Congregation Ohave Shalom - Young Israel of Pawtucket

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Miriam's Leprosy

Miriam's Leprosy - Week One


This week we began a new topic: Miriam's Leprosy. Following the method we have developed over the past year, we began with a look at the actual verses which describe the story, with an eye toward developing our questions about the story. This event is described in Bamidbar (Numbers), Chapter 12. It would help to have a Chumash in front of you for this e-mail.

Bamidbar 12:1
VaTidaber Miriam veAharon beMoshe - And Miriam and Aharon spoke regarding Moshe
This passage is problematic, from a grammatical perspective as well as a plot perspective.

First, the grammar: "VaTidaber" means "And she spoke." Presumably, this "she" is Miriam. However, Aharon is listed as well! Here are the possible readings:

    1. If Miriam and Aharon spoke, it should have said "VaYidabru," "And they spoke."
    2. If only Miriam spoke, it should have said "VaTidaber Miriam," "And Miriam spoke," without mentioning Aharon!
    3. If Miriam spoke to Aharon, it should have said "VaTidaber Miriam LeAharon," "And Miriam spoke to Aharon."

This problem is exacerbated by 12:2, in which we are told "VaYomru," "And they spoke," indicating that both Miriam and Aharon are involved in the slander of Moshe.

That is the grammatical problem. The plot problem is part of the same issue - how great was Aharon's involvement? Knowing the end of the story, we know that Miriam gets leprosy, and Aharon does not. Why doesn't Aharon get punished, if he is involved in the act which leads to the leprosy?

Al Odos haIshah haKushis Asher Lakach - Regarding the Kushite woman Moshe had married
When did Moshe marry a "Kushite woman?" Kush is identified as Ethiopia, and Moshe's wife, Tzipporah, was a Midianite!

Ki Ishah Kushis Lakach - For he had taken a Kushite woman
It seems that Miriam is saying that Moshe had taken a Kushite woman, but we don't know what Miriam had to say about that. Why does the Torah omit what would seem to be a critical piece of information?

HaRak Ach biMoshe Diber HaShem? Halo Gam Banu Diber - Did Gd only speak to Moshe? Gd also spoke to us!
This seems to be a total non sequitur. What does Moshe marrying a Kushite have to do with Gd speaking to Moshe?

vehaIsh Moshe Anav Me'od - And Moshe was very humble
Yet another non sequitur; what does this have to do with anything?
One might suggest that Moshe knew about their conversations, and did not respond due to his humility. Perhaps we could read this, "And Gd heard; and Moshe was very humble, and so he did not respond. Therefore Gd spoke to Miriam…"

VaYomer HaShem Pis'om - And Gd said, suddenly
Why emphasize the suddenness of Gd's speech to Miriam, Aharon and Moshe?

El Moshe - To Moshe
It is interesting that Gd brings Moshe out for this, too; Moshe does not actually play a role in the story, until the very end.

Tze'u Shelashtichem El Ohel Moed - Go out, the three of you, to the Tent of Meeting
Why does Gd make them come to the Tent of Meeting? Is there a message in that? It is, of course, Moshe's traditional place for communicating with Gd.

VaYikra Aharon uMiriam - And He called, "Aharon and Miriam"
Now Gd separates Aharon and Miriam from Moshe; why?

Shimu na Devari - Hear my words, now!
This is an interesting preface. Presumably, they are listening anyway. Between this and the emphasis on suddenneess, it almost seems that Gd wants to emphasize His anger at them; "You three, come out to [Moshe's] tent of meeting, now!" "Hear my words, now!"

Im Yihyeh Neviachem - If you receive prophecy
"Im" does mean "When" in the Torah on three occasions, but here it is "If," as in "If you even get prophecy…" Contrast this with Moshe, who regularly speaks to Gd, and has Gd respond.

Why does Gd suddenly shift to third person? This is reminiscent of the way Gd speaks to Bilam, in a form where Bilam is simply overhearing a conversation which Gd is having with someone else.

Umareh veLo beChidos - With a vision, and not with riddles
In 12:6 we are told the Miriam and Aharon also have visions, but their visions are of a lesser clarity.

beAvdi beMoshe - Regarding my servant, regarding Moshe
Here, as well as in 12:7, Gd specifically identifies Moshe as His servant. Perhaps this is to accentuate the fact that an insult to Moshe is also an insult to HaShem. Perhaps it is simply to remind them of Moshe's special status.

This is only the beginning; we have more to see regarding these verses next week, Gd-willing. After that, we will formulate our specific questions and begin to look at the way the commentators dealt with these issues.

Have a good Chodesh and a good week,
Mordechai Torczyner


Miriam's Leprosy - Week Two


This week we continued our analysis of the Pesukim (verses) regarding Miriam's leprosy, and formulated the questions we will use in learning the views of Ibn Ezra and Rashi regarding this event. As we stated last week, it would be helpful to have a Chumash in front of you for this e-mail.

