In the midst of the story of Miriam’s tzara’at, which we read in the final verses of Parashat Beha’alotekha, the Torah (12:3) inserts a comment about Moshe’s unparalleled humility: “And the man Moshe was exceedingly humble, more than any man on the face of the earth.”
The Rambam, in his closing comments to Hilkhot Tum’at Tzara’at (16:10), discusses the severity of the sin of lashon ha-ra (negative speech about others), and points to the example of Miriam. He emphasizes that Miriam was stricken with tzara’at for her remarks about Moshe, despite the fact that her offense was not all that severe. The Rambam enumerates several factors that mitigated the severity of Miriam’s lashon ha-ra about her brother, including the fact that Moshe “did not care about any of these words, as it says, ‘The man Moshe was exceedingly humble’.” It appears that the Rambam understood this verse as intended to convey that Moshe, in the Rambam’s words, “did not care” (“lo hikpid”) about what was spoken about him, due to his great humility. As he paid no attention to pride or honor, it did not bother Moshe that he was slurred, and yet God nevertheless punished Miriam for her inappropriate remarks, thus impressing upon us the unique gravity of this transgression.
Rav Aharon Levin (the “Reisha Rav”), in his Ha-derash Ve-ha’iyun, argues that to the contrary, Moshe most certainly felt pained by his sister’s offensive comments about him. The Gemara in Masekhet Gittin (36b) famously extols the virtues of “ha-ne’elavin ve-einan olvin” – “those who are offended but do not offend,” meaning, people who do not respond to insults and remain silent when others speak offensively to them. Rav Levin notes that the Gemara does not commend those who do not feel offended, but rather those who are indeed “ne’elavin” – pained by the insult, but nevertheless remain silent rather than respond and allow the situation to snowball. Feeling no pain or discomfort in the face of insults, Rav Levin contends, is not virtuous. It is a sign not of piety, but of foolish disrespect for oneself and disregard for one’s dignity. Undoubtedly, then, Moshe indeed felt pained by Miriam’s remarks. Rav Levin explains on this basis Rashi’s comments to this verse, in explaining the term “anav” (“humble”). Rashi interprets this word to mean “shafal ve-savlan” – literally, “lowly and tolerant.” Rav Levin asserts that the word “savlan” connotes the tolerance of pain and offense. It refers not to somebody who does not feel offended by insults, but rather to somebody who indeed feels offended but tolerates the pain rather than responding. Accordingly, Rashi understood this verse as referring to Moshe’s great humility as expressed in his strength to remain silent and composed despite the pain he felt over being maligned by his sister.