Sunday, May 30, 2010

Parshat Sh'lakh 5770 - Of Spies and Men

Parshat Sh'lakh 5770
Rabbi Ari Kahn

Of Spies and Men

The main episode which takes place in Parshat Sh'lakh is the story of the men sent by Moshe to scout the land. Although these men are referred to in rabbinic literature as “spies”,[1] the Torah never describes their mission in these terms.[2] Moshe appoints them to tour the land, and they are called, quite simply, men. Only later, in Moshe’s retrospective speech describing these events, is the word 'spy' introduced.

דברים א: כב-כד
וַתִּקְרְבוּן אֵלַי כֻּלְּכֶם וַתֹּאמְרוּ נִשְׁלְחָה אֲנָשִׁים לְפָנֵינוּ וְיַחְפְּרוּ לָנוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ וְיָשִׁבוּ אֹתָנוּ דָּבָר אֶת הַדֶּרֶךְ אֲשֶׁר נַעֲלֶה בָּהּ וְאֵת הֶעָרִים אֲשֶׁר נָבֹא אֲלֵיהֶן: וַיִּיטַב בְּעֵינַי הַדָּבָר וָאֶקַּח מִכֶּם שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר אֲנָשִׁים אִישׁ אֶחָד לַשָּׁבֶט: וַיִּפְנוּ וַיַּעֲלוּ הָהָרָה וַיָּבֹאוּ עַד נַחַל אֶשְׁכֹּל וַיְרַגְּלוּ אֹתָהּ:
And you came near me, all of you, and said, ‘We will send men before us, and they shall search us out the land, and bring us back word, the route by which we will ascend, and the cities to which we shall come. And I thought this was a good idea; and I took twelve men from among you, one from each tribe. And they turned and went up toward the mountain, and came to the valley of Eshkol, and spied it out. (D’varim 1:22-24)

The twelve appointed men did, in fact, act as spies, although this was not the original mission statement; perhaps this was part of the problem. Their behavior warranted a change in name, a redefinition of their mission after the fact. This stands in stark contrast with an earlier episode in the Torah in which a group of men stand accused as spies, and deny it vehemently:

בראשית פרק מב: ח-יז
וַיַּכֵּר יוֹסֵף אֶת אֶחָיו וְהֵם לֹא הִכִּרֻהוּ: וַיִּזְכֹּר יוֹסֵף אֵת הַחֲלֹמוֹת אֲשֶׁר חָלַם לָהֶם וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם מְרַגְּלִים אַתֶּם לִרְאוֹת אֶת עֶרְוַת הָאָרֶץ בָּאתֶם: וַיֹּאמְרוּ אֵלָיו לֹא אֲדֹנִי וַעֲבָדֶיךָ בָּאוּ לִשְׁבָּר אֹכֶל: כֻּלָּנוּ בְּנֵי אִישׁ אֶחָד נָחְנוּ כֵּנִים אֲנַחְנוּ לֹא הָיוּ עֲבָדֶיךָ מְרַגְּלִים: וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם לֹא כִּי עֶרְוַת הָאָרֶץ בָּאתֶם לִרְאוֹת: וַיֹּאמְרוּ שְׁנֵים עָשָׂר עֲבָדֶיךָ אַחִים אֲנַחְנוּ בְּנֵי אִישׁ אֶחָד בְּאֶרֶץ כְּנָעַן וְהִנֵּה הַקָּטֹן אֶת אָבִינוּ הַיּוֹם וְהָאֶחָד אֵינֶנּוּ: וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵהֶם יוֹסֵף הוּא אֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתִּי אֲלֵכֶם לֵאמֹר מְרַגְּלִים אַתֶּם: בְּזֹאת תִּבָּחֵנוּ חֵי פַרְעֹה אִם תֵּצְאוּ מִזֶּה כִּי אִם בְּבוֹא אֲחִיכֶם הַקָּטֹן הֵנָּה: שִׁלְחוּ מִכֶּם אֶחָד וְיִקַּח אֶת אֲחִיכֶם וְאַתֶּם הֵאָסְרוּ וְיִבָּחֲנוּ דִּבְרֵיכֶם הַאֱמֶת אִתְּכֶם וְאִם לֹא חֵי פַרְעֹה כִּי מְרַגְּלִים אַתֶּם: וַיֶּאֱסֹף אֹתָם אֶל מִשְׁמָר שְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים:
And Yosef recognized his brothers, but they did not recognize him. And Yosef remembered the dreams which he dreamed of them, and said to them, ‘You are spies; to see the nakedness of the land you have come.’ And they said to him, ‘No, my lord, your servants came to buy food. We are all one man’s sons; we are honest men, your servants are no spies.’ And he said to them, ‘No, to see the nakedness of the land you have come.’ And they said, ‘Your servants are twelve brothers, the sons of one man in the land of Canaan; and, behold, the youngest is this day with our father, and one is not.’ And Yosef said to them, ‘That is what I spoke to you, saying, You are spies. This is how you shall be tested: By Paroh's life, you shall not leave here, unless your youngest brother comes here. Send one of you, and let him fetch your brother, and you shall be kept in prison, that your words may be proven, whether there is any truth in you; or else by the life of Paroh surely you are spies.’ And he put them all together under guard for three days. (Bereishit 42:8-17)[3]

At first glance there is absolutely no connection between these two sections; in fact, they seem to be opposites. The "sin of the spies" deals with spies who are called men, and Yosef's accusation of the brothers deals with men who are called spies! Nonetheless, appearances notwithstanding, there may actually be a profound relationship between these sections. Let us carefully analyze the elements of each story: The first striking similarity or common theme is the number of people involved. While it is true that Moshe sent twelve men, only ten of them were spies. The remaining two, Calev and Yehoshua, had no part in the slanderous report or its tragic results. Of Yaakov’s twelve sons, only ten were accused of being spies: Binyamin was at home and Yosef was the unknown accuser. A more in-depth analysis of the sin of the spies will bring to light other common elements that go beyond this seemingly superficial numerical parallel, taking us to the very core of the issue.

What was the sin of the spies? If we carefully analyze their report and the punishment they were given subsequent to their report, we are able to discern several distinct stages. When they first return from their mission, they say:

במדבר פרק יג: כז-כח
וַיְסַפְּרוּ לוֹ וַיֹּאמְרוּ בָּאנוּ אֶל הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר שְׁלַחְתָּנוּ וְגַם זָבַת חָלָב וּדְבַשׁ הִוא וְזֶה פִּרְיָהּ: אֶפֶס כִּי עַז הָעָם הַיֹּשֵׁב בָּאָרֶץ וְהֶעָרִים בְּצֻרוֹת גְּדֹלֹת מְאֹד וְגַם יְלִדֵי הָעֲנָק רָאִינוּ שָׁם:
They reported to him and said, "We arrived at the Land to which you sent us, and indeed it flows with milk and honey, and this is its fruit.  But -- the people that dwells in the Land is powerful, the cities are very greatly fortified, and we also saw there the offspring of the giant. (Bamidbar 13:27-28)

The physical attributes of the Land are described in glowing terms, while the inhabitants of the Land are described as frightful; the implication is that military conquest is not feasible. Thus far, the spies do not denigrate or disparage the Land of Israel; they address the technical difficulty that conquest will present. It is this point that Calev challenges: he assures the people that their goal is attainable, that they have the capabilities.

