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"Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses regarding the Cushite woman he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman. They said, 'Was it only to Moses that God spoke? Did He not speak to us as well?' And God heard. Now the man Moses was exceedingly humble, more than any person on the face of the earth!" (Bamidbar 12:3)
THE BACKGROUND TO THE STORY
Our sages give us some background to the incident (Tanchuma 96,13). Moses stopped cohabiting with his wife Ziporah after he descended from Mount Sinai. When the seventy elders were being chosen, there was a need to deal with the problem of two extra elders that had to be excluded from the group. There were twelve tribes to represent and only seventy sages allowed. The most equitable distribution would have allowed six elders per tribe, but this would have added up to seventy two, more than the number allowed. The decision was taken to write seventy-two names on lots and pick the seventy elders by drawing the first seventy names. Eldad and Meidad, both of whose names had been included in the draw, decided to solve the selection problem by not showing up to the drawing.
For this act of generosity and humility they were awarded with the gift of prophecy, and they began to prophesize in the camp. Their prophecy: "Moses will die in the desert and Joshua will lead the Jews into Israel." Ziporah and Miriam were both present when Moses was informed. Miriam overheard Ziporah remark, "How unfortunate are their wives as their husbands will now stop cohabiting with them just as my husband no longer cohabits with me." Ziporah was so upset about Moses' separation from her that she didn't even react to the content of the prophecy regarding her husband's death, but remained focused on the unfortunate marital consequences of the phenomenon of prophecy, as she understood them. The separation practiced by Moses was obviously undertaken and carried out without soliciting her agreement and against her will.
Upon realizing this, Miriam, who was Ziporah's sister-in-law, decided to intervene on her behalf. She went to her brother Aaron and attempted to enlist his aid. Her argument: she and Aaron were also prophets and yet they continued to lead normal lives including the maintenance of full marital relations with their spouses. Moses was therefore inflicting uncalled for mental anguish on his wife by his ascetic behavior, and it was up to them, his family, to straighten this out and protect the conjugal rights of their sister-in-law.
At this point in the story God inserts the aside regarding Moses' humility quoted above; but this is not what He tells Miriam and Aaron. To them He explains at length that whereas on their level of prophecy marital relations can and should be maintained, Moses is a higher sort of prophet and the extra spiritual dimension of his prophecy mandates the abstention from physical relations he practiced; and that Moses' decision had His full approval.
"Hear now My words. If there shall be prophets among you, in a vision shall I, God, make Myself known to him; in a dream shall I speak with him. Not so is My servant Moses; in My entire house he is the trusted one. Mouth to mouth do I speak to him, in a clear vision and not in riddles, at the image of God does he gaze. Why did you not fear to speak against My servant Moses?"
The commentators explain the background of God's intervention; as He was fully familiar with Moses' extreme humility, God realized that Moses would never defend himself by revealing the truth - that he had reached a higher level of prophecy than even the Patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Therefore it was up to Him, God, to defend Moses from his siblings' undeserved criticism.
First God explained the matter and then He expressed His anger. He basically told Aaron and Miriam that they should never have assumed that Moses was capable of causing needless anguish to his wife Ziporah; they should have realized that if he separated from her, it was done as a matter of strict necessity.
In the event, it is God who made a public incident out of this story. The Rabbis specifically teach that neither Aaron or Miriam mentioned their criticism to anyone, and what is more they spoke directly to Moses and not behind his back (Ohr Hachaim). "And God heard"; only He heard, no one else.
WE OWE A LOT TO THIS PARTICULAR PIECE OF GOSSIP
This incident is regarded as the classic example of the sin of lashon hara, gossip. According to Nachmanides, we are commanded to remember it daily as a reminder to refrain from speaking lashon hora. Miriam, who was the instigator of the incident, was punished with Zora'at, leprosy, the classic punishment for lashon hara.
Ironically, it is to this sin of Miriam's that we owe our knowledge of Moses' humility, and it is through this same incident that we learned most of what we know about prophecy in general, and Moses' prophecy in particular. It is also the prime teacher of the gravity of the sin of lashon hara; if these words, which were uttered with the best of intentions, and were said in strictest confidence and in the presence of the injured party could bring such severe consequences, imagine the harm that pernicious words of lashon hara uttered behind the victims' back can cause.
Beautiful and inspiring, but how can we understand it? Shouldn't we attempt to rescue people who we perceive as injured parties from being victimized? Don't we have a mitzvah to chastise the person we observe injuring someone's feelings? What happened to the Mitzvah of "you shall reprove your fellow and do not bear a sin because of him" (Vayikra 19:17)?
