Remembering Miriam's Sin

  • Rav Zvi Shimon





Remembering Miriam's Sin


by Rav Zvi Shimon




I. The Cushite Woman - Black is Beautiful


            Throughout their travels in the desert, the Israelites often complained and criticized Moses' leadership. These expressions of dissatisfaction usually originated from the masses or from a specific interest group. By contrast, at the conclusion of our parasha, the Torah tells of a different assault on Moses. This time, it is not the masses who assail Moses, but his very own siblings, Miriam and Aaron! As you read the following verses, pay attention to any textual difficulties requiring clarification.


"When they were in Hazeroth, Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married: 'for he had married a Cushite woman.'  They said, 'Has the Lord spoken only through Moses?  Has He not spoken through us as well?'" (Numbers 12:1,2)


            The following are some of the questions which arise in the verses cited above:


1) What is the meaning of the word "Cushite"?

2) Who is this Cushite woman?

3) Why does the Torah repeat 'for he had married a Cushite woman.'?

4) What is the content of Miriam and Aaron's criticism of Moses?

5) What is the connection between Miriam and Aaron's words in the second verse: "Has the Lord spoken only through Moses..." and the complaint regarding the Cushite woman in the first verse?


            With these questions in mind, let us begin our analysis. Miriam and Aaron's criticism of Moses focuses on the Cushite woman whom he had married. Although the first question regarding the meaning of the word Cushite is a seemingly simple question of definition, it has far reaching consequences for the understanding of our narrative and the answers to the aforementioned questions.


            The commentators offer different interpretations of the word Cushite. There are those who interpret "Cushite" as an adjective describing the external appearance of Moses' wife, and those who interpret it as a description of nationality.


            Our sages understand Cushite to mean "beautiful." This is also the position adopted by the Targum Onkelus (Aramaic translation, 2nd century) and many of the classical commentators including Rasag (Rabbi Sa'adia Gaon, Persia, 892-942) and Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Yitzchak, France, 1040-1105). According to this line of interpretation, the woman referred to is Tzippora, Yitro's daughter, whom Moses married while dwelling in the land of Midyan, before the exodus from Egypt (see Exodus 2:21). What, then, was the content of Miriam and Aaron's critique of Moses? Rashi cites the following surprising answer of our sages:


"Now how did Miriam know that Moses had separated himself from his wife?  Rabbi Natan says: Miriam was at the side of Tzippora at the time when it was told to Moses (11:27), 'Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp.'  When Tzippora heard [this], she said: 'Woe unto the wives of these men, if they [the husbands] are required to prophesy, for they will separate themselves from their wives just as my husband separated himself from me.' Hence Miriam knew and she told [it] to Aaron."


            Our chapter follows both the designation of the seventy elders appointed to help Moses lead the people, and the incident of Eldad and Medad's prophesying in the camp (see 11:24-26). Miriam coincidentally overhears Tzippora's acrimonious comment relating to the wives of prophets whose family life is hampered by their husbands' prophesying. Upon hearing this, Miriam complains to Aaron about Moses' separating himself from Tzippora and no longer having sexual relations with her. She critiques Moses for concentrating solely on his leadership responsibilities and neglecting his wife and family.


            What is the textual source of this homiletical interpretation? Where does the Torah intimate that this is the focus of Miriam and Aaron's complaint?


            The first textual source is the repetition of the clause "for he married a Cushite woman" at the end of verse one. The Torah states that Miriam and Aaron speak against Moses "because of the Cushite woman he had married FOR HE HAD MARRIED A CUSHITE WOMAN". What is the purpose of this repetition?


            Our sages infer from it that Moses had taken a wife but later divorced her. The repetition and the passive tense of the clause, "had married" emphasizes that Moses was previously married even though he had since separated from his wife.