במדבר פרק יג: ל
וַיַּהַס כָּלֵב אֶת הָעָם אֶל מֹשֶׁה וַיֹּאמֶר עָלֹה נַעֲלֶה וְיָרַשְׁנוּ אֹתָהּ כִּי יָכוֹל נוּכַל לָהּ:
And Calev quieted the people before Moshe, and said, 'We will surely ascend, and possess it; for we are well able to overcome it.' (Bamidbar 13:30)

When the spies respond to Calev's challenge, they reiterate their previous point and introduce a new argument, a second tier of doubt:

במדבר פרק יג: לא - לב
וְהָאֲנָשִׁים אֲשֶׁר עָלוּ עִמּוֹ אָמְרוּ לֹא נוּכַל לַעֲלוֹת אֶל הָעָם כִּי חָזָק הוּא מִמֶּנּוּ: וַיּוֹצִיאוּ דִּבַּת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר תָּרוּ אֹתָהּ אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֵאמֹר הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר עָבַרְנוּ בָהּ לָתוּר אֹתָהּ אֶרֶץ אֹכֶלֶת יוֹשְׁבֶיהָ הִוא וְכָל הָעָם אֲשֶׁר רָאִינוּ בְתוֹכָהּ אַנְשֵׁי מִדּוֹת:
But the men who had ascended with him said, "We cannot ascend to that people for it is too strong for us!" They brought forth to the Children of Israel an evil report on the Land that they had spied out, saying, "The Land through which we have passed, to spy it out, is a land that devours its inhabitants! All the people that we saw in it were huge. (Bamidbar 13:30)

Now they attacked the land itself, and not only the inhabitants or the fortifications; they describe it as "a land that devours its inhabitants”. The Torah prefaces their words with an editorial comment describing their response: "they brought forth an evil report." It is this "evil report", this second-tier attack that elicits a response by the people.[4] This second statement sets the chain reaction in motion. The people are demoralized, and the situation soon spirals out of control. They begin murmuring about returning to Egypt[5], or even staging a coup[6], before God puts an end to the revolt.

Significantly, when the spies' punishment is meted out, the Torah relates only to this second tier of criticism and not to their earlier remarks regarding the difficulty they would face in conquering the land. Only the slanderous words against the Land itself provoke God’s ire.

במדבר פרק יד: לו - לז
וְהָאֲנָשִׁים אֲשֶׁר שָׁלַח מֹשֶׁה לָתוּר אֶת הָאָרֶץ וַיָּשֻׁבוּ (וילונו) וַיַּלִּינוּ עָלָיו אֶת כָּל הָעֵדָה לְהוֹצִיא דִבָּה עַל הָאָרֶץ: וַיָּמֻתוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים מוֹצִאֵי דִבַּת הָאָרֶץ רָעָה בַּמַּגֵּפָה לִפְנֵי ה’:
But as for the men whom Moshe sent to tour the Land, and who returned and provoked the entire assembly against him by spreading a slanderous report against the Land: The people who spread the slanderous evil report about the Land died in a plague before God. (Bamidbar 14:36 – 37)

It seems that God is willing to “overlook” the questioning of His (or Moshe’s) ability to successfully complete the journey and conquer the Promised Land, but a direct attack on the Land itself is unforgivable.

The word used to describe the sin of the spies is dibbah, which implies slander.[7] This is not the first usage of this word; that dubious honor belongs to the episode of Yosef and his brothers. The starting point of the enmity and the point at which the relationship between Yosef and his brothers breaks down is the "evil, slanderous report" that Yosef brought to his father about his brothers:

בראשית פרק לז:ב
אֵלֶּה תֹּלְדוֹת יַעֲקֹב יוֹסֵף בֶּן שְׁבַע עֶשְׂרֵה שָׁנָה הָיָה רֹעֶה אֶת אֶחָיו בַּצֹּאן וְהוּא נַעַר אֶת בְּנֵי בִלְהָה וְאֶת בְּנֵי זִלְפָּה נְשֵׁי אָבִיו וַיָּבֵא יוֹסֵף אֶת דִּבָּתָם רָעָה אֶל אֲבִיהֶם:
These are the chronicles of Yaakov - Yosef, at the age of seventeen, was a shepherd with his brothers by the flock, but he was a youth with the sons of Bilhah and the sons of Zilpah, his father's wives; and Yosef would bring evil reports about them to their father. (Bereishit 37:2)

With these words, the backdrop for the sale of Yosef is painted. Despite the tension that had been percolating just below the surface for some time, Ya’akov sends Yosef to seek out his brothers, to bring back a report. Apparently Ya’akov was not opposed to Yosef’s reporting; otherwise, sending him on this mission would have been absurd. On the other hand, given the eventual result and long-term consequences, perhaps Yaakov was mistaken. Can we draw any conclusions, learn any lessons, regarding the mission with which Moshe charged the twelve men? Perhaps if we compare the consequences of Yosef's mission with that of the mission of the spies – each having caused years of wandering and exile – these two seemingly disparate episodes come into closer focus.

Yosef’s proclivity for telling tales brings another connection between the two episodes to light – a connection that is alluded to by an anomaly in the verses describing the spies. When the names of the men sent by Moshe are enumerated, only one of the representatives of the tribes of Yosef is attributed in the normal way. When the “tourist” from Efraim is named, no identification with Yosef is offered; when the representative of Menashe is named he is described as being from the tribe of Yosef.[8]

במדבר פרק יג: ח, יא
לְמַטֵּה אֶפְרָיִם הוֹשֵׁעַ בִּן נוּן:
לְמַטֵּה יוֹסֵף לְמַטֵּה מְנַשֶּׁה גַּדִּי בֶּן סוּסִי:

Rashi explains[9] that only the descendant of Yosef who spoke slander – like Yosef himself - is identified with Yosef. Yehoshua was silent; he did not slander the Land of Israel with the other spies, and is therefore not identified as a descendant of Yosef: "From the tribe of Ephraim, Hoshea the son of Nun," rather than "From the Tribe of Yosef, from the Tribe of Ephraim," as is the case with the representative of the Tribe of Menashe: "From the Tribe of Yosef, from the Tribe of Manashe, Gadi the son of Susi."

The Ibn Ezra[10] points out a subtle but important difference between Yosef and the spies: Yosef's reports to his father were accurate, factual accounts – disparaging, but true.[11] Yosef's report painted his brothers in a very poor light, bringing his brothers' deficiencies to their father's attention, but Yosef did not manufacture the content of the report. On the other hand, (according to the Ibn Ezra's reading) the Torah states clearly that the spies were telling lies, fabricating a "slanderous evil report."

