This Week's Torah Portion: Can Moses Be Leader and Husband? (Part 35)

We’re publishing a weekly series of articles covering each week’s Torah portion as a rabbi (such as the author) might do via a talk in a synagogue. The series is tailored so it may also be read by non-Jews who may be interested in how Jews read and interpret Scripture. Click here for the first article in the series.


Devar Torah – Parashath Bëha‘alothëcha (Numbers VIII, 1-XII, 16)

 In the last two chapters making up this week’s parasha, a theme can be discerned:

  1. In XI, 4 we read: “And the rabble (Vëha’asafsuf) who were among Israel experienced a craving (ta’ava), and Israel also responded and wept and said, Who will feed us meat?” This asafsuf, the commentaries tell us (cf. Onqëlos, Rashi and Even ‘Ezra ad loc.) were the ‘erev rav — the “mixed multitude” who left Egypt with Israel (cf. Exodus XII, 38). What is the significance of this new term? Why not call them by the same name consistently?
  1. A bit later (v. 16), G-d commands Moshe: “Gather (esfa) for me seventy men.” Subsequently, (v. 30) we read: “And Moshe was gathered (Vayé’aséf) to the camp and the elders of Israel.”

We then find the same usage in connection with Miriam (XII, 14), where we read that until she was cured of her affliction she was “outside the camp … and afterwards she would be gathered (té’aséf).”

What is the significance of this recurring theme? How are these verses related?

The key word is asaf, meaning “gather, collect.” Accordingly, we find the ‘erev rav called the asafsuf because (in Rashi’s words) “they were gathered (shenith’asfu) to [Israel] during the exodus from Egypt.”

An external element from the Egyptian milieu had been internalized by Israel, much as that entity called the nachash (“serpent”) had been internalized in the first man, serving a similar function as a sort of national yétzer hara‘ (“inclination toward disorder and degradation”). Like the yétzer hara‘ in the human individual, the asafsuf concentrated on the physical — “they experienced a ta’ava” — and Israel resonated to that ta’ava and cried: “Who will feed us meat?”

The antidote to crass materialism is, of course, spirituality. For this reason we find the Divine response in G-d’s command to Moshe: Esfa li shiv‘im ish (“Gather for Me seventy men … ”). They would be infused with the very same spirit of sanctity which animated Moshe, and they would bear with him “the burden of the people” (XI, 17). Thus it is Moshe and the Sanhedrin (of which these seventy elders were the first) who constitute the machaneh, the “camp” — the raison d’être of Israel in this wilderness of a world.

We come now to the difficult chapter XII. The chapter represents Miriam and Aharon as discussing Moshe with regard to his wife. As a result of this conversation, the two of them are afflicted with tzora‘ath, a spiritual ailment (usually mistranslated “leprosy”) which is visited on people who are on a high spiritual level (such as no longer exists today) for engaging in lëshon hara‘ (here translated, perhaps, as “gossip”).

From the feminine form of the verb vatëdabbér (“and she spoke”) in v. 1 we infer that it was Miriam who spoke. Aharon’s offense was in listening and tolerating what he heard. 

Miriam and Aharon were both prophets, holy and righteous people; what could possibly have passed between them that would constitute lëshon hara‘?

Rabbi Tzëvi Frommer, a Talmud instructor in the world-famous yëshiva of Lublin who was murdered by the Nazis (may G-d avenge his blood), offers a fascinating insight in his work Eretz Tzëvi.

He begins by noting that there are two types of tzaddiqim (“righteous people”) in the world. The first type turns his back on the blandishments of this world and engages in ascetic activities. Make no mistake: this is a form of tzidqiyuth (“righteousness”). It underlies the basic concept of nëziruth (discussed in last week’s parasha in chapter VI), as well as the Christian concept of monasticism.

But there us another, greater level of tzidqiyuth exemplified in one who eats, drinks, gets married — i.e., participates fully in this world — and still directs his intentions toward Heaven alone.

Miriam felt that Moshe was such a tzaddiq, and believed that it was up to him to show Israel how to unite this world with the next — the material with the spiritual. He did not need to be separated from his wife, Tzippora. Were not Miriam and Aharon also prophets, and did they not continue to have a married life?

At first glance, the claim seems reasonable: wasn’t Moshe taking too much on himself? Weren’t Miriam and Aharon proof that prophecy did not require such extraordinary measures? If Moshe was a greater prophet than they, was that his personal greatness or that of Israel, the holy nation?

Miriam was in fact quite right; the function of infusing the material with the spiritual is indeed vital. Her error lay in not recognizing that this was the function of the Sanhedrin. It was their task to show the way through their instruction of Israel, their issuance of decrees and judgments where necessary. She would have been correct concerning Moshe had he indeed taken these stringencies on himself; but he did not do that.

Moshe did only what G-d instructed him to do in commanding him to stand apart and be ever ready for Divine communication. Moshe, the gentle shepherd of Israel, would never have willingly hurt his wife’s feelings by staying away from her. His duty lay where it did; Tzippora’s duty lay in recognizing that fact and accepting it.

Once Miriam’s condition brought her to recognize her error, she was no longer “outside the camp.” She too was gathered to the cause — to the machaneh Torah.

We, too, must consider our feelings and agendas very carefully. However legitimate they may seem, the only sure determination of legitimacy is measurement against the yardstick of Torah. We must be very careful not to try to bend that yardstick to meet our expectations, to make false comparisons with the great safes of Israel along the lines of “he’s a rabbi and I’m a rabbi.” How serious this can be is evident from this week’s parasha.