HUMILITY AND A SENSE OF MISSION
Let us begin by analyzing the character trait of humility. What is it? Could it possibly be that Moses, who stood at the pinnacle of human spirituality, who was the greatest prophet of all ages, the redeemer who led us out of the Egyptian bondage, the Jew who brought us the Torah, did not realize who he was? If God could be angry with Aaron and Miriam for failing to realize how special Moses was, shouldn't we expect Moses himself to be aware of his powers? What does humility in a person who realizes that he is the greatest human being in the entire history of the world mean?
According to Judaism life is a mission; each of us is sent to this world to accomplish something specific. Our missions are not of our choosing; it is God Who selects everyone's particular task. Life is not a fortuitous opportunity but a gift from God that is awarded in the form of a task. All human missions are necessary and important; God does not give out life and send anyone down here unless he has something important to accomplish.
Thus, each of us has his own unique purpose; we do not compete with each other. Our opportunity consists in successfully accomplishing what we were sent down here to do by completing our assigned task. We cannot do this without God's help. Consequently, Judaism teaches that there is no room for human pride; at best we accomplish only what we were created to accomplish in the first place and this with a considerable amount of help.
The Jewish concept of humility is based on the idea that life is a mission. When you send a person on a mission you have to supply him with equipment and God assigns us our talents on the basis of His assessment of the sort of tools we require to accomplish our missions. For example, a person such as Moses, whose mission is to become the greatest prophet in history, has to be supplied with a lot of very specialized spiritual equipment to enable him to succeed at his mission. But equipment is always on loan. It doesn't belong to the worker, but to the company, in this case God. It must be returned and accounted for when the job is completed.
Each of us is really identical. Strip us of our equipment, and this includes brains, family, social position, talents, and any other conceivable asset one can think of, and none of us are superior in any way to anyone else. God hands out the missions and to Him they are all important. They must all be successfully accomplished for history to achieve its purpose. As I cannot know whether I am doing better at mine than anyone is doing at his, I have truly nothing to feel superior about. I am simply an empty vessel, filled by God as He saw fit to fill me, and all other human beings are exactly like I am, filled by God as he saw fit to fill them. None of us own any of our equipment.
This idea perfectly encapsulates the humility of Moses. Rava taught: what the Torah said about Moses and Aaron is greater than what it said about Abraham: whereas about Abraham it is written I am but dust and ashes (Genesis 18:27) concerning Moses and Aaron it is written "for what are we?" (Exodus 17:8)(Chulin 89a). Explains Rabbi Chaim of Voloz'hin (Ruach Chaim 1,1): Abraham thought of himself as something, even if it was only dust and ashes, but Moses regarded himself as merely an empty vessel; he contained only what God decided to pour into him.
Rabbi Chaim says that this quality was the source of Moses' greatness; to the extent that we define ourselves as anything at all we are not empty vessels. An empty vessel can be filled. A vessel that is full cannot be filled - the liquid simply spills over the sides. The person who doesn't regard himself as anything more than an empty vessel has infinite potential because he has an inexhaustible capacity that can be filled. The human heart is vast and can encompass the universe, but to the extent that it is full of itself - "I am smart, I am ambitious" etc. - it can hold nothing besides these perceptions about the self.
ROOM FOR A JUDGMENT CALL
Let us take a deeper look at the whole Miriam incident in light of our understanding of humility. In fact there was room for a judgment call concerning Moses' decision to separate from his wife. The Talmud says: There are three things that Moses decided to do on his own initiative and God only subsequently endorsed what he had done. The second of these was the decision to separate from his wife. What was his thinking? He reasoned thus: Israel, to whom God spoke only once - and that at a prearranged scheduled time - were commanded (Exodus 19) "Prepare yourself for the third day, do not come near your wives," I, who God speaks to all the time, and not by prior scheduled appointment, should certainly follow this practice. How do we know that God endorsed His decision? It is written "Mouth to mouth do I speak with him..." (Talmud, Shabbat 88a)
It turns out that God's endorsement arrived only as a response to Miriam's criticism. Prior to the incident of her lashon hara, there was no indication that Moses had done the right thing. Let us examine the criteria that would be determinative of Moses' right to initiate such a separation.
If Moses had had any sense of self, then this act would have been taken at least partially to preserve his own level of spirituality. One can deduce from the Sinai experience that separation is a necessary condition of being free to speak to God at all times. But so what? The fact that the necessity exists doesn't extend the right to take this step unilaterally.