Despite the subtle differences, the relationship between these two episodes seems to come to life, beyond the words themselves - “spies” and "slander", meraglim and dibbah. An additional connection may be found in the geographical description of the spies' journey:
במדבר פרק יג: כב
וַיַּעֲלוּ בַנֶּגֶב וַיָּבֹא עַד חֶבְרוֹן וְשָׁם אֲחִימַן שֵׁשַׁי וְתַלְמַי יְלִידֵי הָעֲנָק וְחֶבְרוֹן שֶׁבַע שָׁנִים נִבְנְתָה לִפְנֵי צֹעַן מִצְרָיִם:
They ascended in the Negev (i.e., the south) and (he) arrived at Hevron, where there were Ahiman, Sheshai, and Talmai, the offspring of the giant. Hevron had been built seven years before Zoan of Egypt. (Bamidbar 13:23)

There is a peculiarity in the text which is sometimes obscured by the translation: The text indicates that the group, in plural, ascended from the south, while in the same verse stating, in the singular form, that "he" came to Hevron. According to tradition, only one of the men made his way to Hevron, the family home and burial ground of their ancestors: Calev.

רש"י, במדבר פרק יג פסוק כב
ויבא עד חברון - כלב לבדו הלך שם ונשתטח על קברי אבות, שלא יהא ניסת לחבריו להיות בעצתם, וכן הוא אומר (דברים א: לו) 'ולו אתן את הארץ אשר דרך בה,' וכתיב (שופטים א: כ) 'ויתנו לכלב את חברון':
And he arrived at Hevron: Calev alone went there and prostrated himself on the graves of the Patriarchs, offering prayer that he might be helped not to give way to the enticement of his colleagues and join them in their counsel; You may see that it was Calev who went there, for so indeed it (Scripture) states, [Devarim1:36] "[Save Calev the son of Yefunneh, he shall see it] and unto him will I give the land upon which he walked!" and it is written, [Shoftim1:20] "And they gave Hevron to Calev." (Rashi, Bamidbar 13:22)

It is not surprising that upon visiting this old/new Land, one of the tourists wishes to see the place where his family had lived. This tradition alone may indicate the different purposes the various travelers saw in their trip. One of the twelve men seeks out a connection to ancient family property and burial grounds; the others are far less emotionally connected. They act as spies.[12]

This particular excursion to Hevron has deeper meaning. The Torah states that they ascended in the south; those familiar with the geography and topography of the land of Israel will know that Hevron is on a mountain. On the other hand, when Ya’akov sent Yosef to seek his brothers, the Torah states that he was sent from the 'Valley of Hevron':

בראשית פרק לז: יד
וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ לֶךְ נָא רְאֵה אֶת שְׁלוֹם אַחֶיךָ וְאֶת שְׁלוֹם הַצֹּאן וַהֲשִׁבֵנִי דָּבָר וַיִּשְׁלָחֵהוּ מֵעֵמֶק חֶבְרוֹן וַיָּבֹא שְׁכֶמָה:
And he said to him, "Go now, look into the welfare of your brothers and the welfare of the flock, and bring me back word." So he sent him from the Valley (depth) of Hevron, and he arrived at Shechem. (Bereishit 37:14)

Rashi explains:

רש"י, בראשית לז: יד
מעמק חברון - והלא חברון בהר, שנאמר (במדבר יג: כב) "ויעלו בנגב ויבא עד חברון," אלא מעצה עמוקה של [אותו] צדיק הקבור בחברון, לקיים מה שנאמר לאברהם בין הבתרים (בראשית טו: יג) "כי גר יהיה זרעך":
FROM THE VALLEY OF HEVRON- But is not Hevron situated on a mountain, as it is said (Bamidbar 13:22) “They ascended in the south and he arrived at Hevron?” Why, then, does it state that Yaakov sent him from the emek, [the vale, the deep part] of Hevron? But the meaning is that Yaakov sent him in consequence of the necessity of bringing into operation the profound thought of the righteous man who was buried in Hevron in order that there might be fulfilled that which was spoken to Avraham when the Covenant was made "between the parts" (Bereishit 15:13), "your descendents will be strangers, etc": (Rashi, Bereishit 37:14)
Here, Rashi teaches a profound lesson: The sale of Yosef, the exile of the tribes, the slavery of the people, the glorious Exodus and Revelation at Sinai were all part of a larger Divine plan. A covenant had been forged between God and Avraham; slavery was part of the deal, but so were liberation and a return to the Land. Now, Calev returns home, to the place where the exile had begun. As far as Calev is concerned, they have come full circle and it is time for this terrible exile to end. It seems significant that the two renegade men, the two who refuse to be spies, Calev and Yehoshua, were from the tribes of Yehuda and Yosef respectively. These were the main protagonists in the sale of Yosef. After all, it was Yehuda who suggested they sell Yosef in the first place.[13] Perhaps Calev was intent on going back to the place where it all began, and perhaps that is what lay at the foundation of the alliance that was formed between these two great leaders.

The sojourn in Egypt was intertwined with a prophecy of a Promised Land:

בראשית פרק טו: ז-טז
וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו אֲנִי ה’ אֲשֶׁר הוֹצֵאתִיךָ מֵאוּר כַּשְׂדִּים לָתֶת לְךָ אֶת הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת לְרִשְׁתָּהּ: וַיֹּאמַר אֲדֹנָי ה’ בַּמָּה אֵדַע כִּי אִירָשֶׁנָּה: וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו קְחָה לִי עֶגְלָה מְשֻׁלֶּשֶׁת וְעֵז מְשֻׁלֶּשֶׁת וְאַיִל מְשֻׁלָּשׁ וְתֹר וְגוֹזָל: וַיִּקַּח לוֹ אֶת כָּל אֵלֶּה וַיְבַתֵּר אֹתָם בַּתָּוֶךְ וַיִּתֵּן אִישׁ בִּתְרוֹ לִקְרַאת רֵעֵהוּ וְאֶת הַצִּפֹּר לֹא בָתָר: וַיֵּרֶד הָעַיִט עַל הַפְּגָרִים וַיַּשֵּׁב אֹתָם אַבְרָם: וַיְהִי הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ לָבוֹא וְתַרְדֵּמָה נָפְלָה עַל אַבְרָם וְהִנֵּה אֵימָה חֲשֵׁכָה גְדֹלָה נֹפֶלֶת עָלָיו: וַיֹּאמֶר לְאַבְרָם יָדֹעַ תֵּדַע כִּי גֵר יִהְיֶה זַרְעֲךָ בְּאֶרֶץ לֹא לָהֶם וַעֲבָדוּם וְעִנּוּ אֹתָם אַרְבַּע מֵאוֹת שָׁנָה: וְגַם אֶת הַגּוֹי אֲשֶׁר יַעֲבֹדוּ דָּן אָנֹכִי וְאַחֲרֵי כֵן יֵצְאוּ בִּרְכֻשׁ גָּדוֹל: וְאַתָּה תָּבוֹא אֶל אֲבֹתֶיךָ בְּשָׁלוֹם תִּקָּבֵר בְּשֵׂיבָה טוֹבָה: וְדוֹר רְבִיעִי יָשׁוּבוּ הֵנָּה כִּי לֹא שָׁלֵם עֲוֹן הָאֱמֹרִי עַד הֵנָּה:
And he said to him, 'I am God who brought you out of Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this Land as an inheritance.' And he said, 'Almighty God, how shall I know that I shall inherit it?' And He said to him, 'Bring me a three year old heifer, and a three year old female goat, and a three year old ram, and a turtledove, and a young pigeon.' And he took to him all these, and divided them in the midst, and laid each half against the other; but he did not divide the birds. And when the eagle came down upon the carcasses, Avram drove them away. And when the sun was going down, a deep sleep fell upon Avram; and, lo, a fear of great darkness fell upon him. And He said to Avram, 'Know for a certainty that your descendents will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, and shall serve them; and they shall afflict them four hundred years; And also that nation, whom they shall serve, will I judge; and afterward shall they come out with great wealth. And you shall go to your fathers in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. But in the fourth generation they shall come here again; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet full.' (Bereishit 15:7-16)

