What was Moses’ humility about?

Chapter 12 in Numbers – the last chapter in this weekly Torah portion, Beh-ha’alotcha, begins with Miriam saying stuff to Aaron about Moses’ wife.  Aaron – even as a mere willing listener and without him saying a word – is a full participant in Miriam’s gossip; his responsibility as an enabler to his sister in violating the commandment that prohibits talebearing is even graver than Miriam’s.  Why, without his listening in, Miriam would have had no audience and would not be guilty of what the Torah would command in Deuteronomy: ‘’Remember what the Eternal, your God, did to Miriam on the road when you had left Egypt’’.

All that we know of that gossip is that Miriam spoke of ‘’the African – kushit — woman” whom Moses wedded, even as Miriam invokes twice the word ‘’African’’ (or black) in a short verse. It is unlikely that this woman was Tziporah – the mother of Moses’ two sons — of whom we haven’t heard for a very long time, nor did the Torah mention before that she was black. It seems plausible to infer that Tziporah is not around anymore and that the black woman is a new wife, presumably from the multitudes that joined the Israelites on the Exodus and enroute to the Promised Land.

Miriam’s prattle would promptly escalate as Aaron’s joins actively the exchange with his sister, and both siblings accuse Moses of swagger, or of his power-hunger and self-aggrandizing vis-à-vis their own prophetic abilities in comparison to his.  In short, both committing a slanderous censure of Moses. Indeed, it was an utter hokum given what was just evinced in the case of Eldad and Meidad (Numbers 11: 24-29), where Moses’ ego played a very low key when he embraced and praised what these two elders of the people did — prophesying within the Israelite camp — heretofore a sole prerogative of Moses alone.

Miriam’s comeuppance is manifested in her becoming ‘’blanched as snow’’, perhaps a poetic justice for she who was ticked off by the abundant skin pigmentation of Moses’ new wife. Kind off, if a lot of skin pigmentation was ‘’problematic’’ to you, try out no pigmentation at all and see what your preference might be…   It is this affliction that the Torah requires to remember – the punitive result of gossip and defamation that Miriam incurred on the road.

Now, Moses who was unwittingly privy to his siblings’ exchange of barbed remarks about him clammed up in the face of such slighting chatter.  The Torah explains: ‘’And the man Moses was exceedingly humble, more than any (other) human who is on the face of the earth.” But such a depiction of Moses’ character is problematic itself; how is it possible that Moses would even agree to have such a praise stated about him, let alone write it himself?  Perchance, might it not be possible that somewhere in another part of the world there was a man who was Moses’ equal in humility, even as the Torah had no way of knowing that…?

But the verse in the Hebrew could mean something very different than that which meets the eye, and how much more so in translation. Indeed, what the Torah tells us is that Moses was very humble mikol –‘’from all’’ — and not mikol  –‘’more than’’. Namely, Moses’ humility was not grander than all — but it rather stemmed from all — other persons. It was Moses’s awareness and recognition that every human on the face of the earth knew something that he did not know or was able to do what he, Moses, could not do himself. When you realize such a veracity you become very humble indeed!

About the Author
Ordained a Rabbi by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1994; in 2019 this institution accorded me the degree of Doctor of Divinity, honoris causa. Following ordination I served congregations on the island of Curacao, in Columbia, MO. Currently serving a congregation in Bend, Or. I received academic degrees from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem (B.A. in International Relations and History), New York University (M.A. in History), and Emory University (Ph.D. in U.S. History). I am the author of U.S. Policy on Jerusalem (Greenwood Press), and numerous articles on biblical themes in various print and digital publications. I have taught in several academic institutions, including Ben-Gurion University (Beersheba, Israel), and the University of Missouri (Columbia, MO). A native of Afula, Israel. A veteran of the IDF.