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Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses, about the Cushite woman he had married. For indeed he had married a Cushite woman (12:1).
These words introduce the story of where Miriam, Moses' sister was punished with tzaraat - a Divinely imposed skin condition, for 'speaking against Moses'.
This passage appears to be rather obscure as the Torah does not specify what Miriam and Aaron actually said about Moses. What did they say, and why does the Torah not recount the actual words said?
The Midrash (Tanchuma 96:13 - quoted by Rashi to 12:1) brings the tradition as to what happened. Since Moses had to be ready to receive the Divine Command at any moment, he had to be ritually pure at all times. This meant that he had to abstain from marital relations with his wife Zippora - who was referred to as a 'Cushite' (Ethiopian) woman because of her dark skin. This intimate matter was their private business until Miriam learnt about it through a chance remark from Zippora. Miriam's reaction to that remark was that Zippora had been badly treated, and she passed this news on to Aaron, who agreed with her. They were critical of him because they were prophets as well as Moses, and as they did not withdraw from normal behavior, they saw no reason why Moses should have done so.
G-d's reply to them was that His communication to Moses was of a far more intimate nature, implying the need for a much higher degree of ritual purity. That is why He emphasized: 'Why were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?' Thus G-d was 'angry with them, and He went away' (12:8-9).
Ibn Ezra criticizes the identification of the Cushite woman with Zippora as the text (Ex. 15-21) makes it clear that Zippora was not from the land of Cush, but from the land of Midian.
Indeed, Targum Yonatan translates the verse literally as referring to Moses having actually married a Cushite (Ethiopian) woman much earlier in his life, when he served Pharaoh as a military leader against the threatening Ethiopian forces on the southern border of Egypt. Ibn Ezra (to 12:1) refers to this in a rather mysterious passage, where he writes:
'As it is written in the (Book of) Chronicles (Divrei HaYamim). Moses ruled over the land of Cush (Ethiopia) for forty years. He took one princess as a wife, but did not consummate marital relations with her. They (Moses and Aaron) did not know that he had never been intimate with her'.
The obscure part is the Book of Chronicles, where no such reference appears to exist.
However, Moses' early-life campaign in Ethiopia is described (with conflicting detail) in an extra-Biblical source, namely Josephus' Antiquities:
'While Moses was uneasy at the (Egyptian) army's lying idle, (for the enemies dared not come to a battle) this accident happened. Tharbis was the daughter of the king of the Ethiopians. She happened to see Moses as he led the army near the walls, and fought with great courage. Admiring the subtlety of his undertakings, and believing him to be the author of the Egyptians' success… she fell deeply in love with him, and because of that passion, sent to him the most faithful of all her servants to talk to him about marriage. He thereupon accepted the offer, on condition that she would effect the delivering up of the city. He gave her the assurance of an oath to marry her…. When Moses cut off the Ethiopians, he gave thanks to G-d, consummated his marriage, and led the Egyptians back to their own land' (Josephus: Antiquities II 10:2).
This passage places Miriam and Aaron's remarks in a different context. 'Does G-d only speak to Moses - doesn't He speak to us as well?' (12:2). It would seem that they had brought up Moses' much earlier marriage with the Cushite (Ethiopian) woman Tharbis - 'for he indeed married a Cushite woman'. And they raised it a sinister context. They used the Tharbis story to belittle Moses because of his past. As if to say that if Moses was worthy of G-d private communication, how much more so were they.
But that was not the case. G-d rebuked Miriam and Aaron by describing Moses with: 'in all My house, he is trustworthy and faithful' (12:7). As in the Tharbis incident. G-d figured in his life even then - his 'giving thanks to G-d' showed his loyalty to Him. As one who owed his life to being rescued at the hand of Egyptian royalty, he showed them his loyalty as far as possible by leading their campaigns - as David would do for the Philistines at the beginning of his career, when they gave him cover from King Saul.
Miriam and Aaron identified with Moses in his present role as prophet of G-d, law-communicator, and temporal and spiritual leader of the Israelites. They did not reconcile him with his previous years in service at the head of Pharaoh's army, and all that it implied.
But G-d rejoined quite the other way. Moses had the distinction of being: 'in all My house, he is trustworthy and faithful' (12:7). Even when fighting Pharaoh's battles. Even when conducting a marriage alliance to save further war and likely enemy advance. He acted entirely for what was best, in terms of G-d's eternal laws. That is why G-d was furious with Aaron and Moses: with 'why did you not fear to speak against My servant Moses?' (12:8-9).
It comes out that Aaron and Miriam placed Moses in a particular mold - what in their minds was the right background for the leader of the 'kingdom of priests and a holy nation' (Ex. 19:6). But in fact the right background for a leader varies from individual to individual - many leaders, including Moses and David, had to get there on the path less travelled, which should be a reason to admire rather than to criticize…
For those looking for more comprehensive material, questions and answers on the Parasha may be found at http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/questions/ and on the material on the Haftara at http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/haftara/ .
Written by Jacob Solomon. Tel 02 673 7998. E-mail: email@example.com for any points you wish to raise and/or to join those that receive this Parasha sheet every week.
Parashiot from the First, Second, and Third Series may be viewed on the Shema Yisrael web-site: http://www.shemayisrael.com/parsha/solomon/archives/archives.htm
Also by Jacob Solomon:
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