Now, at the cusp of the fulfillment of that Divine promise made to Avraham, hope is replaced by fear. How ironic that now they become fearful: the hard part was past, the slavery in Egypt had been endured, and now that the prophecy is to be fulfilled, the people break down. The catalyst that brought about their slavery was the sale of Yosef, which in turn was caused by the dibbah, the evil reports that Yosef shared with his father. The report which Yaakov had asked for – about the welfare of his sons and their flocks, was never answered. Instead Yaakov received a different answer, one which took him years to understand: God's promise to Avraham had begun, the wheels had been set in motion, and the slavery would soon begin.

The sin of the spies was that they were spies.[14] They approached the Promised Land with detachment, without the desire to go back to their ancestral roots, without the sensitivity to their destiny that Calev displayed when he traveled to Hevron. Their words cause calamity, fear, dread and depression. They lied about the land and exhibited a profound lack of faith in God, in Moshe, in the Land of Israel, in Jewish history and Jewish destiny. Yehoshua and Calev were men; they retained their faith and fidelity. They understood that the sale of Yosef needed to be healed, and the highly symbolic return of Calev to Hevron indicates this understanding. They were careful of the words they used, careful that no dibbah, no slander, would pass their lips. The time had arrived to go back home. Unfortunately, the other men ceased to behave as men; they became spies. And as one painful chapter of Jewish history, brought on by slanderous speech, came to a close, a new painful chapter was opened – in much the same way.

[1] The episode described in our present parsha is often referred to as the “sin of the spies”. See Talmud Bavli Ta’anit 29a, Megilah 13a, Sotah 11b,34b, Bav Batra 117b, 118b, Sanhedrin 109b among many other sources.
[2] I heard this observation from my teacher, Rabbi Yosef Soloveitchik, in a lecture entitled “Het Miriam uMeraglim” (The Sin of Miriam and the Spies), delivered   06/04/75.
[3] For an analysis of this section, see “Of Spies and Thieves” in my forthcoming volume, “Echoes of Eden” (Jerusalem: Gefen Publishers).
[4] This refers to the masses who are now frightened.
[5]  See Bamidbar 14:3,  "And why has God brought us to this land, to fall by the sword, that our wives and our children should be prey? Were it not better for us to return into Egypt?
במדבר פרק יד: ג
וְלָמָה ה’ מֵבִיא אֹתָנוּ אֶל הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת לִנְפֹּל בַּחֶרֶב נָשֵׁינוּ וְטַפֵּנוּ יִהְיוּ לָבַז הֲלוֹא טוֹב לָנוּ שׁוּב מִצְרָיְמָה:
[6] See Bamidbar 14:10, "But all the congregation said to stone them with stones. And the glory of God appeared in the Tent of Meeting before all the people of Israel.
במדבר פרק יד: י
וַיֹּאמְרוּ כָּל הָעֵדָה לִרְגּוֹם אֹתָם בָּאֲבָנִים וּכְבוֹד ה’ נִרְאָה בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד אֶל כָּל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל:
[7]  Mishlei 10:18, "He who hides hatred has lying lips, and he who utters a slander is a fool."
משלי פרק י: יח
 מְכַסֶּה שִׂנְאָה שִׂפְתֵי שָׁקֶר וּמוֹצִא דִבָּה הוּא כְסִיל:
Rashi, Bereishit 37:2, writes: The word dibbah always means, in old French, [speaking slander]; whatever he could speak bad about them he told to his father;
Dibbah has the same meaning as the verb of the same root in the Song of Songs, 7:10: "making speak the lips of those that are asleep":
רש"י בראשית פרק לז פסוק ב
דבתם - כל לשון דבה פרלידי"ץ בלע"ז [רכילות] כל מה שהיה יכול לדבר בהם רעה היה מספר:
דבה - לשון (שיר ז: י) דובב שפתי ישנים:

[8]  Compare this with Bamidbar 1:10, where the leaders of the respective tribes of both Efraim and Menashe are mentioned as sons of Yosef in one verse:  "From the sons of Yosef: of Ephraim, Elishama the son of Ammihud; of Menashe, Gamaliel the son of Pedahzur."
[9]  This comment is not found in Rashi’s commentary on the Torah, rather in his Sefer Hapardes, page 93.
[10] Ibn Ezra, Bamidbar 13:32.
אבן עזרא, במדבר יג: לב
ויציאו דבת הארץ - דבר שלא היה. ואין כן ויבא יוסף (בראשית לז: ב), כי ויבא הפך ויוציאו.
[11] The text in Bereishit 37:2 says Yosef  “brought” slander to his father.
בראשית פרק לז:ב
וַיָּבֵא יוֹסֵף אֶת דִּבָּתָם רָעָה אֶל אֲבִיהֶם:
[12]  The outwardly problematic behavior of Yehoshua has been discussed in my book Explorations (Jerusalem: Targum Publishers, 2000).
[13]  Bereishit 37:26,27.
[14] Heard from Rabbi Yosef Soloveitchik; see footnote 2, above.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Parshat B’ha’alotcha 5770 - Moshe, Miriam and Prophecy

Parshat B’ha’alotcha 5770
Rabbi Ari Kahn

Moshe, Miriam and Prophecy

At the end of Parshat B’ha’alotcha a short episode is recounted, an episode that seems a private family matter of sibling intrigue:

במדבר פרק יב, א-ג
וַתְּדַבֵּר מִרְיָם וְאַהֲרֹן בְּמֹשֶׁה עַל אֹדוֹת הָאִשָּׁה הַכֻּשִׁית אֲשֶׁר לָקָח כִּי אִשָּׁה כֻשִׁית לָקָח: וַיֹּאמְרוּ הֲרַק אַךְ בְּמֹשֶׁה דִּבֶּר ה’ הֲלֹא גַּם בָּנוּ דִבֵּר וַיִּשְׁמַע ה’: וְהָאִישׁ מֹשֶׁה עָנָיו מְאֹד מִכֹּל הָאָדָם אֲשֶׁר עַל פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה:
And Miriam and Aharon spoke against Moshe because of the Kushite woman whom he had married; for he had married a Kushite woman. And they said, ‘Has God indeed spoken only by (through) Moshe? Has he not spoken also by us?’ And God heard it. And the man Moshe was very humble, more than any other men upon the face of the earth. (Bamidbar 12:1-3)

 This section is obscure; each verse is difficult independently, and the connection between one verse and the next is also unclear. What was the problem with Moshe’s choice of spouse? What is the identity of this woman? What is the connection between the marriage and the fact that Moshe was a prophet? Why does the Torah feel the need to share the important biographical note that Moshe was the most modest of men, at this particular juncture?

