"And Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Ethiopian woman he had taken [to wife]" (Numbers 12:1).
Apparently, Miriam and Aaron's criticism of Moses had something to do with his marital relationship. The traditional commentaries, Targum Onkelos and Rashi, both agree they were referring to his Midianite wife Zipporah, who was beautiful (Kushit in Hebrew also has the connotation of beautiful), and whom he had divorced (which is why, they would argue, the biblical text repeats twice that he had married her, past tense). And the heart of their critique comes in the next verse, "And they said: 'Was it only with Moses that God spoke; did He not also speak with us? And God heard" (12:2).
What are we to learn from this last phrase, "And God heard"? God hears everything! Hence, the verb "heard" in this context probably means "acquiesced," as in Lev. 10:20. However, immediately following this conversation, the Almighty gives a thundering acclamation of Moses, his humility and the special relationship he enjoys with God, to whom he speaks "mouth to mouth"; and of course God expresses His anger at the slandering siblings and punishes Miriam (12:5-9).
What is the story behind the gossip? And does God agree or disagree with the charge of Moses's siblings?
Maimonides gives us a unique glimpse into his philosophy of prophecy in the interpretation he provides for these verses. If Maimonides is correct, he helps us to understand both the greatness and weakness of Moses. Indeed, Moses's strongest asset may emerge as his tragic flawâ€¦
In Moses's farewell speech - and charge - to his nation, he recounts the awe-inspiring revelation at Sinai, when - in the midst of fire, cloud and heavy mist - they all heard a "great voice which did not cease" (Deut. 5:1, Targum ad loc). And so the Bible declares (Numbers 7:29) "When Moses would enter the Tent of Meeting to speak with [God], he would hear the voice [which emanated from Sinai, interprets Rashi] speaking [to itself, and calling out] to himâ€¦ from atop the ark coverâ€¦ from between the two cherubsâ€¦" (Numbers 7:29).
Maimonides (Laws of the Foundations of Torah, 6, and Guide for the Perplexed, Part II) explains that the Almighty is constantly emitting Divine messages in the atmosphere; the challenge for the individual is to develop his/her mind, heart and soul to the point of becoming "receiving dishes."
A prophet is an individual who has developed himself intellectually, spiritually and emotionally to such an extent that he becomes a "receiver" of Divine messages. In most instances, the prophet experiences only rare moments of revelation, after which he "leaves" (or is left by) the Divine Presence, as it were, and rejoins the rest of humanity.
And that was precisely what happened to the entire congregation of Israel on the sixth day of Sivan, seven weeks after the Exodus, when they stood at Mount Sinai. Everyone heard the Divine voice - each in accordance with his capacity as a receiver - after which we read: "Go, tell them to return to their tents," to rejoin the rest of human civilization (Deut. 6:27).
Moses, however, was in a unique category. His intellectual-spiritual capacity was so finely honed, so exalted and sublime, that he was constantly receiving the Divine communications. In the language of Maimonides, Moses's active intellect was in constant contact with the Divine Active Intellect. And so after God tells the rest of Israel to return to their tents, He tells Moses: "But you remain standing here with Me so that I may [continue to] tell you all the commandments, statutes and laws which you must teach themâ€¦" (Numbers 6:28).
Moses understood this to mean that his constant and intense contact with God made normal human relationships impossible. And indeed, Moses was a "man of God" rather than a man of the people. Since he spoke to God "mouth to mouth," he was "heavy mouthed," of heavy speech," not necessarily one who stuttered but rather one who eschewed small talk. As the Ralbag (Gershonides), explains it, "..the people stopped listening to him - especially later on, when it came to conquering the land of Israel - because of his [Moses's] impatience with them and heavy-duty Divine service with God."
Miriam and Aaron didn't understand why Moses didn't return to his family after the Revelation, why he'd divorced Zipporah. They assumed that just as they had been told by God to return to their tents, so had Moses. And the truth may well have been that although God had in fact informed Moses to remain with Him, He had not meant for Moses to exclude his family. The Almighty believed that intensive commitment to God should lead to intensive commitment to man, and tried to communicate this idea to Moses by speaking to him from between the two cherubs, objects in the form of a young man and a young woman. The Song of Songs has been interpreted as a metaphor, comparing the love between husband and wife to the love between God and Israel - a concept which led Rabbi Akiva to describe it as the Holy of Holies. And God commanded the Israelites to "love your friend like yourself, I am the Lord," suggesting that the foundation of human love lies in the fact that each of us contains a piece of the Divine, so that each is inextricably united, essentially bound up, with the other. (Lev. 19:18, Ibn Ezra ad loc).
At the same time, God realized that it was precisely Moses's closeness to the Divine that caused him to be impatient with his people, that the prophet's involvement with eternal ideas and ideals made it difficult for him to listen to the paltry considerations of mortals. Hence, God chastises Miriam and Aaron for their slander, emphasizing the uniqueness of Moses's relationship to Him and the necessity of not judging another until one stands in his/her place.
In the final analysis it was precisely Moses's exalted spiritual state which, while it enabled him to communicate an eternal Torah for all generations, was responsible for his inability to persuade his own generation to conquer Israel and his own burial outside the Promised Land.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.