Parashat Beha’alotekha concludes with the story of Miriam’s being stricken with tzara’at (leprosy) as a punishment for speaking derogatorily about her brother, Moshe. During the time she was afflicted with tzara’at, for seven days, she was required to remain outside the Israelite camp (12:14-15). This followed the law requiring somebody who was determined to be a metzora (person stricken with tzara’at) to remain quarantined outside the camp until he was healed (Vayikra 13:46).
The Gemara in Masekhet Zevachim (101b-102a) raises the question as to how the halakhic process of determining Miriam’s status unfolded. If a person is stricken with tzara’at, even if the discoloration clearly and unmistakably meets Halakha’s criteria for tzara’at, he does not attain the formal status of metzora until he is examined by a kohein and the kohein declares him a metzora. The Gemara thus wonders who declared Miriam a metzora. The Torah states that at the time she was punished, she was alone with Moshe and Aharon. Moshe, the Gemara says, was ineligible to declare her a metzora because he was not a kohein, and Aharon was not eligible for this role because he was her family member. The Gemara concludes that the Almighty Himself made this proclamation, and it was He who conferred upon Miriam the halakhic status of a metzora.
The Maharsha wonders why the Gemara said that Moshe was disqualified only because he was not a kohein. After all, like Aharon, he was Miriam’s brother, and so he was ineligible to pronounce her a metzora also because of his familial relationship to her. Why, then, did the Gemara mention only that Moshe was not a kohein?
Rav Avraham Gurwicz, in his Or Avraham al Ha-Torah (vol. 3, p. 193), cites a creative answer to this question in the name of Rav Meir Yechiel Halstock, the Ostrovtser Rebbe (in his Meir Einei Chakhamim). As we discussed yesterday, the event of Ma’amad Har Sinai marked Benei Yisrael’s “geirut” (conversion), whereby they entered into a covenant with God. However, unlike in the case of standard geirut, they were not subject to the rule of “ger she-nitgayeir ke-katan she-nolad dami,” which establishes that after converting, a convert is no longer considered halakhically related to any of his family members. He is, in a sense, born anew, such that he is no longer legally connected to his relatives, and so, on the level of Torah, he may even marry his relatives (though this is forbidden by force of rabbinic enactment). After Ma’amad Har Sinai, however, Benei Yisrael remained halakhically related to their family members, despite having undergone “geirut” at the time of the Revelation. This can be proven from Rashi’s remark earlier in Parashat Beha’alotekha (11:10), based on the Gemara (Yoma 75a), that Benei Yisrael complained after journeying from Sinai about the Torah’s restrictions against marrying relatives. The Maharal of Prague (in his Gur Aryeh) explains that the rule of “ger she-nitgayeir ke-katan she-nolad dami” applies only to converts who make the willed decision to join Am Yisrael. At Ma’amad Har Sinai, however, Benei Yisrael were not given the option of whether or not to enter into the covenant with God. They were forced to make this commitment, and therefore the principle of “ger she-nitgayeir ke-katan she-nolad dami” did not apply to them.
If so, Rav Gurwicz explains, then it is quite possible that – at least according to the Maharal – Moshe himself was indeed subject to the rule of “ger she-nitgayeir ke-katan she-nolad dami.” We might reasonably assume that Moshe, the one who ascended to the top of Mount Sinai and received the Torah from God which he then taught the people, was not included in the coercion, and willfully committed himself to God’s law. If so, then he was considered “born anew” after the Revelation, such that he was no longer halakhically related to his biological family members. Hence, he was not Miriam’s brother, and thus if he would have been a kohein, he would have been eligible to confer upon her the status of metzora.
Of course, this explanation assumes the Maharal’s theory, that the rule of “ger she-nitgayeir ke-katan she-nolad dami” did not apply to Benei Yisrael after the Revelation only because they accepted the Torah under duress. As we saw yesterday, however, other explanations have been offered for why this rule did not apply (such as the fact that they were not rejecting their past, but rather continuing the process which began in the time of their ancestors).
Interestingly, this issue might perhaps be reflected in the question regarding the source to show respect to one’s father-in-law. The Shulchan Arukh (Y.D. 240:24) rules that one is obligated to respect his father-in-law (and the Be’er Heiteiv, citing the Bach, adds that this applies also to one’s mother-in-law, and the Pitchei Teshuva notes that this is indicated by the Shulchan Arukh later, 374:7). The Taz writes that the source of this requirement is the respect shown by King David to his father-in-law, King Shaul. (Incidentally, it is worth noting that David showed respect to Shaul despite the virulent hostility with which Shaul treated him. If, indeed, this forms the basis of the obligation to respect one’s in-laws, then we may reasonably conclude that this obligation applies even if one has legitimate grievances against his in-laws, as in the case of King David…) The Vilna Gaon, however, in Bei’ur Ha-Gra, writes that the source of this requirement is the respect with which Moshe treated his father-in-law, Yitro. The Gaon’s comment, of course, presumes that Moshe was halakhically considered Yitro’s son-in-law. The Taz, who did not point to Moshe’s respect for Yitro as the source of this obligation, perhaps felt that Moshe was subject to the principle of “ger she-nitgayeir ke-katan she-nolad dami,” and was therefore not, technically, Yitro’s son-in-law, such that his honor for Yitro does not establish a model of respect for one’s father-in-law.
However, this would seemingly depend on whether Yitro’s arrival at the Israelite camp, where he was welcomed by Moshe with great honor, occurred before or after Matan Torah, an issue debated by the Amoraim (Zevachim 116a). If this story occurred before Matan Torah, as it appears from the text (Shemot 18), then Moshe was certainly still considered Yitro’s son-in-law, as he had yet to undergo the experience of Ma’amad Har Sinai. (See Rav Tzvi Kreizer’s discussion in Aspaklaria, Parashat Beha’alotekha, 5779, pp. 13-15.)