The answers to these questions offered by the classical commentaries are radically different than what we would expect: these puzzling verses are construed in a manner that represents a departure from normal biblical commentary. The entire episode is approached in almost total disregard for the straightforward meaning of the verses; pshat is left behind, in apparent disregard for one of the most basic and overarching principles of biblical study.[1] In this case, the commentaries follow an oral tradition regarding the events described in the verses – a tradition that teaches a different lesson than that of the plain text, and one not easily read into the text without “filling in” some of the lacunae.

The first question to arise is the identity of this woman: Is she Zipporah, daughter of Yitro of Midian, whom we are told Moshe took as a partner years earlier,[2] or another woman? On this point the commentaries are divided: Some (like Unkolus[3] and Rashi) insist that the Kushite woman referred to here is, in fact, Zipporah. Others (Targum Pseudo Yonatan[4] and Rashbam) claim that Moshe had taken another wife. The source of contention lies in the translation of the word Kushit, which is variously taken to mean either “from the land of Kush[5] or as a reference to a particular trait of people of that land, namely, dark-skinned.

The simple reading of the text would suggest that Moshe married a woman heretofore unknown to us, and, in fact, she was from the Land of Kush. If this is correct, we might ask when Moshe had time for courtship and romance. Furthermore, what was the objection of his siblings? Was it simply because Moshe married the “wrong” type of woman? Do we hear echoes of racism? The discussion between Miriam and Aharon regarding Moshe’s choice of spouse seems to be a pretext for a larger complaint regarding prophesy: this complaint is raised in the following verse and it is this complaint that God takes up in his response.

במדבר פרק יב, ד
וַיֹּאמֶר ה’ פִּתְאֹם אֶל מֹשֶׁה וְאֶל אַהֲרֹן וְאֶל מִרְיָם, "צְאוּ שְׁלָשְׁתְּכֶם אֶל אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וַיֵּצְאוּ שְׁלָשְׁתָּם:
And God spoke suddenly to Moshe, and to Aharon, and to Miriam, ‘Come out you three to the Tent of Meeting.’ And the three came out. (Bamidbar 12:4)

It seems unlikely that her color was the problem: The entire Jewish People were middle-eastern, making it highly likely that a large percentage were themselves of fairly dark complexion[6]. On the other hand, we cannot help but consider that the punishment eventually meted out to Miriam is leprosy; the Torah emphasizes that her affliction affects her skin and its color:[7]

במדבר פרק יב, י
וְהֶעָנָן סָר מֵעַל הָאֹהֶל וְהִנֵּה מִרְיָם מְצֹרַעַת כַּשָּׁלֶג וַיִּפֶן אַהֲרֹן אֶל מִרְיָם וְהִנֵּה מְצֹרָעַת:
And the cloud departed from off the Tent; and, behold, Miriam had become leprous, white as snow… (Bamidbar 12:10)

To explain the sudden appearance of the Kushite wife, the commentaries quote an elaborate tale: When fleeing Par’oh Moshe made his way to Africa and settled for a while in Kush. He eventually became an important leader there, and married the queen.[8]

Rashi, perhaps within a more general “theory of conservation of characters”, believes this woman to be none other that Zipporah, and offers three different explanations for the appellation Kushit.  Rashi’s basic approach is clear: Kushite denotes beauty. Rashi concedes that the “plain meaning” does not translate as “beautiful”, but contends that the text is employing a euphemism to describe Moshe’s wife, a woman of physical and spiritual beauty.[9]

But if this is so, and the discussion here regards Zipporah, is our problem with this passage solved? If Moshe had married Zipporah years earlier and she was beautiful in every way – what problem could Miriam and Aharon have had with her or with Moshe? Rashi’s answer, which is based on a very strong and widely held tradition, is that the problem lay not in the wife but in Moshe: Moshe had separated from his wife Zipporah.[10] While there is no inkling of this in the text, even commentaries who say that Moshe had at some point married a Kushite queen suggest that the problem was that he had separated from her[11]. Perhaps Rashi, who sees the term isha Kushit as a euphemistic description of Zipporah, also sees the phrase “for he had taken a Kushite woman” as a euphemism: What the Torah really means to say is that Moshe had separated from his wife. Perhaps, aware of Moshe’s greatness, Miriam exercised caution and spoke with reticence while criticizing her brother, and did not spell out what was bothering her.

We can now reconstruct the section as follows: Moshe had separated from his wife. Miriam finds this unacceptable. She turns to her brother Aharon and, in Moshe’s presence, says that what Moshe did was wrong. The next verse remains difficult: what is the connection between Moshe’s marital status and the fact that Miriam was also a prophet? If we set this problem aside temporarily, our reconstruction of the scene continues as God calls all three protagonists out. Verse 4 indicates that Moshe was indeed within earshot of Miriam’s criticism;[12] the fact that Moshe remained silent even when attacked by his older brother and sister helps us to better understand the “editorial comment” about Moshe’s modesty in Verse 3. Thus, when Moshe does not respond, God stands in Moshe’s defense.

Thus far, our understanding of this passage leaves us with several unanswered questions: Why did Moshe separate from his wife? What is the relationship between this separation and prophesy? Additionally, we might ask why Miriam felt it was her right to criticize Moshe.

Under normal circumstances, married life is a Torah ideal. The opening chapters of Bereishit describe the union of man and wife as complete, all-encompassing:

בראשית פרק ב פסוק כד
עַל כֵּן יַעֲזָב אִישׁ אֶת אָבִיו וְאֶת אִמּוֹ וְדָבַק בְּאִשְׁתּוֹ וְהָיוּ לְבָשָׂר אֶחָד:
Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and they shall be one flesh. (Bereishit 2:24)

Existentially and physically, man and woman are imperfect when alone.[13] Nonetheless, when the Jews stood at Mount Sinai and prepared for Revelation, a temporary separation of husband and wife was introduced.[14] Apparently the reason for the separation was to properly prepare for the singular moment of Revelation. All of Israel needed a single-minded level of kavanah which precluded other relationships. After the theophony, all of Israel returned to their tents and spouses. Only Moshe remained alone.

דברים פרק ה, כו-כז
לֵךְ אֱמֹר לָהֶם שׁוּבוּ לָכֶם לְאָהֳלֵיכֶם: וְאַתָּה פֹּה עֲמֹד עִמָּדִי וַאֲדַבְּרָה אֵלֶיךָ אֵת כָּל הַמִּצְוָה וְהַחֻקִּים וְהַמִּשְׁפָּטִים אֲשֶׁר תְּלַמְּדֵם וְעָשׂוּ בָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי נֹתֵן לָהֶם לְרִשְׁתָּהּ:
Go say to them, ‘Return again into your tents’. But as for you, stand here by me, and I will speak to you all the commandments, and the statutes, and the judgments, which you shall teach them, that they may do them in the land which I give them to possess. (D’varim 5:26-27)[15]

Moshe, the man of God,[16] was to be in a constant state of preparedness for the Divine Word. Miriam was correct; there were other prophets, but none had as intimate a relationship with God. Moshe was different; unique[17]. His sister’s complaint was not valid. True, she too was a prophetess; she simply was not like Moshe - nor was any other prophet in history.[18]

Miriam must certainly have been aware of the qualitative superiority of Moshe’s prophetic experience. What emboldened her to attack or question Moshe in this particular instance? Perhaps the answer lies in her choice of words. Miriam notes that God had spoken to her as well, a fact borne out by the verses immediately following the splitting of the sea. When the Israelites left Egypt, they had a showdown with the hated Egyptians at the Red Sea. Upon witnessing their miraculous salvation, Moshe led the men of Israel in song. The Torah then adds that Miriam led the women in song.

