Miriam, Aaron, and Moses, and a Family Squabble

June 9th: B’ha’alotecha
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

This week’s Torah portion offers us a glimpse into the family dynamics of Israel’s leading family. In Numbers 12, we read: “When they were in Hazeroth, 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. 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 God 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 be beholds the likeness of the Lord. How then did you not shrink from speaking against My servant Moses!’ Still incensed with them, the Lord departed.”

 “As the cloud withdrew from the Tent, there was Miriam stricken with snow-while scales! When Aaron turned toward Miriam, he saw that she was stricken with scales. And Aaron said to Moses, ‘O my lord, account not to us the sin which we committed in our folly. 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!’”

 “But the Lord said to Moses, ‘If her father spat in her face, would she not bear the same for seven days? Let her be shut out of camp for seven days, and then let her be readmitted.’ So Miriam was shut out of camp seven days; and the people did not march on until Miriam was readmitted. After that the people set out from Hazeroth and encamped in the wilderness of Paran.”

There is a lot in this story for us to consider. What is the actual complaint against Moses? Is there a connection between Moses’ wife being a Cushite and the competing claim for prophetic power? What is a Cushite, and is this term derogatory? Why is only Miriam punished? What does it mean for God to speak to Moses mouth to mouth, or for Moses to behold the likeness of the Lord?

Some commentators think that Cushite is a reference to Zipporah, Moses’ wife. While Cush is the Hebrew word for Ethiopia and Nubia—making Cushite a reference to a Nubian or Ethiopian, some scholars think it could be a reference to Zipporah’s clan in the Midianites, the Cushan tribe. If it was indeed Cushan, then the gossip would be about Zipporah. But, if Cushite refers to Ethiopian or Nubian, then perhaps Miriam’s issue is with her little brother’s second wife—whose name is not given.

We do not know what concerns Miriam and Aaron, though their questions, “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us as well?” suggest to me a concern with the influence Moses’ wife is having over the prophet. We all know situations where powerful people are caught between the differing influences of advisers or family members, and one can imagine Miriam and Aaron expressing their concern that their advice is not being heeded.

As for the punishment, it does not seem fair that misbehavior by both Miriam and Aaron brings about punishment for Miriam alone. Is this a matter of Biblical or Divine misogyny? Anything is possible, but the text gives us a hint that Miriam started the lashon hara (evil tongue/ gossip). In the opening verse, the verb for to speak against is in the feminine singular. In Hebrew, when a male and a female are doing something together, the verb form is both plural and male. In this case however, the verb form is singular and female. Perhaps older sister Miriam started the ugly talk, and Aaron was just drawn into it.

Another possible reason for only Miriam getting leprosy is that leprosy would render Aaron unfit for his priestly duties, and the whole Israelite people would suffer from not having a ritually-abled priest. On the other hand, Aaron had two sons who were ordained and who could function as priests—not high priests, but priests nonetheless.

The most important question regards the nature of Moses’ revelatory experiences with God. When I read the phrase “mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles,” or the statement that Moses “beholds the likeness of the Lord,” my first thought went to Exodus 33. There God refuses Moses’ request to “behold God’s Presence.” As God explains: “I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name Lord, and the grace that I grant and the compassion that I show. But, you cannot see My face, for man may not see Me and live?” Knowing then that literally seeing God face to face is out of the question, perhaps these terms are colloquial and metaphorical, with the real meaning being in the comparison between getting a revelation from God in a difficult-to-interpret dreams and direct communication—“plainly and not in riddles.”

Or we could understand these words as a more mystical message. Since we know from Exodus 33 that the revelation from God is not face to face but rather in letting “all My goodness pass before you,” then perhaps Moses’ wisdom comes from reading the reality of God’s goodness in the world, of perceiving the wisdom that is imbedded in the goodness of life. When one looks hard enough and understands what one is seeing, then God’s goodness and God’s message of goodness, kindness, justice, compassion, righteousness, lovingkindness, and grace is self-evident. We just have to look and perceive—as did our teacher Moses.