            A second textual source is verse two: "They [Miriam and Aaron] said, has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us as well?" How is this verse connected to the Cushite woman mentioned in the preceding verse? What does revelation have to do with Moses' wife? Rabbi Hirsch (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Germany, 1808-1888) offers the following elaboration:


"When we look through the whole of the Torah for some relation between marital conditions and prophecy the only case we find is in Exodus 19:15 where the people who are to be deemed worthy of receiving the Word of God directly from Him, as a preparation for that were to abstain completely from sexual intercourse with their wives.  As a matter of fact tradition also explains that the condemnatory remarks of Miriam and Aaron were solely referring to Moses abstaining from sexual intercourse with his wife, a fact which only became known to them on the occasion of the prophecy of the appointed elders.  The complaint was entirely in the interest of the wife, for they found it wrong and thought it was nothing about          which Moses had been commanded, as they themselves and the Patriarchs before them had been considered worthy to receive the Word of God without thereby having to suffer interruption in their conjugal lives.  They overlooked the difference between the stage Moses had reached and their own, and did not know that, when at the conclusion of the Revelation on Sinai the people were told 'Return to your tents' (Deut. 5:27) to return to family life and conjugal intimacy, Moses was commanded to remain separated and given the duty with the words 'But you remain here with Me.'"


            Miriam and Aaron claim that prophecy is no excuse for neglecting family duties and abstaining from sexual relations. After all, they too are prophets and yet did not find it necessary to divorce! They failed to appreciate the difference between Moses' prophecy and their own.


            The Ibn Ezra (Rabbi Avraham ben Ezra, Spain, 1092-1167) and the Chizkuni (Rabbi Chizkiya ben Manoach, France, mid-thirteenth century) interpret the word Cushite differently. They agree that Cushite, here, is used as an adjective describing the external appearance of Moses' wife. However, amazingly, they interpret the word to mean UGLY, the exact opposite of our sages' interpretation! Accordingly, they have a different understanding of Miriam and Aaron's critique of Moses. Miriam thought Moses divorced Tzippora not as a consequence of prophecy but rather as a consequence of Tzippora's homeliness! She thought Moses no longer found Tzippora attractive and therefore divorced her! This interpretation is, in my opinion, difficult since it seems unlikely that Miriam and Aaron would suspect Moses of divorcing for such a reason.


            [One might ask how it is that the commentators offer such diametrically opposed interpretations of the word Cushite. The source of the word Cushite stems from the word Cush, one of the sons of Ham (see Genesis 10:6). It refers to a people of a darker skin complexion descending from Cush. The commentators cited so far interpret the word Cushite in our verse as an adjective describing the appearance of Tzippora. The difference in interpretations might stem from differences in esthetic tastes. It is possible that in the period and location of our sages (approximately 50 B.C.E. - 550 C.E., Israel and Babylonia) dark skin was considered attractive while during the period of the classical European commentators (11th to 13th centuries) it was considered uncomely.]


            In contrast to the two interpretations cited so far, the Rashbam (Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir, France, 1080-1160) interprets the word Cushite as a designation of nationality:


"A Cushite" - "from the family of Ham as is written in the Chronicles of Moses that Moses ruled forty years in the land of Cush and took the queen of Cush for a wife...For if the Torah were referring to Tzippora, why would it state that Moses had married a Cushite woman since we already know that Tzippora is a Midianite [and therefore the Torah's informing us of her nationality is superfluous]. Moreover she [Tzippora] was not a Cushite for Cush is the son of Ham and Midian is the son of Ketora, and of the children of Abraham!"


            The Rashbam, in his unrelenting pursuit of the 'peshat' - the "simple" non-homiletical meaning of scripture, rejects the traditional approach of identifying the Cushite woman as Tzippora. Cushite is not an adjective but a designation of nationality. The Rashbam rejects the possibility that the Torah is referring to Tzippora on two grounds. One, were the Torah referring in our verse to Tzippora, it would be redundant to inform us of her nationality since it is already known to us. Two, Tzippora is not a Cushite but rather a Midianite. [The Ibn Ezra grapples with this point by claiming that although Tzippora was a Midianite, the Midianites were tent-dwellers and dark-skinned, and were also referred to as Cushites.] The Rashbam therefore concludes that our verse is referring to a different wife of Moses and not Tzippora. Hence, the repetition in verse one, "FOR HE MARRIED A CUSHITE WOMAN," informing us that Moses had indeed married a second woman, a fact not previously recounted by the Torah.


            According to this interpretation, what is Miriam and Aaron's complaint against Moses? The Rashbam does not elaborate. Perhaps it is a critique of Moses' taking a second wife? Although a common practice in the time of the Torah, Miriam and Aaron may have found this to be objectionable and unbefitting of a great spiritual leader such as Moses.


            How does the Rashbam explain the connection between the first two verses in our chapter, between the complaint about the Cushite woman and Miriam and Aaron's words, "Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us as well?"? We saw that according to Rabbi Hirsch the connection between the verses is that Moses separated from Tzippora due to his prophetic revelations. By contrast, the Rashbam sees no connection between the two verses. They are two separate and independent critiques of Moses. The first relates to Moses' taking a Cushite woman and the second is a questioning of the superiority of Moses.