שמות פרק טו, כ-כא
וַתִּקַּח מִרְיָם הַנְּבִיאָה אֲחוֹת אַהֲרֹן אֶת הַתֹּף בְּיָדָהּ וַתֵּצֶאןָ כָל הַנָּשִׁים אַחֲרֶיהָ בְּתֻפִּים וּבִמְחֹלֹת: וַתַּעַן לָהֶם מִרְיָם שִׁירוּ לה' כִּי גָאֹה גָּאָה סוּס וְרֹכְבוֹ רָמָה בַיָּם:
And Miriam the Prophetess, the sister of Aharon, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines, dancing. And Miriam answered them, ‘Sing to God, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider has He thrown into the sea. (Shmot 15:20-21)

Here Miriam is described as both a prophetess and as the “sister of Aharon””; why not “the sister of Moshe”? Rashi explains that she achieved prophesy at the point when she was only the sister of Aharon, before Moshe was born[19]. What was the content of her prophesy? That one day her parents would have a child named Moshe who would be the savior of the Children of Israel. This prophesy led Miriam to action: she encouraged her parents - who had separated - to reunite.

Amram, leader of the enslaved Israelites, eventually succumbed to the tyranny of the Egyptian regime: He separated from his wife out of fear that they would have a son who would be cast into the Nile, in accordance with Par’oh’s decree. In such a world, he reasoned, it was preferable not to have children. Miriam knew better; strengthened by her prophetic insight, she chastised her father, accusing him of being even worse than Par’oh himself. Par’oh’s decree threatened the male children, while Amram’s behavior, which was emulated by many others, would prevent all Jewish children from being born, placing the continued survival of the Jewish People in peril. Amram accepted his daughter’s argument; he and Yocheved remarried, demonstratively and with great fanfare in order to encourage others to do the same; they were even serenaded by their older children.

שמות רבה (וילנא) פרשת שמות פרשה א סימן יט
וילך איש מבית לוי, להיכן הלך, א"ר יהודה ב"ר זבינא שהלך בעצת בתו, תניא עמרם גדול הדור היה וכו' (כדאי' לעיל), ויקח את בת לוי, והחזיר לא נאמר אלא ויקח, א"ר יהודה ב"ר זבינא שעשה לה מעשה לקוחים, הושיבה באפריון ומרים ואהרן מרקדין לפניהם ומלאכי השרת אומרים (תהלים קיג) אם הבנים שמחה.
“And there went a man of the house of Levi” (Shmot 2, 1). Where did he go? R. Judah, the son of R. Zebina, said: He followed his daughter's advice. It was taught: Amram was the leading man of his generation; “and took for his wife a daughter of Levi”. It does not say ' he took her back ‘, but “he took”, proving, said R. Judah, the son of Zebina, that he went through a marriage ceremony with her. He placed her on the bridal throne, Miriam and Aharon dancing before them and the angels saying: “As a joyful mother of children” [Tehilim 113, 9]. ( Midrash Rabbah Shmot 1:19)

Soon after, a son was born, and the light of his aura filled their home.

שמות רבה (וילנא) פרשת שמות פרשה א סימן כב
ותתצב אחותו מרחוק, למה עמדה מרים מרחוק, אמר רב עמרם בשם רב לפי שהיתה מרים מתנבאת ואומרת עתידה אמי שתלד בן שיושיע את ישראל, כיון שנולד משה נתמלא כל הבית אורה, עמד אביה ונשקה על ראשה, אמר לה בתי נתקיימה נבואתך, היינו דכתיב (שמות טו) ותקח מרים הנביאה אחות אהרן את התוף, אחות אהרן ולא אחות משה, אלא שאמרה נבואה זו כשהיא אחות אהרן ועדיין לא נולד משה, וכיון שהטילוהו ליאור, עמדה אמה וטפחה לה על ראשה, אמרה לה בתי והיכן נבואתיך, והיינו דכתיב ותתצב אחותו מרחוק וגו', לדעת מה יהא בסוף נביאותה.
“And his sister stood afar off.” (Shmot 2:4) Why did Miriam stand afar off? R. Amram in the name of Rav said: Because Miriam prophesied, 'My mother is destined to give birth to a son who will save Israel’; and when the house was flooded with light at the birth of Moshe, her father arose and kissed her head and said: ‘My daughter, your prophecy has been fulfilled.’ This is the meaning of: ‘And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aharon, took a timbrel’ (Shmot 15:20); ‘The sister of Aharon,’ but not of Moshe? [She is so called] because in fact she said this prophecy when she was yet only the sister of Aharon, Moshe not having been born yet. Now that she was casting him into the river, her mother struck her on the head, saying: 'My daughter, what about your prophecy?’ This is why it says: ‘and his sister stood afar off’-- to know what would be the outcome of her prophecy. (Midrash Rabbah – Shmot 1:22)

Now we can appreciate why Miriam was so emboldened. She had been endowed with prophetic vision before Moshe was born – and she was particularly sensitive to what she saw as a mistake on Moshe’s  part: Celibacy is not the Jewish way; this was a battle that Miriam had fought - and won - years earlier. Moshe owed his very existence to his sister’s prophecy, for her prophecy caused her separated parents to reunite. Nonetheless in this instance, Miriam was mistaken: Moshe’s prophesy was unlike any other. Ultimately, God agreed (or ordered) that Moshe should remain alone: Moshe, and he alone, would remain constantly on the level of holiness and preparedness for prophecy that all the People of Israel obtained before the Revelation at Sinai.

Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik once explained in the name of his grandfather Rav Chaim Soloveitchik that this section regarding Miriam is not about slander, but something far more basic. At the end of our daily prayers there is a custom, recorded in many sidurim, to recount on a daily basis the six things the Torah specifically commands us to “remember.” Included in this list are the Exodus (Shmot 13:3), Shabbat (Shmot 20:8), the Revelation at Mount Sinai (Dvarim 16:3), the epic struggle with Amalek (Dvarim 25:17), and the sin of angering God in the desert (Devarim 9:7). The sixth in this category is the commandment to remember what happened to Miriam.

