“They said, ‘Has the Lord spoken only through Moshe? Has He not spoken through us as well?’ And the Lord heard” (Bamidbar 12,2).
It’s been a long time since we read about a good old-fashioned family feud. From the time we left Yosef and his brothers at the end of the Book of Bereishit, the lens of the Torah has been focused on Am Yisrael as a nation, not necessarily as a family. But here at the end of this week’s parsha, a feud so difficult erupts between Miriam and Aharon and their younger brother Moshe that even God decides to intervene.
Here is the backdrop to the story. Moshe is no longer living in the tent with his wife Tzipora, but rather lives exclusively in the Tent of Meeting, where he communes with God. Miriam approaches her brother Aharon with a harsh criticism of Moshe; why has he abandoned his wife Tzipora? His service to the nation should not inhibit his responsibilities to his family! And here is the crucial point of the criticism:
“Has the Lord spoken only through Moshe? Has He not spoken through us as well?” (Bamidbar 12,2).
We too are prophets, insists Miriam, yet we have not left our spouses. We also serve central roles in the community, yet we have not abandoned our families.
Even though the criticism was not said in earshot of Moshe, God hears and responds to their complaint. The text tells us that God “suddenly” calls all three of them together to the Tent of Meeting to discuss the matter. But the midrash as quoted by Rashi adds an additional layer to the text: God appears suddenly to Aharon and Miriam at the very moment that both of them were engaged in marital intimacy with their respective spouses. Talk about awkward. Each of them responds in panic, as they realize that they are simply unavailable to God at that moment.
When they arrive at the Tent of Meeting, God rebukes Miriam and Aharon angrily for their criticism of Moshe. Face to face I speak to Moshe, not through dreams or images or metaphors, God explains. True, you two may be prophets, but Moshe is unique, as is the quality of his prophecy.
God punishes Miriam harshly for her comment, and even after Moshe’s prayer to God for her healing, she is forced to spend a week suffering from leprosy outside of the encampment.
How did Miriam fall prey to such harsh judgement against her brother? Were her words simply an expression of compassion for her forlorn sister-in-law, or was there something else at the heart of the matter?
Listen to the words again: “Has the Lord spoken only through Moshe? Has He not spoken through us as well?”
This is the implication: we are standing in the same place as Moshe; therefore his actions should be the same as ours.
The words of Hillel in Pirke Avot come to mind: “Don’t judge your fellow until you have reached his place,” (Pirke Avot 2:4). Place, says the Baal HaTanya, is what directs a person’s actions. A person who spends his days in the marketplace will act differently than a person who spends his time in the Beit Midrash.
And so too with Miriam and Aharon; they understood themselves to be in the same place as Moshe, on equal, or even higher footing. They too have their place in the Tent of Meeting. But Moshe’s place is with me, says God, in my house, and therefore the expectations for him are different.
The teaching in Pirke Avot not only illustrates Miriam’s fundamental mistake, but it teaches it in a way that makes it accessible to all of us. From where does judgement of others arise? Judgment arises from the flawed assumption that you and I are actually standing in the same place. And at that moment that I imagine that you and I are in the same place, paradoxically, I put myself above you. Since I’m in the same place as you, let me show you that I know better than you.
But no one is in the same place as his fellow, not even if they are his own brothers and sisters. And we should not ignore the fact that Moshe is still Miriam and Aharon’s little brother.
As God hears the words of Miriam and Aharon against Moshe, the text responds with these famous words: “Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other man on earth” (Bamidbar 12,3). It’s as if God is thinking out loud, so to speak, and teaching that a truly humble person walks with others while always realizing that they can never truly walk in that person’s place. Even if we come from the same town, or the same school, or even the same family, a person’s place is theirs and theirs alone, and I can never truly look at the world from another’s place.
But what do you think? Can we internalize the idea that we can never reach another person’s place while still finding compassion for them?
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