Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of
Miriam, Aaron, and Moses
Prof. Joseph Fleishman
Department of Bible
Numbers chapter 12 contains three parts: Miriam and Aaron’s complaints against Moses (1-3); G-d’s reaction (4-15); and Miriam’s punishment (10-16). This chapter, which deals with Moses’ greatness as a prophet, contains a new element in the saga of Moses’ travails. Thus far, as the Israelites journeyed through the desert and until their arrival at Hazeroth, their complaints had not been directed personally at Moses. Now Miriam and Aaron, Moses’ siblings, began to complain about Moses personally, casting aspersions on his personality, behavior, and leadership.
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.
One of the characteristics of biblical syntax is that the predicate-verb that begins the verse (“spoke,” in Hebrew in the feminine, singular) matches the first of the two subjects that follow – “Miriam and Aaron” – in gender and number [Heb. va-tedabber].  According to the Rabbis, Scripture uses this expression in order to intimate that “both of them complained against him, except that Miriam was the one to begin” (Sifre, loc. sit.). Both siblings, Miriam and Aaron raised serious complaints against Moses, as can be learned from the expression, “Miriam and Aaron spoke against [Heb. va-tedabber b-] Moses,” since, according to Sifre, par. 99, “whenever the Hebrew phrase dibber b- is used it indicates speaking harshly.”
What Were Their Complaints?
It is hard to establish for certain exactly what the siblings’ arguments were, and opinions on this are numerous. Many commentators make a connection between the first issue mentioned – “because of the Cushite woman he had married” – and the second – “They said, ‘Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us as well?’” (12:1-2) . In their opinion, Miriam and Aaron were criticizing Moses’ personal behavior for two reasons: having left his wife Zipporah and behaving haughtily towards Aaron and Miriam (Sifre, loc. sit.):
How did Miriam know that Moses has ceased cohabiting with his wife, except that she observed that Zipporah was no longer bedecking herself in women’s finery. She said to her, “Why do you no longer bedeck yourself in women’s finery?” She answered, “Your brother pays no heed to anything.” Therefore Miriam knew and told her brother Aaron, and both of them complained against him [Moses].
The following midrash seconds the idea and makes a connection between leaving Zipporah and the show of arrogance (Sifre Zuta on verse 3):
Zipporah spoke out to Miriam, telling Miriam, and Miriam told Aaron, and Aaron added to what they said, and they talked back and forth about the matter; and what were these issues? They said, when the elders were appointed, all the Israelites kindled lights and rejoiced since seventy elders had come to power. When Miriam saw the lights she said, “What good fortune is theirs, and what good fortune it is for their wives,” upon which Zipporah said to her, “Do not say ‘for their wives,’ rather say ‘woe to their wives,’ since from the day that the Holy One, blessed be He, spoke with your brother Moses, he has had no need of me.” Immediately Miriam went to Aaron and they discussed the matter, as it is said, “Miriam and Aaron spoke with Moses on account of the … woman he had married” – about his having left his wife. They said, Moses was haughty, for had the Holy One, blessed be He, spoken only with him? Rather, He had already spoken with many prophets, also with us, and we did not leave our wives as he has, as it is said, “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses?”
According to both these sources, the “Cushite
woman” refers to Zipporah (who was called
Cushite, a nickname for a woman of special beauty and fine
character –so Sifre par. 99. Another
midrash finds that “
Cushite” in gematria comes
to the same as “yefat-to’ar” or
“good-looking”-- Tanhuma Tzav
13). According to this view, we must say
The brother and sister, who had the status of prophets (with regard to Aaron it was said, “with your brother Aaron as your prophet” [Ex. 7:1]; with regard to Miriam it was said, “Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand” [Ex. 15:20]), could not reconcile themselves with Moses’ actions, but added further remarks about his behavior and accused him of haughtiness.
Those who identify
Moses realized that this time it was his brother and sister, not outsiders, who were finding fault with his leadership, challenging his degree of prophetic revelation and attempting to take the prophetic leadership out of his hands, arguing, “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us as well?” Some people are of the opinion that the siblings only talked among themselves and that Moses did not hear what they said, while others hold that “they even spoke in Moses’ face, as it is said, ‘The Lord heard it’ (Num. 2:2) and, ‘Now Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth,’ except that Moses kept himself in control regarding this (Sifre, 100). Moses remained silent, but deep inside was grieved and offended, primarily by Aaron’s behavior:
Rabbi Isaac said ... Moses would say: When Miriam spoke, that could simply be attributed to the way of women to prattle; but Aaron, the righteous man, did he too have to speak out against me? When Moses found out that even Aaron had spoken, he began to shout, “My ally in whom I trusted, even he who shares my bread, has been utterly false to me” (Ps. 41:10).