דברים פרק כד פסוק ט
זָכוֹר אֵת אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה ה’ אֱלֹהֶיךָ לְמִרְיָם בַּדֶּרֶךְ בְּצֵאתְכֶם מִמִּצְרָיִם:
Remember what the Almighty your God did to Miriam on the way, as you came out of Egypt. (Dvarim 24:9)

Why did this particular offence rate consideration equal to the other major principles of Judaism? Rav Chaim addressed this question by pointing to the Thirteen Articles of Belief enumerated by the Rambam. The sixth principle deals with belief in prophesy, while the seventh speaks of belief in Moshe as the foremost among the prophets. Rav Chaim questioned the necessity of enumerating these two ideas separately, as two distinct articles of belief. His answer is that aside from believing in the reality of prophesy we are also enjoined to believe that Moshe was the spiritual father of all prophets and hence he was on a level all his own. This is an independent obligation; it is possible to believe in the idea of God communicating with man without necessarily recognizing the unique nature of the communication Moshe received. Acceptance of the first principle without the second could eventually open the door to any false prophet who might contradict the Mosaic Law and pervert the chain of Masorah. This was the sin of Miriam: She knew that her brother was a great prophet, the pre-destined savior of the Children of Israel. She surely had no difficulty with the concept of prophecy; she had personally experienced it, as did Aharon. Her mistake lay in failing to grasp or accept the qualitative difference between Moshe’s prophecy and her own. She mistakenly believed that she and Aharon were in the same “league” as their brother Moshe. This was clearly not the case: Moshe towered above all others. He was on a completely different level – and he was too modest to say so.[20]

This helps complete our understanding of the entire episode. Miriam, who was aware of her brother’s greatness, thought that in this instance she had greater insight, and a moral right to express her displeasure with her brother. She recalled her parents’ separation and saw the danger inherent in her brother’s behavior. Upon hearing of his separation, Miriam speaks with moral outrage: How could Moshe-- the living proof of her prophesy, the result of her parents’ reunification—how could he of all people separate from his wife? It struck her as an outrage.  If the reason was because he was a prophet – her response was that he was not the only prophet; she received God’s Word before he was born, and because she did, he was born!

Miriam, the midwife who took as her personal mission the continuity of the Jewish People,[21] was mistaken in this instance. Although such separation was not to be normative behavior for the entire community, or even for other prophets, Moshe was different. Moshe lived in a continued state of separateness, a constant state of preparedness to receive revelation. For Moshe, and only for Moshe, Sinaitic Revelation was not a singular event; it was a state of being.

[1] For a discussion of the hermeneutical principles of pshat, see Talmud Bavli Shabbat 63a,Yevamot 11b and 24a. The Rashbam (Bereishit 37:2) and the Ibn Ezra (Introduction to his Commentary on the Torah, section 4) in particular express an objective of not deviating from the “simple” meaning of the text.
תלמוד בבלי מסכת שבת דף סג עמוד א
 אין מקרא יוצא מידי פשוטו.
[2] See Shmot 2:21.
שמות פרק ב, כא
וַיּוֹאֶל מֹשֶׁה לָשֶׁבֶת אֶת הָאִישׁ וַיִּתֵּן אֶת צִפֹּרָה בִתּוֹ לְמֹשֶׁה:
[3] While Unkolus does not explicitly state that this is Ziporah, he translates kushite as “beautiful” not as a woman from Kush.
אונקלוס במדבר פרק יב, א
ומלילת מרים ואהרן במשה על עיסק אתתא שפירתא דנסיב ארי אתתא שפירתא דנסיב רחיק:
[4] As we shall see, Psuedo -Yonatan characteristically interpolates a midrashic teaching into the text:
כתר יונתן במדבר פרק יב, א
וסיפרו מרים ואהרן במשה דברים שלא מהוגנים, על ענין אִשׁה כושית שׁהשׂיאו הכושים למשה, בברחו מִן לפני פרעה, וגרשה, כי לאִשׁה השׂיאו את המלכה של כוש, וגרש מִמנו:
[5] There are those who identify Kush with Ethiopia, such as the Septuagint and Josephus, who followed the Greco-Roman identification. The Land of Kush may well have been in what is today called Sudan, which is south of Egypt.
[6] Ibn Ezra and Rabbenu Bahya both point out that Zipporah, born to the Beduin tribe of Midian, would have been fairly dark-skinned.
אבן עזרא במדבר פרק יב פסוק א
והישר בעיני שזו הכושית היא צפורה, כי היא מדינית, ומדינים הם ישמעאלים, והם דרים באהלים, וכן כתוב ירגזון יריעות ארץ מדין (חבקוק ג, ז). ובעבור חום השמש אין להם לבן כלל, וצפורה היתה שחורה ודומה לכושית.
רבינו בחיי במדבר פרק יב פסוק א
על אודות האשה הכושית. היא צפורה שהיא מדינית, ומדינים הם ישמעאלים, והם דרים באהלים, כדכתיב: (חבקוק ג, ז) "ירגזו יריעות ארץ מדין", ואין ביניהם לבן מפני תוקף חמימות השמש.
[7]  I have not found any commentary who understands the objection to this wife being based on her complexion; perhaps this explains why  no commentary notes the irony of Miriam’s punishment in becoming “white.”
[8]  Cited by Targum Psuedo Yonatan, Ibn Ezra, Rashbam, Chizkuni. See Yalkut Shimoni Shmot, chapter 2 remez 168.
ילקוט שמעוני תורה פרשת שמות [רמז קסב]
ויהי אחרי השלימו הבנין ויאמרו איש אל רעהו מה נעשה אם אמרנו נלחמה העירה ויפלו ממנו חללים רבים ואם אמרנו נשב במצור ושמעו כל מלכי ארם ובני קדם כי מת מלכנו ויבואו עלינו פתאום ולא ישאירו לנו שריד ועתה לכו ונמליכה עלינו מלך ונשב במצור עד תנתן העיר בידינו וימהרו ויפשיטו איש לבושו וישליכו ארצה ויעשו במה גדולה ויושיבו עליה את משה ויתקעו בשופרות ויאמרו יחי המלך יחי המלך וישבעו כל השרים וכל העם לתת לו את הכושית הגבירה אשת קוקנוס לו לאשה וימליכו אותו עליהם, ומשה בן שבע ועשרים שנה במלכו על בני כוש
[9] Rashi, Bamidbar 1:12.
רש"י במדבר פרק יב פסוק א
האשה הכשית - מגיד שהכל מודים ביפיה, כשם שהכל מודים בשחרותו של כושי:
כושית - בגימטריא יפת מראה:
על אדות האשה - על אודות גירושיה:
כי אשה כשית לקח - מה תלמוד לומר, אלא יש לך אשה נאה ביפיה ואינה נאה במעשיה, במעשיה ולא ביפיה, אבל זאת נאה בכל:
האשה הכשית - על שם נויה נקראת כושית כאדם הקורא את בנו נאה כושי, כדי שלא תשלוט בו עין רעה:
כי אשה כשית לקח - ועתה גרשה:
[10] The Malbim (Bamidbar 12:1) combines both of these views: Moshe had separated from Zipporah, and Miriam points out that this is not the first time that Moshe has acted in this manner, for he had previously separated from his first wife, the Kushit.
מלבי"ם במדבר פרק יב פסוק א
וממ"ש ותדבר מרים ואהרן ידענו שמרים התחילה הוכוח ואהרן השיב לה, והיה זה בפני משה או שלא בפניו, והתורה לא ספרה כל הוכוח רק ראשי דברים, ואנחנו נבין מעצמנו שמרים התחילה לספר שמשה פירש מן האשה, ועפ"ז הזכירה שכבר עשה כן לאשתו הראשונה, וספרה מאשה הכושית אשר לקח ופירש ממנה ושאלה מדוע הוא עושה כן לצפורה, וע"ז אמרה כי אשה כושית לקח, ר"ל אז היה זה מן הראוי כי היתה כושית לא עתה שצפורה אינה מבנות כוש, כי מדין הוא מבני קטורה, ואהרן השיב לה שמשה עשה זאת מפני שה' מדבר עמו בכל עת וצריך שיהיה תמיד מוכן לנבואה, ולכן פרש ממנה, וע"ז השיבה מרים הרק אך במשה דבר ה' הלא גם בנו דבר ולא פרשנו מדרך ארץ.
[11] See Rashbam, Bamidbar 12:1.
רשב"ם במדבר פרק יב פסוק א
כי אשה כושית לקח - כדכת' בדברי הימים דמשה רבנו שמלך בארץ כוש ארבעים שנה ולקח מלכה אחת ולא שכב עמה כמו שכתוב שם, והם לא ידעו כשדיברו בו שלא נזקק לה. זהו עיקר פשוטו. שאם בשביל צפורה דיברו, מה צורך לפרש כי אשה כושית לקח? וכי [עד] עתה לא ידענו כי ציפורה מדיינית היא? ועוד תשובה כי לא היתה כושית כי כוש מבני חם הוא, ומדיין מבני קטורה אשר ילדה לאברהם:

