe was very humble, above all the men that were upon the face of the earth.” The Ramban brings several explanations of its meaning.  In one, he suggests that the Torah, even before Hashem speaks, feels the need to vehemently and emphatically reject Miriam and Aharon’s claim as completely false and lacking in basis.  Another explanation is that verse 3 explains why Hashem had to respond on Moshe’s behalf, for Moshe was too humble to do so himself.  Rabbi Jonathan Sacks takes issue with a simplistic reading of the Ramban, which portrays Moshe as a pushover, unable to defend himself.  Instead, he suggests that the Ramban presents for us the epitome of leadership:

 

Why is Moshe so calm in the face of this seeming betrayal by those closest to him, when in the previous chapter he had been so agitated by the people's request for meat - a challenge of a type he had faced and overcome before?

 

The questions answer one another. The people's challenge was directed against God - or fate or circumstance - not against him. That is why he cared. Miriam and Aharon's challenge was directed against him. It was personal. That is why he was serene. Moshe did not care about himself. If he had, he would not have been able to survive a single day as leader of this fractious, unstable people. He cared about the cause, about God and freedom and responsibility. That was what made him humble.

 

Humility is not what it is sometimes taken to be - a low estimate of oneself. That is false or counterfeit humility. True humility is mindlessness of self. An anav (the biblical word used in this chapter) is one who never thinks about himself because he has more important things to think about. I once heard someone say about a religious leader: "He took God so seriously that he didn't need to take himself seriously at all." That is biblical humility.  (Covenant and Conversation, 5768)

 

However, a fundamental question remains:  did Miriam and Aharon really view themselves as Moshe’s equal in prophecy?  Surely they were witness to what the nation saw and Hashem Himself proclaimed – “With him do I speak face to face”!

 

Never again would there arise in Israel a prophet like Moshe whom Hashem knew FACE TO FACE … Before the eyes of all of Israelwhich is why they believed him!  (Commentary of the Chizkuni to Devarim 34:12)

 

Israel did not trust Moshe Rabbeinu because of miracles that he performed – anyone who believes something because of miracles has a great deal of doubt in his heart … Why then was Moshe believed?

 

Only because of the events on Har Sinai, where our own eyes saw – not those of strangers, and our on ears heard – no one else’s… the Divine Voice speaking to him… as it says, “FACE TO FACE Hashem spoke to you.” (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah 8:1)

 

If the essence of Jewish belief is based on Moshe’s special status, we can begin to understand the need for Hashem to intervene in what otherwise seems to be a minor family squabble.  Even if Miriam and Aharon understood that Moshe achieved heights in spirituality that they never could, they erred in their understanding of the difference between Moshe’s prophecy and their own.  Moshe’s face-to-face confrontation with Hashem was not a one-time occurrence, which enabled the belief in Torah, but rather Moshe entered a realm wherein his face-to-face relationship defined the essence of Torah.

 

Moshe was continuously aware, standing primed just like the ministering angels… This is what Hashem had promised him when He said, “Go say to them, ‘Return to your tents.’  But you stay here with Me!”  (Devarim 5: 27, 28)… All the prophets, as soon as their prophecy is over, ‘Return to your tents,’ that is, to all their normal bodily requirements, just like any other human being – and therefore they do not abstain from their wives.  But Moshe Rabbeinu never did go back to his text and therefore separated from his wife and all everyday life, his mind linked with the Eternal.  (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Yesodei Ha-Torah 7:6)

 

The seventh fundamental principle:  The prophecy of Moshe … the most developed individual of the entire species … who ore through every obstruction and went beyond it who was unhindered by any physical impediment … who was free of the adulteration introduced by imagination, sensibility, and fancy, ad who became pure mind, capable of direct and unfiltered with God.  (Rambam, Commentary on the Mishneh, Sanhedrin 10:1)

 

Ultimately, for the Torah to be proven true, Moshe had to sacrifice his sense of self.  The true level of his humility is revealed when his siblings complain, demonstrating their complete unawareness of the cost he paid on a daily basis for his people.

 

 

[1] The commentators argue over the nature of the Cushite woman.  Both Rashi and Ibn Ezra suggest that “Cushite” refers to Tzipporah, Moshe’s first wife, albeit for two diametrically opposed reasons.  Rashi argues that Cushite implies special, and that Tzipporah was especially beautiful.  Ibn Ezra claims that Cushite refers to her Ishmaelite heritage.  As desert dwellers, the effects of the constant exposure to the sun were starting to have their effect on Tzipporah, making her less attractive.  The Rashbam, on the other hand, argues that in fact, Moshe had married a woman from Ethiopia before his sojourn in Midian, and that this was the source of contention.