Moses, indeed, did not react, but the Lord reacted sharply in his stead, as we may deduce from the word “suddenly” (v. 4), in the verse that begins the Lord’s response. The Lord demanded that Aaron and Miriam come out to the Tent of Meeting without any preparation, and then the verse concludes, “Still incensed with them, the Lord departed” (v. 9). The insult against Moses demanded immediate and sharp response. The Lord’s response does not give any justification for Moses’ having taken a Cushite wife, nor does it relate to the siblings’ arguments and complaints about Moses. The Lord’s response pertains to two subjects: first, (vv. 6-7), the sharp and clear distinction between Moses’ degree of prophetic revelation and the degree of prophetic revelation of all other prophets; second, (vv. 9-10), the terrible punishment given Miriam – leprosy.
Some authorities  are of the opinion that Aaron was stricken with leprosy as well, but when the Lord departed from the Tent he immediately became cured:
Why does Scripture state explicitly of Miriam, but by intimation regarding Aaron? Since she was the one who began. To what can this be compared? To two people who were walking past a vineyard. One of them went into the vineyard and gathered grapes, ate some, and gave his friend to eat. When the owner of the vineyard came, he only caught the one who was in his vineyard. Thus with Aaron and Miriam: they both spoke, and both were smitten, but Scripture is explicit only about Miriam, as it says, “there was Miriam stricken with snow-white scales,” because she was the one who began.
Why did the Cloud of Glory lift off of the Tent? “It is like a king of flesh and blood who told his son’s pedagogue, ‘Be strict with my son, but do so after I leave,’ because fathers have mercy on their sons” (Sifre, par. 105).
Aaron confessed his sin and Miriam’s sin to Moses and begged for mercy for Miriam (vv. 11-12), saying among other things, “Let her not be [Heb. al na tehi] as one dead, who emerges from his mother’s womb with half his flesh eaten away” (v. 12). Many believe the verb tehi, “let her be,” refers to his sister Miriam. In other words, he was asking that Miriam not be as a dead person, since a leper is considered like a dead person. Others (e.g. Rashbam and Sforno, loc. sit.) view Moses as the subject of the sentence: Do not you [Moses] be [tehi-masculine 2nd person future] as a dead person, leaving half your flesh in the desert, for Miriam is your own flesh and blood. Rashi (loc. sit.) interprets the verse as meaning, “since she came out of our mother’s womb, she is to us as if half our flesh were eaten away.” Yet others are of the opinion that Aaron was making a different emotional plea: “At that time Aaron said to Moses, ‘Moses, my brother, you surely believe that Miriam is the one afflicted by leprosy, but it is on none other than the flesh of our father Amram’” (Avot de-Rabbi Nathan, Vers. A, 9.2).
Moses’ response is described in Deuteronomy Rabbah (6.13):
Upon seeing what had happened to his sister, Moses began screaming and praying for her with all his heart and soul, “O G-d, pray heal her” (v. 13). Our Rabbis said: Moses said, “Lord of the Universe, You have already made me a healer; if You heal her, it would be best; but if You do not, I shall heal her.”
Moses’ prayer is only five words long, each word having but one syllable. The five monosyllabic words hint at sobbing or choked speech. The Hebrew word na occurs twice and is a word used in conjunction with a request or entreaty to indicate urging. The first word is El, a word of address, and the last word is lah, a pronoun. Thus Moses’ prayer consists of one substantive word: “heal!” This is apparently why Scripture defines Moses’ prayer as crying (v. 13).
G-d’s response to Moses’ prayer
appears as a mashal or example, in the form of
a rhetorical question, by way of an inference from minor to major (
“If her father spat in her face, would she
not bear her shame for seven days? Let
her be shut out of camp for seven days, and then let her be readmitted.”
In the Bible (and even in the
Many commentators are of the opinion that the Lord apparently answered Moses’ prayer and healed Miriam, yet nevertheless she had to be punished, as follows from the following source (Pirke de-Rabbi Eleazar ha-Gadol, par. 44):
Rabbi Levitas of Jabneh says, if the father of a leper does not spit in his face, the leper does not become healed, as it is said, “But the Lord said to Moses, ‘If her father spat in her face…’” For even if her father had come and spat in her face, which is certain remedy for the leper and she would have been cured by it, nevertheless she had to remain in disgrace seven days; even now that I heal her as you requested, in any event let her remained locked up seven days.
 For example, cf. Judges 5:1, Gen. 32:7.
 Such as the Septuagint, and Josephus in Antiquities of the Jews II, 6.
 On this legend see A. Shinan, “Me-Artephanos ad ‘Sefer ha-Yashar’ – le- Toldoteha shel Aggadat Moshe be-Kush,” Eshkolot 2-3 (1977-1978), 53-67.
 Sifre Zuta, vv. 9-10; also cf. Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 94a.
 Cf. Deut. 25:9; Isaiah 50:6, Job 30:10.