The closing verses of Parashat Behaalotekha tell of Miriam and Aharon’s inappropriate words of criticism spoken against their brother, Moshe. While the precise content of their criticism is not clear from the text, Rashi (12:1), citing from Midrashic sources, explains that Moshe had separated from his wife, as he needed to be in a constant state of ritual purity given the possibility of his receiving prophecy at any moment. Aharon and Miriam criticized this drastic measure, deeming it unnecessary and harsh. God sharply condemned Miriam and Aharon for their remarks, emphasizing to them Moshe’s unparalleled prophetic stature, and asking, “Why were you not afraid to speak against My servant, against Moshe?” (12:8).
Rashi, citing the Midrash Tanchuma, explains this to mean, “Against My servant, even if he was not Moshe, and against Moshe, even if He was not My servant.” Meaning, it would have been wrong to speak this way about Moshe even if he was just “Moshe,” and not “My servant,” and it would have been wrong even if he was just “My servant,” and not Moshe.
Many writers raised the question of why it would have been wrong to criticize Moshe if he was just “Moshe” and not God’s servant. Wasn’t Moshe’s unique status precisely due to his being God’s most exceptional servant?
Rav Moshe of Kobrin, in his Imrot Moshe, explains that the Midrash is precisely teaching that Aharon and Miriam’s remarks would have been inappropriate even if the subject was somebody of a much lower stature than Moshe’s. The Midrash’s intent is that Aharon and Miriam would have been wrong even if they had spoken of somebody who was just an ordinary “servant,” a person who served God to the best of his ability. Speaking derisively about any “servant” of God, regardless of how he compares with Moshe Rabbeinu, is wrong. The Midrash specifically seeks to instruct that although God here emphasizes Moshe’s uniqueness, in truth, Miriam and Aharon would have been wrong even if they had spoken against somebody of a much lower stature. Any “eved,” all those who see themselves as servants of God and try to live in His service, deserve our respect, despite their faults and shortcomings. One does not have to serve God on the level of Moshe to be worthy of respect and of not being maligned and derided. And thus the Midrash emphasizes that Miriam and Aharon acted wrongly not only because they spoke disrespectfully of Moshe, but because they spoke disrespectfully of a genuine servant of God – and all such servants must be spoken to and about in an appropriate manner.