Lectures on the Torah Reading

by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University

Ramat Gan, Israel

Parashat Beha'alotekha

A project of Bar-Ilan University's Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Sponsored by Dr. Ruth Borchard of the Shoresh Charitable Fund (SCF). Published with assistance of the President's Fund for Torah and Science. Permission granted to reprint with appropriate credit.
Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il


Parashat Behaalotekha 5758/1998

Did Moses Indeed Leave His Wife?

Dr. David Henschke

Department of Talmud

Miriam's remarks about Moses (Numbers 12:1-2) present a major difficulty-- what is the logical connection between her two claims? 1) "because of the Cushite woman he had married: 'He married a Cushite woman!'"; 2) "Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us as well?" What has marrying a Cushite woman, the first point, to do with her second point, prophecy by Miriam and Aaron? This question is so perplexing that it gave rise to a widely accepted interpretation that turns one of the claims on its head: not that he took a Cushite woman, rather that he left her! As Onkelos remarks on this verse, "He took a beautiful woman,[1] and divorced her." In this light one can understand the next assertion--"Has He not spoken through us as well?"--as if to say, we are also prophets and we were not commanded to refrain from conjugal relations, so why should Moses act so vainly himself? But it is hard to persuade oneself that this radical inversion of the text is actually its plain sense.[2]

The key to resolving this issue may lie in the anthology Moshav Zekenim (London 1959), a collection of commentaries on the Torah by the Tosafists. "He is trusted throughout My household (Num.12:7)-- is interpreted by the R"I as follows: it is said that Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses, etc., and told Moses to marry a different woman, of higher breeding, and leave his present wife who is a Midianite, but Moses did not wish to do so, since he had married her when he was poor and now that he had become a king he did not wish to divorce her. Therefore, it is said He is most faithful of all My household [meaning that he keeps faith with his wife]."

Thus, Miriam's complaint was not that Moses had divorced Zippora, as Onkelos explained, but the contrary: that it did not behoove a person of Moses' station to be married to a Cushite woman of no breeding. Now we can understand the relationship between her two complaints: Moses' wife is not worthy of his standing; and if one asks why Miriam should care, the answer is that this is an offense not only to Moses, but to the status of all prophets, since not only Moses is a prophet, for "Has He not spoken through us as well?"

Miriam's complaint reflects a certain attitude towards the essence of prophecy, an attitude that also echoes in the preceding passage. When Joshua discovered that Eldad and Medad were prophesying in the camp, without receiving their inspiration from Moses in the Tent of Meeting, he demanded (11:28), "My lord Moses, restrain them!" Why did Joshua think they should be restrained? In his view, prophecy is an institution that "belongs" to Moses and the Tent of Meeting, therefore it is unthinkable for any other person to act as a prophet without being delegated by Moses.

This is not surprising, for Joshua thought of the institution of prophecy and Moses, in the same way that it actually was with Aaron and the priesthood: something institutionalized, which no one can claim for himself. In fact, Moses' response to the former is precisely like Korah's opinion on the latter: Moses answers Joshua, "Are you wrought up on my account? Would that all the Lord's people were prophets, that the Lord put His spirit upon them!" (11:29). Similarly, Korah argues against the institution of the priesthood, "For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord's congregation?" (16:3).

The crucial point lies in the difference between priesthood and prophecy. The former is an institutional office, reserved exclusively for a specific class; this class is subject to restrictions with regard to marriage and economic life, and an outsider may not enter its realm. Prophecy, however is a spiritual gift, of its nature in no way restricted. "Would that all the Lord's people were prophets," since prophecy depends solely on whether "the Lord put His spirit upon them," and who could confine His spirit?

Miriam also shared this amalgamated view of priesthood and prophecy, hence her complaint about Moses marrying a woman not of his rank and about the blemish which that puts on the status of prophecy in general. Clearly Moses did not view himself as belonging to any particular class, for "Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth" (12:3). Miriam, however, who was convinced of her elevated station as a prophetess,[3] became affected by leprosy and was removed from camp to the lowest rung on the social ladder. As the Sages say, "The proud get psoriasis."[4] We also see this with Gehazi, who got leprosy because he believed the prophetic "class" deserved remuneration for its work (II Kings 5), confusing prophet with priest. On the other hand, Uzziah got leprosy when he "grew so arrogant he acted corruptly," believing he could join the prophetic class (II Chron. 26). As we are taught, "Leprosy comes for none other than lack of refinement (or: arrogance)" (Tosefta, Negaim 6.6).[5]

Nevertheless, clearly Miriam can not be compared with Gehazi or Uzziah, and her mistake could be corrected. Indeed, "The people did not march on until Miriam was readmitted." In this way Miriam learned that a person's talents and uniqueness do not depend on social status. Just as the people's affection could extend to those outside the camp-- witness the case if Miriam-- all the more so that of G-d, who could shower His grace and spirit upon anyone, regardless of status.

[1] Onkelos interpreted Cushite as meaning beautiful, so that Moses had no excuse for leaving her; cf. Sifre ad loc., par. 99, and parallel versions. Also see Ibn Ezra's critique of this interpretation. Even Ibn Ezra, however, who interprets Cushite in its plain sense, believed that the criticism made against Moses had to do with his leaving his wife. Rashbam, in contrast, explains that Miriam's complaint was against taking a Cushite woman for his wife, but he did not explain how her two claims were related. Bekhor Schor sees marrying a Cushite, not one of the children of Israel, as an assertion of haughtiness, as if Moses felt the daughters of Israel were inferior to him. Then one can understand how this relates to the next claim: even Aaron and Miriam were prophets, however they did not act haughtily but chose Israelite spouses. But it is difficult to see how, according to this interpretation, which does not view Cushite as a laudable attribute, marrying a Cushite could be a sign of pride and haughtiness on Moses' part.

[2] Cf. R. Y. Caspi, Mishneh Kesef, on this verse. My great-grandfather Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch sensed this and suggested that the phrase "to take a Cushite wife" in Biblical language meant marriage without conjugal relations. This is a brilliant solution, but hard to substantiate. Also cf. Y. Licht, Perush al Sefer Be-Midbar, Jerusalem 1991, p. 42, which views the claim, "Has the Lord spoken only through Moses?" as a separate matter, not related to the first complaint. This author had an array of scholarly sources on the subject before him, but in this case the results are rather disappointing. Moreover, he continues to say (ibid., p. 36) that Scripture "obscures what it obscures, so commentators labor in vain to explain this verse." This prediction is of rather dubious value.

[3] Perhaps the emphasis that Miriam placed on her prophetic spirit was a hint that this is not quite as clear as it may seem. Cf. Midrash Aggadah on Exodus 15:20, Buber ed., p. 147: "'Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron's sister, took...' Why Aaron's sister and not Moses' sister? All the while that she was only Aaron's sister, and Moses had not yet been born, she was a prophetess; but when Moses was born, the prophetic spirit was taken from her and given to Moses." Also cf. Rashbam on the same verse.

[4] Thus says Maimonides in his commentary on Avot 4.4, based on his reading in Sotah 5.1-2; cf. Dikdukei Soferim ha-Shalem, loc. sit., n. 176.

[5] The leprosy that Moses got when performing the signs during his mission to obtain exodus from Egypt (Ex. 4.6) should not be expected to fit this rule, for the omen was aimed at none other than the children of Israel. Most likely the main point lay in the fact that the leper became clean in the blinking of an eye, thus dispelling any doubts the Israelites might have had about their ability to rise from the pits to the zenith. This is not the place to go into further detail.