            Rabbi Bekhor Schor (Rabbi Yoseph Ben Yitzchak Bekhor Shor, France, 12 century) who agrees with the Rashbam that the word "Cushite" in our verse designates nationality and that the Torah is not referring here to Tzippora but to another woman, suggests a different explanation of the content of Miriam and Aaron's complaint:


"They [Miriam and Aaron] said: 'Could not Moses have found an Israelite woman to marry, that he had to marry a Cushite gentile. Is it because God speaks to him that he becomes arrogant and does not wish to marry an Israelite but rather a woman from afar?"


            According to Rabbi Bekhor Schor, Aaron and Miriam's critique of Moses is an assault on intermarriage. Their critique is not, as stated by our sages, over Moses' separating from his wife, but rather the opposite, over wedding a woman of another nation. They simply cannot understand how Moses could marry a non-Jewish woman. In contrast to the Rashbam, Rabbi Bekhor Schor does see a connection between the first two verses. Continuing his line of interpretation, he explains that Miriam and Aaron buttress their critique of Moses' taking a gentile wife by claiming that although they are also prophets, they nevertheless did not consider marrying a non-Jew. Why then should Moses behave any differently?


            As we can see, the commentators offer very different explanations of Miriam and Aaron's critique of Moses. Our sages explain that the critique relates to Moses' separation from Tzippora due to divine revelation. According to the Ibn Ezra and the Chizkuni, Miriam and Aaron assailed Moses for separating from Tzippora after no longer finding her attractive. By contrast, the Rashbam and the Bekhor Schor do not think that the Torah is referring to Tzippora but rather to a different woman, and the Bekhor Schor explains that the critique was over Moses' marrying a non-Jewish woman from Cush. The reason for this uncertainty and the many different possibilities raised by the commentators in discussing the substance of Miriam and Aaron's critique is the Torah's curtness in describing the episode. One might ask why the Torah didn't provide a more elaborate and detailed exposition of their critique? That would have certainly minimized the obscurity of the narrative!


            Nechama Leibovitch (Israel, 1905-1997) suggests that the answer to this question lies in the sensitive nature of the narrative. The Torah is not interested in dwelling on Miriam and Aaron's critique of Moses. The critique is unjustified to begin with and there is therefore no reason to linger on it. Had the Torah elaborated on the complaint, that would be tantamount to spreading slander about Moses. The Torah's terseness is a lesson on the importance of not exacerbating the spread of slander and defamation.


            Let us return to the continuation of our narrative. After recounting Miriam and Aaron's critique of Moses the Torah states:


'The Lord heard it.  Now Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth. Suddenly the Lord called to Moses, Aaron and Miriam, 'Come out, you three, to the Tent of Meeting.' So the three of them went out. The Lord came down in a pillar of cloud, stopped at the entrance of the Tent, and called out, 'Aaron and Miriam!'  The two of them came forward; and He said, 'Hear these My words: When a prophet of the Lord arises among you, I make Myself known to him in a vision, I speak with him in a dream.  Not so with My servant Moses; he is trusted throughout My household.  With him I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles, and he beholds the likeness of the Lord.  How then were you not afraid to speak against My servant, against Moses!' Still incensed with them, the Lord departed. As the cloud withdrew from the Tent, Miriam was leprous! When Aaron turned toward Miriam, he saw that she was leprous. And Aaron said to Moses, 'O my lord, do not hold a grudge against us for acting foolishly and sinning. Let her not be as one dead who emerges from his mother's womb with half his flesh eaten away.' So Moses cried out to the Lord, saying, 'O God pray heal her!'"(Numbers 12:2-13)


II The Humbleness of Moses


            Verse 3, "Now Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth" is a parenthetical note appearing in the midst of the narrative. Verse 4, "Suddenly the Lord called to Moses, Aaron and Miriam..." is the natural continuation of the end of verse 2, "The Lord heard it [Miriam and Aaron's complaint]". Why is the flow of the narrative interrupted by a description of the humbleness of Moses?