VaYichar Af HaShem Bam - And Gd was angry at them
Don't we already know that Gd was angry at Miriam and Aharon? What does this add?

VaYifen Aharon El Miriam, viHineih Metzoraas - And Aharon turned to Miriam, and behold, she was leprous
What does Aharon turning to face Miriam have to do with her becoming leprous?

veHineh Metzoraas - And behold, she was leprous
Why wasn't Aharon leprous? Wasn't he also involved with the slander?

VaYomer Aharon El Moshe - Aharon said to Moshe
Here we have two problems:

    1. Why doesn't Miriam address Moshe? Why is Aharon beseeching Moshe on behalf of Miriam?
    2. Why don't they address Gd? Moshe was not the one who afflicted Miriam with leprosy; why was he the one they turned to?

The second question has a simple answer; Moshe was the one who had been wounded by the slander. We have a general rule regarding forgiveness for interpersonal sins - one must gain the forgiveness of the wounded party before approaching Gd for forgiveness. Therefore, they had to ask Moshe to show that he had forgiven Miriam.
Nonetheless, it is odd that Aharon is the one to turn to Moshe.

12:13 Kel Na Refa Na Lah - Gd, please heal her now
This prayer has multiple possible meanings; the difference between them is contingent upon the meaning of the Hebrew word "Na." "Na" may mean "Please," or "Now."
The standard translation of this prayer translates the former "Na" as "Please," and the latter "Na" as "Now." This then reads, "Gd, Please heal her now."
However, it is possible to give this a different reading (regardless of how you read the "Na"). It is possible to argue that Moshe knew about the slander, and in his humility he chose not to respond to it. Gd responded on Moshe's behalf, and perhaps Moshe did not want Miriam to suffer thus on his behalf. Therefore, Moshe turns to Gd and says, "Now heal her now, please," or "Please heal her Now," demanding that Gd remove the punishment He has administered on Moshe's behalf. This would not be the first time that Moshe made a demand of Gd; cf. Shemos 5:23, Shemos 33:18, Bamidbar 11:11-15, for a few examples.

This prayer is also interesting for its brevity. Moshe has expressed rather verbose prayers in the Torah, such as after the Golden Calf, after the sin of the spies, and after Korach's rebellion. Why was Moshe so brief regarding Miriam? (Of course, one could suggest that Moshe would have prayed longer, had it been necessary; Gd "interrupted" Moshe with His acceptance of the prayer. Nonetheless, this is not the traditional reading.)

veHaAm Lo Nasa Ad HeiAsef Miriam - The nation did not travel until Miriam was brought back into the camp
This is an interesting point; why didn't the nation travel?
Rafi suggested that the nation may have felt a need to take part in Miriam's repentance. This is an interesting idea. The traditional reading is that the nation waited because of Miriam's greatness, so that she should not be reduced to tagging along after the people.

It is also worth noting that this delay on the part of the nation reflects one of Miriam's early adventures. When Yocheved placed Moshe in a boat in the river, Miriam stayed to watch over him, ostensibly to make sure he would be safe. In return, the nation stayed to watch Miriam (Gemara Sotah 9b).

We have raised a number of questions about this story over the past two weeks. These are the questions we will address in reading Ibn Ezra and Rashi:

    1. What did Miriam and Aharon actually say about Moshe?
    2. What was Aharon's role in the slander of Moshe? Was he punished for it?
    3. Why does Gd call Moshe out with Miriam and Aharon, only to send him away and not address him?

Next week, Gd-willing, we will look at Ibn Ezra's reading of this story.

Have a good week,
Mordechai Torczyner


Miriam's Leprosy - Week Three


This week we looked at Ibn Ezra's understanding of this biblical event.

Again, we had three questions:

    1. What did Miriam and Aharon actually say about Moshe?
    2. What was Aharon's role in the slander of Moshe? Was he punished for it?
    3. Why does Gd call Moshe out with Miriam and Aharon, only to send him away and not address him?

The Actual Slander
Ibn Ezra explains that Miriam claimed Moshe had separated from his wife, Tzipporah, on account of her dark skin.

This is the way Ibn Ezra arrives at this conclusion:

Who was the "Kushite Woman?"
Ibn Ezra first identifies the "Ishah Kushis," "Kushite Woman," mentioned in the Torah (Bamidbar 12:1). The problem he is contending with is that Moshe's wife, Tzipporah, was a Midianite - not a Kushite.

As we have seen him do before (such as regarding Aharon's role in the Golden Calf), Ibn Ezra first brings several views and rejects them:

    1. One approach says this was not Tzipporah, at all. Moshe reigned over Kush in the years after he left Egypt and before he arrived by Yisro, the Midianite father of Tzipporah. In those years, Moshe married a Kushite woman.
    Ibn Ezra does not actually counter this view; he simply cites it, and continues on.

