Netvort Beha'aloscha 5773: In the Dark
By Rabbi Joshua (obscurely known as The Hoffer) Hoffman
At the end of Parshas Beha’aloscha, the Torah records the incident of Miriam and Aharon criticizing Moshe in regard to the Cushite woman he had married. There are different explanations among the midrashim and commentators as to the identity of this woman and the nature of the criticism. After mentioning the basic fact of the criticism, the Torah tells us that Moshe was the most humble of all men on earth (Bamidbar 12:3). God tells the three siblings to enter the tent of meeting, then calls Miriam and Aharon to the entrance of the tent, and proceeds to defend Moshe, distinguishing him, as well as his prophecy, from all other prophets. As part of this distinction, he says that Moshe is trustworthy in all of His house (Bamidbar 12:7). A sign of tzara’as, or leprosy, then appears on Miriam. Aharon asks Moshe to pray for her recovery, and she is shut out from the camp for several days, after which time the nation continues on its journey.
There are many obscure points in this account that need to be clarified but I would like to focus on only two of them. First, why is Moshe’s humility mentioned here and how does it relate to what proceeds and follows it? Second, what is the meaning of God’s testimony that Moshe is trustworthy in all of His house, and how does that relate to what proceeds and what follows? What does it add to God’s defense of Moshe, and in what way does it distinguish him from Miriam and Aharon?
Rabbi Shmuel Dovid Luzzatto, a nineteenth-century Italian commentator, known as Shadal, mentions two explanations for the reference to Moshe’s humility at this point. Citing Targum Yonasan ben Uziel, he says that Moshe heard the criticism, but was so humble that he paid no attention to it. Therefore, God himself defended him. Another explanation, suggested by Shadal, is that part of the criticism leveled against Moshe was that he acted haughtily in regard to the Cushite woman, and, therefore, the Torah tells that, on the contrary, Moshe was the most humble man on earth. An alternative, but related, explanation could be that Miriam and Aharon, in criticizing Moshe, spoke presumptuously, with a certain degree of arrogance, and the statement regarding Moshe’s humility is made in contrast to Miriam and Aharon’s presumptuousness. This final explanation can help us find a link between the first part of the Torah’s account of this incident, and the rest of the account.
Rabbi Mordechai Ilan, in his Mikdash Mordechai, in explaining the statement regarding Moshe’s trustworthiness in all of God’s house, says that Moshe, as God’s servant, did nothing out of selfishness, but acted only in obedience to God’s will. According to Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, this idea is actually included in the term “anav” – or “humble person.” Everything that Moshe did, and all of his abilities, were attributed by him to God. As a loyal servant, says Rav Ilan, he had access to all of God’s house. Rav Hirsch says that, in this regard, God’s house means his world. Moshe was thus on a different level from all other prophets, and the quality of his prophecy was different from that of all the others. His actions, then, were done in the context of being a servant of God, and did not warrant the criticism leveled against him.
Interestingly, the Maharal of Prague, in his Nesivos Olam (Nesiv Ha-Anavah, chapter two) cites a passage in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 92a) which brings a Mishnah in Negaim (2:3) to prove that humility helps prolong one’s life. The Mishnah says that in a dark house, we do not make windows to examine the tzara’as spot. What this means, says the Maharal, is that a truly humble person displays the trait of “peshitus” or simplicity in his life, minimizing his attachment to the physical aspects of this world. His “house,” in this sense, is dark. Such a person is not subject to the destructive forces of the universe, that cause tzara’as. In this sense we can say that God’s testimony about Moshe being faithful in all His house means that Moshe, as an “anav,” lived spiritually, in a dark house, exhibiting the trait of “peshitus.” After God’s defense of Moshe, Miriam emerges with a sign of tzora’as, indicating that she was not on Moshe’s level in regard to humility.
Rav Mordechai Gifter, in his Pirkei Torah, cites the Ibn Ezra, who seems to say that Miriam’s tzara’as was not the typical kind described by the Torah and declared as such by a kohen. The reasons that Miriam was set apart from the rest of the camp, says the Ibn Ezra, was to protect them from contracting tzara’as as well. This would seem to support the idea that Miriam’s tzara’as came as a result of her exposure to the destructive forces in the universe, from which she was not protected, because she had not attained the level of humility that Moshe did. In this way, the leprosy that she contracted underscored the lack of humility that lay behind her criticism of Moshe, and the sharp contrast between Moshe and all other prophets.