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06.06.2017 11:31    Comments: 0    Categories: Weekly Parashah      Tags: torah shabbat behahalothekha  

A Fresh Look at Miriam’s Criticism of Moses

Miriam’s criticism of Moses and the punishment given her is one of six events which the Torah commands us to remember:

Remember what the Lord your G‑d did to Miriam on the journey after you left Egypt.  (Deut. 24:9)

Yet the Torah’s account of this event is rather obscure.  The general outline is clear:  Miriam and Aaron were speaking against Moses “because of the Cushite women he had married,” the Lord rebuked them and punished Miriam with leprosy, but in the end all the Israelites waited seven days, postponing the continuation of their journey until Miriam was readmitted into the camp.  Key questions, however, remain unanswered:  What was Miriam’s criticism of Moses?  What was she trying to accomplish by speaking to Aaron?  If indeed she had sinned and was punished, how is it that she merited having all the Israelites, millions of people, wait for her seven days?

Here we shall attempt to examine the story from Miriam’s point of view, giving a fresh answer to the questions raised, while taking into consideration the remarks of the Sages that shed light on this episode.

1.   What act of Moses’ was Miriam criticizing and why, as she saw it, had he done what he did?

Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married.  “He married a Cushite woman!”  They said, “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses?  Has He not spoken through us as well?”  The Lord heard it.  (Num. 12:1-2)

It is not clear from verse 1 what the problem was with the act of which Miriam accused Moses.  According to Onkelos’ translation, the problem was not that Moses had married a Cushite woman, but that he had divorced her.  Such is the reading of Rashi and Ibn Ezra, as well.

In this manner Rashi draws a connection between verse 1 and verse 2:  Miriam said that the fact of Moses being a prophet could not be the reason for him to leave his wife; after all, she and Aaron were prophets as well, but they had not left their spouses.

Looking at the story from Miriam’s point of view we must ask what in Miriam’s opinion was the real reason for Moses leaving his wife?

In our opinion the answer lies in the word Cushite, repeated twice in a single verse.  Targum Onkelos and Rashi indicate that Cushite meant good, and that the word is repeated in order to make us wonder all the more why Moses should have left her.  Ibn Ezra, however, writes:  “More correctly, in my opinion, this Cushite woman was Zipporah…and Zipporah was dark-skinned, like a Cushite.”  In other words, Zipporah was called a Cushite on account of her skin color.  From the continuation of Ibn Ezra’s commentary it is evident that calling someone a Cushite had negative connotations and this, according to Miriam, was the reason for Moses divorcing her.[1]

Like Ibn Ezra, we suggest that the word Cushite accounts for the reason Zipporah had been divorced.  The reason, however, was not because of her external appearance but because of her being an outsider, not from the Israelite people.

Why should this be reason to leave Zipporah?  The answer is plain:  Moses’ marriage to Zipporah was perceived by many as a sin because it brought a foreign woman into the Israelite community and adversely affected his abilities as a leader.  This finds expression especially in the case of Zimri, according to the gemara (Sanhedrin 82a):

He then seized her by her coiffure and brought her before Moses.  “Son of Amram,” he exclaimed, “is this woman forbidden or permitted?  And should you say, ‘She is forbidden,’ who permitted you Jethro’s daughter?”

According to Nahmanides, further expression of the popular criticism of Moses for marrying Zipporah can be found in Moses’ speech before his death.  Nahmanides asks why, when Moses was describing to the people what Jethro had advised about appointing judges, he did not mention that Jethro had been the one to give the advice.  He answers (commentary on Deut. 1:18):

Moses did not mention that it had been his advice, and did not give credit to Jethro… because it would not be to his honor to remind this generation that he had married a Cushite woman.

We can say that this was Miriam’s understanding:  she was of the opinion that Moses could not conceivably have left Zipporah on account of his being a prophet (for, as mentioned, both she and Aaron were also prophets), and therefore she thought that he had done this in order to avoid the people’s criticism for having married her, criticism that got in the way of his ability to lead the people.

According to this explanation, it is easier to understand why Miriam broached the subject precisely with Aaron, of all people.  It turns out that Aaron, too, had to cope with a similar problem in his own family:  “And Aaron’s son Eleazar took to wife one of Putiel’s daughters, and she bore him Phinehas” (Ex. 6:25).