When we step on someone else in the slightest way on our climb to the top levels of spirituality we are interfering in someone else's mission on earth. Conjugal rights do not belong to a person. They are a duty and an obligation he owes to his spouse within the context of his own mission on earth. It is Ziporah's right to have the physical and spiritual comfort that her husband is in a position to offer her through the physical demonstration of his love. It is part of the equipment she was assigned for her own task!
If supplying it limits Moses' spiritual possibilities, that consideration does not give him a right to ignore Ziporah's spiritual or physical needs. You must fulfill the mission you were sent to accomplish, and not some other mission of your own choosing that you would prefer.
The issue turns on the question of humility. Because Moses was the most humble of men, he approached his gift of prophecy as something that did not belong to him at all. Who was he after all? His prophecy was a public good, and he had no right to limit it in any way or to cause it damage. From his standpoint, refraining from relations was an act of mandatory self-sacrifice. Because his gift of prophecy wasn't his, interference with it could only be construed as damaging Israel's property. He has to be given a specific right to limit his prophetic powers by God, otherwise he had no right to touch them.
Miriam regarded the gift of prophecy as a mission. The gift was clearly assigned as equipment, and no doubt Moses had a duty to employ his gift to serve the common good. But it was still a mission, nothing more, and a higher level of success in this mission amounts to nothing more than extra credits. Going after this higher level of credit at someone else's cost can only be understood as an act of personal ambition. Humility demands that you never exaggerate your own importance or the importance of what you were sent to do versus what other people were sent to do. As such, Moses had no right to deprive his wife of her conjugal rights.
GOD IS RESPONSIBLE FOR THE PUBLIC GOOD
The public good cannot be presented as a justification. God is charged with the public welfare. Each of us has his private responsibilities and we have no right to impose sacrifices on the people to whom we owe these responsibilities for the sake of benefiting the public unless we are specifically charged to do so. This had not occurred at this point; there had as yet been no formal Divine endorsement of Moses' decision regarding the matter of separation.
From Miriam's point of view, Moses' position as the sole representative prophet was gained at the cost of the sacrifice he imposed on his wife. No one denied that Moses was God's favored prophetic emissary. But if he wouldn't always be available, God had other prophets to speak through, and if that was not His wish, he could tell Moses to separate from his wife. In the meantime Moses' decision was selfish and wrong.
The same humility that forced Moses into the decision made it impossible to defend it. He himself did not know that he was doing God's will. He also wasn't certain. This uncertainty was the very cause of his decision to separate. Being perfectly humble, and regarding his gifts as public property instead of his private possession, he felt that he did not have the right to take the responsibility and inflict possible damage on an asset that belonged to someone else.
But uncertainty is hardly a powerful defense. He could only stand silent and accept the abuse. It turns out that Miriam's lashon hora was based on another principle, the need to judge other Jews favorably. The assessment of Moses' decision required a judgment call. Had she judged her brother favorably she would have arrived at the conclusion that he was acting out of humility all by herself.
WHERE IS THE GREAT SIN
At first glance the entire incident seems like a minor matter. Where is the great sin after all? Why does God Himself have to enter the picture to personally settle what appears to be a family dispute? But that precisely, is the very danger of lashon hora and the lesson of this incident. It always looks harmless. Yet, this particular seemingly innocuous judgment of Miriam's had the potential to destroy the world.
Moses was the man who gave us the Torah. A blemish on his character automatically detracts from the authenticity and weight of the Torah. Lashon hora always gets out, no matter how private and secret you attempt to keep it. If Miriam's statement would have been allowed to stand unchallenged, pretty soon the average Jew on the street would know that in the opinion of his own siblings, Moses was a ruthless rabbi who was happy to sacrifice the happiness of his wife in order to satisfy his own spiritual ambitions. Instead of the caring leader they had considered him until now, the ego-less person who never considered himself and lived totally for them, it turns out that he is a self-centered spiritual social climber whose interest in them is to use them to attain greater spiritual heights.
We are extremely familiar with the phenomenon of discrediting rabbis. If you can get yourself and others to believe that rabbis are merely power-hungry manipulators, or exploiters of women, or any of the other disparaging remarks made about rabbis with which we are all familiar, then you do not have to confront the truths of Judaism. Instinctively every Jewish heart knows that when it seriously confronts Torah it will melt in the heat of its holy flame. The solution is to cool one's ardor by bashing rabbis.
Not that Miriam meant to do this. The trouble is that one never means to do anything terrible when one utters a few seemingly harmless words of lashon hora. The world is no less destroyed when the person who blows it up doesn't mean it.