“Looking for a Balance Between our Private and Public Lives”
Rabbi Daniela Szuster
Chapter 12 of this week’s parashat starts saying: “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married: “He married a Cushite woman!” (B’midbar 12:1).
It is written here that Miriam and Aaron, Moses’ siblings, spoke against Moses because he married a Cushite woman. What was the problem with this? Who was the Cushite woman? Is the text referring to Zipporah, Moses’ wife, or to another woman?
Most of the sages agree that the text is referring to Zipporah. So, again, why did Miriam and Aaron talk against Moses about this? What was the problem?
Rashi, based on a Midrash, says that “Miriam opened the conversation; therefore, Scripture mentions her first. And whence did Miriam know that Moses had separated himself from his wife (for this was the statement she made?
Rabbi Nathan answered: “Miriam was beside Zipporah when it was told to Moses, ‘Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp’ (B’midbar 11:27). When Zipporah heard this, she exclaimed, Woe to the wives of these if they have anything to do with prophecy, for they will separate from their wives just as my husband has separated from me!” It was from this that Miriam knew about it, and she told it to Aaron.” (Sifrei B’midbar 99).
According to this Midrash, Miriam heard accidentally from Zipporah about a marital issue Moses and Zipporah had. Moses separated from his wife in order to prophesize. Miriam had pity for Zipporah. She didn’t like Moses’ attitude towards his wife and decided to talk with Aaron, and maybe with other people about this. She vented Moses’ personal marital problems.
Rabeinu Nisim (Haran) agrees that Miriam and Aaron’s main concern was that Moses separated from his wife. He argues that they knew that not because Miriam casually heard this from Zipporah but because they saw that Moses was exhausted from leading his people and didn’t have time to take care of his wife and his children. At the beginning, they understood Moses’ situation and thought that, because of the hardship and burden he experienced leading his people, he was allowed to not fulfill the mitzvah of Onah. (This mitzvah refers to a husband’s conjugal obligations toward his wife and is also used as a halachic euphemism for marital relations.)
In fact, Moses said to God in this week’s parashah, before Miriam and Aaron spoke against him, “I cannot carry all this people by myself, for it is too much for me.” (B’midvar 11: 14). Based on this complaining, God suggested him to find seventy people so they can share the leadership with him: “Then the LORD said to Moses, “Gather for Me seventy of Israel’s elders of whom you have experience as elders and officers of the people, and bring them to the Tent of Meeting and let them take their place there with you.” (B’midvar 11:16).
After Moses followed God’s advice, Miriam and Aaron thought that now Moses was not so tired and exhausted of being the leader of the people, so he would be able to take care of his wife again. However, Miriam and Aaron saw that Moses was still separated from his wife, therefore, they started to speak against him. They considered it was not good what he was doing, Moses should take care of his family as he took care of his people.
Following this idea, throughout the Torah, we find very little information about the relationship between Moses and his sons. We just know that Moses had two sons, Gershom and Eliezer, but we don’t know anything more about them, their relationship, or their future.
We may say that Miriam and Aaron were wrong in venting Moses’ personal matters in public. Maybe Miriam was punished for speaking to others about Moses rather than confronting him directly, but we should affirm that Miriam was correct to be concerned about Moses’ behavior. In the Jewish tradition, family life is so important as public life. Every person should take care of both of them.
I believe that during this time of Covid-19, when we are confined in our homes, it is a good time to value the family life as well as the public life. Sometimes we are so busy and exhausted with our jobs that we don’t have time to spend with our families and enjoy being with them. On the other hand, being confined in our homes so long, helps us to value the social life outside the borders of our homes. The key is to look for a balance between our family lives and our public lives. Neither of them should be preferred over the other one.
As a matter of fact, Moses was a great leader, a great teacher for generations. However, we can’t affirm that he was a great husband nor a great father. At least, we don’t have information in the Torah about these qualities.
Miriam and Aaron should have talked with Moses directly about their concerns and not just between them or with other people. However, they were right in their concerns.
Following this week’s parasha, I invite you to reflect on how we can balance our lives taking care of both our private and public lives.