            The Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, Spain, 1194-1274) offers the following explanations:


"'Now Moses was a very humble man.'  This [is stated] to tell us that God Himself was zealous for Moses' sake on account of his [great] humility, since he would never pay attention to injustice [meted out to him] even if he were to consider it such [and therefore God vindicated his innocence].  And Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra explained [the meaning of this phrase] by saying that Moses never sought superiority over any person, nor did he ever pride himself at all about his high position, and certainly not in relation to his brother, thus they [Miriam and Aaron] sinned by speaking against him for no reason.


            The Ramban raises two possible explanations for the Torah's noting of Moses' humbleness, the first, his own, and the second, the Ibn Ezra's. According to the Ramban's explanation, the Torah preempts God's response to the attack on Moses, in order to explain the necessity for God's intervention. Moses' humility precluded any possibility that he himself respond to the attacks against him. Moses would not defend himself against criticism since he is so acutely aware of his own shortcomings. Therefore God must come to his defense and put Miriam and Aaron to order.


            By contrast, the Ibn Ezra does not read verse 3 as an explanation for the necessity of God's intervention but rather as a rejection of the critique emanating from Miriam and Aaron. Whether we understand the complaint as being related to Moses' separation from his wife, his marrying a second wife or his marrying a gentile woman, the Torah informs us that Moses did not act out of haughtiness. Moses is the most humble person in the world! The verse describing Moses' humbleness informs us that Miriam and Aaron's claim that he acts out of arrogance is totally false.


III. God's Intervention


            The Torah recounts that after hearing Miriam and Aaron's complaint, God suddenly calls Moses, Aaron and Miriam. Why does the Torah stress that God's intervention is sudden? Rashi cites the following interpretation of our sages:


"He revealed Himself to them suddenly while they were unclean through marital relations... to inform them that Moses had acted properly in separating himself from his wife, since the Divine Presence was revealed to him continually and there was no set time for the Divine Communication."


            The sudden manner of God's revelation is to demonstrate the nature of God's relationship with Moses. Divine revelation is not a predictable pre-programmed phenomenon. Revelation may occur suddenly without prior warning. According to our sages' line of interpretation, God wished to show Miriam and Aaron why it is necessary that Moses remain constantly pure. He must always be ready to receive divine revelation since it indeed occurs suddenly. Thus God's sudden appearance serves as a refutation of Miriam and Aaron's critique of Moses' separation from his wife.


            The continuation of God's intercession on behalf of Moses is very obscure. After calling Moses, Aaron and Miriam, God separates Aaron and Miriam from Moses and speaks solely to them. Moses is not informed of the content of God's words to Aaron and Miriam. He simply stands there idly waiting. If God does not wish to speak to Moses, why is he at all summoned? Why not call only Aaron and Miriam? Rabbi Bekhor Schor offers the following interesting explanation:


"Come out you three, to the Tent of Meeting" (12:4) - "Like a man who says, "the three of you, come to court and we will determine who is in the right, you or Moses, for that [the Tent of Meeting] is where the people went to be judged as is written "Whoever sought the Lord would go out to the Tent of Meeting that was outside the camp." (Exodus 33:7).


            Moses, Aaron and Miriam were summoned to the Tent of Meeting to be judged. As in any court case all sides must be present. Here too, Moses, the "defendant" must be present. The Ramban offers a second explanation:


"... The reason [why He said at first] 'Come out you three' and [then in the following verse it says] 'and He called Aaron and Miriam [excluding Moses] is that God wanted him to be present [in the Tent of Meeting] and to see how He is zealous for Moses' honor; and so that he would be available [to forgive them], for God would not forgive them unless he did, after they would beg him and he agrees to [forgive] them."


God desired that Moses be present so that he witness God's zealousness in defending him and so that Moses pray on behalf of Miriam and Aaron after they ask forgiveness. Were Moses not present, Aaron and Miriam wouldn't be able to ask forgiveness and Moses would not be there to pray for Miriam's recuperation.


            We now understand why Moses was also summoned. What remains to be clarified is why Aaron and Miriam were separated from Moses. God summons Moses, Aaron and Miriam together to the Tent of Meeting and then only calls Aaron and Miriam. Rashi offers the following explanation:


"And [He] called Aaron and Miriam that they should leave and go forth from the court towards the Divine Communication.  And they both came forth - And why did He withdraw them, and separate them from Moses?  Because [people should] utter only part of a man's praise in his presence, but not all of it in his presence."


