Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Behalotcha
Efrat, Israel - “And Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman whom he had taken (to wife); for he had taken an Ethiopian woman (as his wife)” (Numbers 12:1)
Apparently Moses’ sister and brother were criticizing him for something regarding his wife; the traditional commentaries, Targum and Rashi, both agree that they were referring to his Midianite wife Zipporah, who was beautiful (Kushit in Hebrew also has the connotation of beautiful), and whom he had divorced (which is why, they would argue, the Biblical text repeats twice that he had married her past tense). And the heart of their critique comes in the very next verse, “And they said, ‘Was it only with Moses that G-d spoke; did He not also speak with us! And G-d heard” (12:2).
It should go without saying that “G-d heard,” because G-d hears everything! Hence, the verb “heard” in this context probably means “acquiesced,” agreed (as in Lev 10:20). However, immediately following this conversation, the Almighty gives a thundering acclamation of the uniqueness of Moses, his humility and the very special relationship he enjoys with G-d, to whom He speaks “mouth to mouth” and not by any intermediary dream or vision; and of course G-d expresses His anger at the slandering siblings and punishes Miriam (12:5-9). What is the story behind the gossip and which position is G-d really taking?
Maimonides gives us a unique glimpse into his philosophy of prophecy in the interpretation he provides for these verses; and if Maimonides is correct, he helps us to understand both the greatness and weakness of Moses at the same time. Indeed, paradoxically it was Moses’ strongest asset which proved to be the source of his most tragic flaw…
In Moses’ farewell speech – and charge – to his nation, he recounts the awe – inspiring and miraculous revelation at Sinai, when – in the midst of fire, cloud and heavy mist – they all heard “ great voice which did not cease” (Deut 5:1, Targum ad loc), a Divine voice which is continuously audible. And so the Bible declares (Numbers 7:29) “When Moses would enter the Tent of Meeting (of the Sanctuary) to speak with (G-d), he would hear the voice (which emanated from Sinai, interprets Rashi) speaking (to itself, and calling out) to him,… from atop the ark cover… from between the two cherubs…” (Numbers 7:29).
<>Maimonides (Laws of the Foundations of Torah, 6 and Guide to the Perplexed, Part II) explains that the Almighty is constantly emitting Divine messages, much like electric waves (galei teder) always in the atmosphere; the challenge for the individual is to develop his/her mind, heart and soul to reach an extent that they become receiving dishes, that they are able to hear, internalize and transmit these Divine communications.
A prophet is an individual who has developed himself intellectually, spiritually and emotionally to such an extent that he becomes a “receiver” of these messages; however, generally speaking the prophet experiences only certain rare moments of these Divine revelations, after which he “leaves” the intense Divine Presence, as it were, and rejoins the rest of humanity on earth.
And that was precisely what happened to the entire congregation of Israel on the sixth day of Sivan, seven weeks after their exodus from Egyptian slavery, when they stood around Mount Sinai. Every one heard the Divine voice – each in accordance with his individual capacity as a receptor – after which “Go, tell them to return to their tents,” to their wives and families, to the rest of human civilization (Deut 6:27).
Moses, however was in a unique category. His intellectual – spiritual capacity was so finely honed, was so exalted and sublime, that he remained constantly in a state of receiving the Divine communications. In the language of Maimonides, Moses’ active intellect was in constant contact with the Divine/Active intellect. And so after G-d tells the rest of Israel to return to their tents, He tells Moses, “But you remain standing here with Me so that I may (continue to) tell you all the commandments, statutes and laws which you must teach them…” (Numbers 6:28).
Moses understood this to mean that he must never return to his tent, that his constant and intense contact with G-d obviated regular human contact, made normal human and even familial relationships impossible. And indeed, Moses was a “man of G-d” rather than a man of the people. Since he spoke to G-d ‘mouth to mouth,’ he was ‘heavy mouthed,” of heavy speech,” a “kvad peh,” not necessarily one who stuttered but rather one who eschewed “small talk,” who had no patience with the all – too – often paltry and petty concerns of average individuals. In the words of the Ralbag (Gershonides), the people did not listen to him – especially later on about conquering Israel, - because of his (Moses’) impatience with them and heavy-duty Divine service with G-d (“Kotzar ruah and avodah kashah).
Miriam and Aaron didn’t understand why Moses never returned to his wife and family after the Revelation, why he divorced Zipporah. They thought that just as G-d told them to return home to their tents, He said the same to Moses. And although G-d did tell Moses to remain with Him, he did not mean for Moses to exclude his family. The Almighty believed that intensive commitment to G-d should lead to intensive commitment to people, and G-d tried to communicate that idea to Moses by speaking to him from between the two cherubs, objects of the ark-cover in the form of a young man and a young woman. Is not the Biblical Scroll called Song of Songs described by Rabbi Akiba as the holy of holies, and does it not compare the human love of husband and wife to the Divine love of G-d and Israel? And G-d commanded the Israelites to “love your friend like yourself, I am the Lord,” suggesting that the very foundation of human love lies in the fact that each of us has a part of the Divine within him/her self, so that each of us is inextricably united, essentially bound up, with the other. (Lev 19:18, Ibn Ezra ad loc).
But G-d also realized that it was precisely Moses’ closeness to the Divine that caused him to be impatient with his people, that the prophet’s involvement with eternal ideas and ideals of necessity made it difficult for him to accept the people’s complaining and backsliding. Hence G-d chastises Miriam and Aaron for their slander, emphasizing the uniqueness of Moses’ relationship to G-d and the necessity of not judging another until one stands in his/her place. In the final analysis, however, it was Moses’ ability to communicate an eternal Torah for all generations which caused him to lose the ultimate leadership of his particular generation and to be buried outside of the Promised Land.