    2. A second approach re-translates "Kushis." Some translators render "Kushite" as "Shapirta," an ersatz expression for beauty. In other words, Tzipporah was very pretty, but rather than say this, they called her "black." According to these commentators, Miriam did not consider "black" to be "beautiful."
    Ibn Ezra rejects this view. He points out that euphemisms generally work the other way, substituting positives for negatives, and not the reverse.
    As to the contention that this might be an "Ayin HaRa (evil eye)" issue, calling something by a negative even though one means it as a positive, Ibn Ezra rejects this elsewhere. In his comment to Tehillim 7:1, Ibn Ezra says, "This is highly unlikely."

    3. There is another attempt to re-translate "Kushis." Some say "Kushis" actually has a second meaning, other than "Kushite;" it may mean "beautiful."
    Those who propose this view point to two other biblical verses where "Kush" is used, and it may mean "beautiful."
      A. One is Amos 9:7, in which Gd addresses the Jewish people, "You are like the children of Kushiyyim to me." The verse is interpreted to mean "You are beautiful," or "You are the children of beautiful people."
      B. The second is Tehillim 7:1, in which a "Kush, the son of Yemini" is mentioned. This is interpreted to refer to King Saul, who came from the tribe of Benjamin.
    Ibn Ezra rejects this view, too. Regarding the former verse, he says it refers to estrangement between the Jews and Gd, and regarding the latter verse he says it refers to a person by the name of Kush.

Ibn Ezra actually re-translates "Kushis" in order to arrive at his own answer. Rather than limit the definition to "Ethiopian," he allows it a more general "like an Ethiopian" connotation. This allows Ibn Ezra to include the Bedouin Midianites, who were exposed to the sun for long hours and so had a dark skin color. Ibn Ezra says, therefore, that the "Ishah Kushis - Kushite woman" who Miriam referred to was actually Tzipporah.

What did Miriam actually say about Tzipporah?
Ibn Ezra builds on four key points, in saying Miriam was accusing Moshe of separating from Tzipporah on account of her appearance:
    1. The repeated emphasis on "Moshe had taken" a Kushite woman; this indicates that the marriage was in the past, and that something was now wrong. This indicates that now Moshe was not with her.
    2. The identification of Tzipporah as a "dark-skinned woman" instead of by her name, which is the way she appears in the rest of the Torah. This indicates that Tzipporah's looks, and specifically her color, were an issue here.
    3. Miriam's divergence in 12:2 to discuss the fact that she and Aharon experienced prophecy, too. Ibn Ezra says this is Miriam's way of saying that Moshe had not separated from Tzipporah for the sake of receiving prophecy - we receive prophecy and we do not separate, so that is obviously not a requirement for the prophetic experience. Hence, it must be that Moshe separated for another reason.
    4. Ibn Ezra also uses grammar, pointing out that the "VaTidaber…BeMoshe" form used to describe Miriam's speech in 12:1 is a form which is frequently used to describe perjorative speech.

On to the second part, then - Aharon's role.

What was Aharon's role?
Ibn Ezra writes that Aharon played a role, albeit a minor one, in the slander. Ibn Ezra bases himself on 12:1, in which the verb for speech is the singular feminine - this indicates that Miriam was the central speaker. Further, Miriam's name is mentioned first there, indicating she was the instigator.
Ibn Ezra concludes that Aharon was either silent, indicating agreement, or even openly agreed with Miriam.

Was Aharon punished?
Ibn Ezra says Aharon was punished, but he does not explain how. It seems clear that Aharon did not receive leprosy. Therefore, I think we must assume Ibn Ezra is referring to Gd calling Aharon out and rebuking him with Miriam. The verses make clear that Gd was angry with both of them, and that, in itself, may be the punishment.

Why was Moshe sent away when Gd addressed Miriam and Aharon?

12:5 seems to indicate that Miriam and Aharon are called away from Moshe, but Ibn Ezra does not read it that way. Ibn Ezra says this was just a "page" to Miriam and Aharon, to specify that Gd is addressing them, but Moshe heard what was going on.

To sum up, then:
    1. What did they say?
    They said that Moshe separated from his wife, Tzipporah, because of her dark appearance.

    2. What was Aharon's role in the Lashon haRa? Was he punished?
    Aharon listened quietly, perhaps agreeing. He was punished for this.

    3. Why did Gd send Moshe away?
    Moshe wasn't "sent away;" Gd was getting their attention. Moshe heard what was going on.

Gd-willing, next week we will see Rashi's view of this event.

Be well,
Mordechai Torczyner


Miriam's Leprosy - Week Four


This week we completed our look at the topic of Miriam's Leprosy, by learning Rashi's answers to our three questions.