            God wished to stress Moses' greatness to Aaron and Miriam. It is unfit to recount all the praise of an individual in his presence since it might have a negative effect on him and make him conceited. Therefore, God had to "pull away" Aaron and Miriam while recounting Moses' praise. The Abarbanel (Don Isaac Abrabanel, Spain, 1437-1508) offers a different and very interesting explanation:


"Now God only spoke to Aaron and Miriam and not to Moses so that Aaron and Miriam would see with their very own eyes the difference between the stature of Moses and their own. Therefore, He commanded that the three leave their tents and go to the Tent of Meeting and they went there... and then God commanded  Aaron and Miriam to go to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting since God did not want that the three stand in the same place in the holy tent since they were not equals. Therefore God told Aaron and Miriam to leave since they are not worthy of standing in the same place that Moses stands."


            The separation of Aaron and Miriam from Moses is to serve as a visible manifestation of the difference between them. The calling of Aaron and Miriam forward is a reproof of their considering themselves equals to Moses. They are requested to leave the Tent of Meeting while Moses remains.


            Next, God rebukes Aaron and Miriam orally, "How then were you not afraid to speak against My servant, against Moses!" (12:8).


            Rashi makes the following inference from the phrasing of the verse "Against My servant, AGAINST Moses":


"It does not state 'against My servant Moses,' but 'against My servant, against Moses (be-Moshe);' [i.e.,] 'against My servant,' even though he be not Moses, 'against Moses' even though he were not My servant. You should have been afraid of him [as Moses], and all the more so since he is 'My servant.' And the servant of a king [is like] a king. You should have said, 'The king does not love him for naught.'"


The Torah stresses through the seemingly superfluous double usage of the word 'against' that Miriam and Aaron were in the wrong on two counts. They, who were so personally familiar with Moses and appreciated his greatness, should have exhibited more reverence towards him. Moreover, he deserved to be regarded with more respect in light of his being chosen by God to lead the people. An attack of the chosen of God is an affront to God. Thus, they not only sinned against Moses but also against God.


IV. Miriam's Punishment


            In spite of Moses' beseeching, God stands firm on punishing Miriam. The question arises, why was only Miriam punished and not Aaron? Did not both of them speak badly of Moses? The answer to this question appears in the first verse of our narrative, "Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses". Rashi comments on this verse:


"She [Miriam] began speaking first, therefore scripture places her first."


            We would expect Aaron to appear before Miriam. The Torah purposefully changes the order to inform us that Miriam was the instigator and the major driving force behind the critique of Moses. The Ibn Ezra further infers from the singular feminine form of the word 'va-tedaber'- she spoke, instead of the plural 'va-yedabru'- they spoke, that only Miriam spoke against Moses but Aaron listened silently and did not protest. Although even this silent acceptance of Miriam's words did arouse God's anger against Aaron, it was Miriam who received a harsh punishment for she played a more central role in critiquing her brother Moses.


V. Remembering what God Did to Miriam


            Miriam's sin is mentioned once more in the Torah, in the Book of Deuteronomy: "Remember what the Lord your God did to Miriam"(Deuteronomy 24:9). The Ramban offers the following elucidation of this verse:


"'If you wish to guard yourself against being stricken with leprosy, do not speak slander.'  This is Rashi's language.  And in my opinion this actually is a positive commandment, like 'Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy.' (Exodus 20:8); 'Remember this day, in which you came out from Egypt' (Ibid. 13:3); 'Remember what Amalek did to you' (Ibid. 25:17) - which are all commandments.  If so, this verse, too, is like those, it being an admonition against speaking slander.  He commanded by way of a positive precept that we remember the great punishment which God inflicted upon the righteous prophetess who spoke only about her brother upon whom she had bestowed her mercy and whom she loved as herself.  And she spoke nothing wrong to his face, but only, in privacy, between herself and her holy brother [Aaron].  Yet all her good deeds were of no avail to her!" (Deuteronomy 24:9).


            According to the Ramban it is a commandment to remember the punishment inflicted upon Miriam for speaking against Moses. Our narrative serves as a warning to the generations to beware of speaking slander. God heard Miriam speak out unjustly against her brother and punished her by inflicting her with leprosy. Although her intentions were positive and she had no desire whatsoever of denigrating Moses, she was nevertheless punished severely. Miriam's sin was especially severe in that she spoke out against Moses, the greatest prophet of all times. However the Torah recounts this narrative as a warning of the severity of speaking slander, no matter whom it is directed at. Remember what the Lord your God did to Miriam!