The gemara (Sotah 43a) explains that Putiel was Jethro.  In other words, Eleazar married one of Jethro’s daughters, and she bore him Phinehas.  The gemara adds that this marriage evoked popular criticism of Pinchas when he killed Zimri:

But did not the other tribes despise him [saying], “Look at this son of Puti, the son whose mother’s father fattened [pitem] calves for idolatry; he killed a prince in Israel!”

The problem Aaron had to cope with in his own family was similar to the problem in the wake of which, as Miriam saw it, Moses had left his wife.  If so, it was only natural that Miriam should consult Aaron on the matter.

2.  What did Miriam do to merit the entire Israelite people waiting for her for seven days?

We move on to consider the punishment given Miriam:  she was punished with leprosy, yet she merited having the entire people hold up their journey for seven days, not moving on until she had recovered.  The Mishnah (Sotah 1.9) cites this as an example of reward given measure for measure:

Miriam waited for Moses a single hour, as it is said:  “And his sister stationed herself at a distance” (Ex. 2:4), hence Israel delayed for her sake seven days in the wilderness, as it is said, “and the people did not march on until Miriam was readmitted” (Num. 12:15).

This interpretation requires explanation:  was it by virtue of the single hour that she waited for Moses that an entire nation—millions of people—had to delay for seven days on account of Miriam?

To answer this question, let us return to the story from Miriam’s point of view.  As we wrote above, the logical reason for divorcing Zipporah was the need to cope with popular criticism.  Why, then, did Miriam object to this act of Moses’?

To understand this, let us go back more than eighty years, to the period of bondage in Egypt.  It says in the gemara (Sotah 12a):

Amram was the greatest man of his generation; when he saw that the wicked Pharaoh had decreed, “Every son that is born you shall cast into the river,” he said:  In vain do we labor.  He arose and divorced his wife.  All [the Israelites] thereupon arose and divorced their wives.  His daughter said to him, “Father, your decree is more severe than Pharaoh’s; because Pharaoh decreed only against the males whereas you have decreed against the males and females…He arose and took his wife back; and they all arose and took their wives back.

Amram had a perfectly logical reason for leaving his wife—in order not to beget sons who would be thrown into the Nile.  And yet his daughter Miriam did not agree.  She was of the opinion that maintaining the family took precedence! The problems that might arise from that should be solved other ways.  Indeed, problems did arise.  After Amram took back his wife, Moses was born and was in danger of being thrown into the Nile.  Miriam took action to save him and, when he was placed in the basket, she stood at a distance to see what would happen to him and how she might help.

Accordingly we can say that Miriam’s motive in this week’s reading was identical to her motive in the disagreement she had had with her father in Egypt (according to the homily in Sotah).  In both instances there was a logical reason for divorce, but Miriam apparently thought that the family should be preferred as a value and that the difficulties which might ensue should be solved without harming this value.  In Egypt, Miriam’s position saved the Israelites (for they all took back their wives, following Amram’s lead), whereas in the case at hand, even though her position stemmed from the same ideals, she was severely punished.  That being the case, it is only natural that the people would want to do her a good turn and wait for her, out of understanding for her position.[2] This might also be what the Mishnah intended to convey by saying that the people’s waiting was Miriam’s reward for having waited by Moses—the point is not just the waiting itself, but the entire way that she comported herself in that episode, the waiting only being part of the story.

3.  “Remember what the Lord your G‑d did to Miriam”

According to what we have said above, Miriam’s intentions in speaking to her brother were well-meant:  together to seek a way that Moses could maintain his marriage and to find a different solution to the problems arising from it.[3]

This raises a poignant question:  If Miriam’s intentions were good, why did He who examines the heart punish her so severely?  The Hafetz Hayyim answers this question, saying that Miriam’s sin had to do with the fine points of the laws about lashon ha-ra (derogatory speech).  She should not have decided from the outset that Moses had acted improperly; rather, she should have given Moses the benefit of the doubt and presumed that he had acted properly, until she could speak with him and clarify the matter.[4]

Now we can understand why the Torah commands us to remember this episode with Miriam.  It is precisely because she meant well and because her sin lay in the fine details that the severe punishment given her illustrates in the best possible manner the full gravity of the prohibition against lashon ha-ra.  Thus it serves as a reminder to the extreme care that must be taken in this regard, as Rashi said (Num. 12:1):  “If Miriam, who did not intend to disparage him, was punished so severely, all the more so for one who intentionally speaks in disparagement of his fellow.”

Translated by Rachel Rowen

 
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