What was the Slander?
Rashi, like Ibn Ezra, says that Moshe had separated from Tzipporah. However, Rashi disagrees with Ibn Ezra on the details. Where Ibn Ezra said that Miriam alleged Moshe had separated due to Tzipporah's appearance, Rashi argues that Miriam merely said Moshe had separated, without saying that Tzipporah's appearance was the reason.

Tzipporah ?=? Kushite
Rashi, like Ibn Ezra, identifies Tzipporah as the "Kushite woman" Miriam was talking about. Both Ibn Ezra and Rashi see no need to conclude that Moshe had a second wife.

However, Rashi takes an extremely different tack in explaining why Tzipporah was called a "Kushite." Ibn Ezra said Tzipporah was dark-skinned, from her Bedouin routine, involving long days in the sun. Rashi does not accept this.

Rashi writes that the Torah will sometimes refer to a person as "Kushite," Black, as a way of saying that the person stands out. Tzipporah actually stood out because of her beauty, and this was what Miriam meant. Miriam was saying that surely Moshe hand't separated from her because of appearances, as she was a woman of remarkable beauty.

The Gematria
Rashi adds a Gematria to this. Gematria is the system which assigns a numerical value to each letter of the alphabet. "Kushis," when spelled out fully (meaning with a 'Vav'), is 736. "Yefat Mareh (of a beautiful appearance)" is also 736.

Why does Rashi add a Gematria here? Sifsei Chachamim, a commentary to Rashi, says that Rashi was not entirely satisfied with his own explanation. Therefore, he added the Gematria to point to another link.

The difference between the views of Ibn Ezra and Rashi
What makes Rashi and Ibn Ezra come to different conclusions? Both are working with the same set of clues:
1. Tzipporah is called a "Kushis" here, instead of by her name
2. The Torah emphasizes that Moshe had been married to a Kushis once, indicating that he no longer was married to her.

Both have the same problem: Tzipporah was a Midiante, not a Kushite.

Ibn Ezra's answer has one advantage over Rashi's answer. Ibn Ezra's answer explains why Miriam would have called her a Kushite; Tzipporah's appearance was part of Miriam's story. Rashi's answer is close, in indicating that Miriam might have mentioned her beauty, but the reading is still odd.

Perhaps (and I stress that this is a "perhaps") Rashi opts for a different explanation because he is uncomfortable with the suggestion that Tzipporah was not beautiful. The Gemara (Bava Basra 58a) talks about the beauty of Chavah and Sarah, and it is possible that Rashi is uncomfortable with the suggestion that Tzipporah might not have been beautiful.

Aharon's Role
Rashi comments that Miriam spoke first, based on the verse itself in which Miriam is mentioned first. Rashi does not address the question of Aharon's role and punishment, beyond this. (As mentioned in the last e-mail, Ibn Ezra says Aharon was either silent or in agreement, and he also was punished.)

Moshe's Presence
Our last question dealt with why Gd called Moshe out with Aharon and Miriam, and then separated them from him for the actual conversation.

As we mentioned last time, Ibn Ezra says Moshe was present for the conversation; Gd called to Aharon and Miriam only as a means of addressing them, specifically.

Rashi disagrees, based on a principle which also arises elsewhere in the Torah. In Bereishis 6:9, the Torah says that Noach was a Tzaddik (righteous person), was perfect in his generation, and walked with Gd. In Bereishis 7:1, Gd addresses Noach and tells him that he is going to be saved from the flood, "for you I have seen as a righteous person before me in this generation." Why does Gd not tell Noach that he is perfect in his generation, and that he walked with Gd?

The applicable principle is "Omrim Miktzas Shevacho shel Adam beFanav," one should say only part of a person's praise before him. It is not appropriate to praise someone to the fullest extent when he is present. Therefore, Gd did not praise Noach fully to his face.

Similarly, Gd called Aharon and Miriam away because He was going to tell them how great Moshe was, how Moshe's prophecy was far beyond what anyone else could experience. Moshe could not be there for that conversation.

This wraps up our look at the story of Miriam's Leprosy.

Beginning next week, Gd-willing, we will have a change of format. For the past year, we have looked at difficult biblical stories from different angles, and we have seen: 1. Aharon and the Golden Calf, 2. Yaakov and the Angel, 3. The Sale of Yosef, 4. Moshe Hitting the Rock, 5. Chavah and the Tree, 6. Yehudah and Tamar, and 7. Miriam's Leprosy.

I'd like to try a different theme - Little Known Important Figures in Tanach. There are a number of people in Tanach who are not well-known to us today, but who played critical roles in the development of the Jewish People. I would like to present material on them for discussion in these classes.

Our first such person is Baruch ben Neryah; tune in next week for more!

Have a good week,
Mordechai Torczyner

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