[12] See Ohr Hachaim, Bamidbar 12:1.
אור החיים במדבר פרק יב פסוק א
ותדבר וגו' במשה. אולי שדברו בפניו של משה, והדעת מסכמת בזה גם כן, כי מה יועילו דבר לא טוב ביניהם לבין עצמן, אלא אמרו דבריהם דרך תוכחה והוא שומע מלתם, שוב ראיתי בדברי רז"ל (ספרי) שאמרו כן ורמזוהו במאמר וישמע ה' והאיש משה וגו' פירוש גם הוא שמע:

[13] See Talmud Bavli Yevamot 62b:
תלמוד בבלי מסכת יבמות דף סב עמוד ב
 אמר רבי תנחום א"ר חנילאי: כל אדם שאין לו אשה - שרוי בלא שמחה, בלא ברכה, בלא טובה.
“R. Tanhum stated in the name of R. Hanilai: Any man who has no wife lives without joy, without blessing, and without goodness.”
[14]  Shmot 19:15:
שמות פרק יט פסוק טו
וַיֹּאמֶר אֶל הָעָם הֱיוּ נְכֹנִים לִשְׁלֹשֶׁת יָמִים אַל תִּגְּשׁוּ אֶל אִשָּׁה:
  “And he said to the People, ‘Be ready for the third day; do not come near a woman.’”
[15]  The text of the Torah seems to indicate that God had given this order; however the Talmud tells us that this is one of the ideas that Moshe suggested of his own accord, and God agreed with Moshe. Talmud Bavli Shabbat 87a: “And he separated himself from his wife: What did he interpret? He applied an a minori  argument to himself, reasoning: If the Israelites, with whom the Shchinah spoke only on one occasion and He appointed them a time [thereof], yet the Torah said, ‘Be ready for the third day: do not come near a woman’: I, with whom the Shchinah speaks at all times and does not appoint me a [definite] time, how much more so! And how do we know that the Holy One, blessed be He, gave his approval? Because it is written, "Go say to them, ‘Return to your tents’,” which is followed by, ‘But as for you, stand here by me.’ There are those who quote, ‘with him [Moshe] will I speak mouth to mouth.
תלמוד בבלי מסכת שבת דף פז עמוד א
ופירש מן האשה. מאי דריש? נשא קל וחומר בעצמו, אמר: ומה ישראל שלא דברה שכינה עמהן אלא שעה אחת, וקבע להן זמן, אמרה תורה +שמות יט+ והיו נכנים וגו' אל תגשו, אני שכל שעה ושעה שכינה מדברת עמי, ואינו קובע לי זמן - על אחת כמה וכמה! ומנלן דהסכים הקדוש ברוך הוא על ידו - דכתיב +דברים ה+ לך אמר להם שובו לכם לאהליכם וכתיב בתריה ואתה פה עמד עמדי, ואית דאמרי +במדבר יב+ פה אל פה אדבר בו.
[16]  Dvarim 33:1, Yehoshua 14:6, Ezra 3:2, Divrei Hayamim 2, 30:16
[17] Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik; also, see below for further treatment of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s ideas.
[18]  It is possible that Ben Azzai, the most celebrated celibate in the Talmud (see Yevamot 63b) was deeply involved in a type of mystical inquiry whereby he felt he was in a constant state of Sinaitic revelation. See Vayikra Rabba 16:4: “Ben ‘Azzai was sitting and expounding Scripture, and a flame was burning round him. They said to him: ‘Are you perhaps engaged in the study of the sections of Scripture describing the theophanies?’ He answered: ‘No, I am but finding in the Torah parallels to expressions in the Prophets, and in the Prophets parallels to expressions in the Hagiographa; and the words of the Torah are joyful even as they were on the day they were being given at Sinai, and they were originally given in fire, as it is said, ‘And the mountain burned with fire’ (Devarim 4, 11).
I hope to return to this idea at a future date.
[19] Rashi Shmot 15:20.
רש"י שמות פרק טו פסוק כ
(כ) ותקח מרים הנביאה - היכן נתנבאה כשהיתה אחות אהרן, קודם שנולד משה, אמרה עתידה אמי שתלד בן וכו', כדאיתא בסוטה (דף יג א). דבר אחר אחות אהרן לפי שמסר נפשו עליה כשנצטרעה, נקראת על שמו:
[20] The Malbim (Bamidbar 12:1) suggests that Miriam and Aharon knew that Moshe was on a higher level, and that their own prophecy emanated from Moshe’s prophetic ability, according to the Malbim, Miriam and Aharon thought that Moshe was on such a high level that he could have a normal home life and still excel as a prophet.
מלבי"ם במדבר פרק יב פסוק א
אולם ע"ז יפלא עדיין וכי לא ידעו שיש הבדל ביניהם ובין משה, שלהם לא ידבר ה' בכל עת רק לעת מצוא כשמכינים א"ע אל הדבור. משא"כ משה שהדבור מתמיד עמו בכל יום ובכל עת וצריך שיהיה תמיד מוכן אל הדבור שע"ז הוצרך לפרוש מן האשה, כמ"ש שובו לכם לאהליכם ואתה פה עמוד עמדי שלהם התיר תשמיש שנאסר להם מג' ימי הגבלה ואל משה צוה שיעמוד תמיד מוכן אל הדבור האלהי, שע"י שידבר ה' עם משה נעשה הוא הצנור המשפיע לכל הנביאים, ועי"ז גם בנו דבר ואנו שואבים הנבואה מצנורו של משה, ומזה מבואר שהנבואה היא לו בטבע מבלי הכנה, שאל"כ אי אפשר שישפיע נבואה לזולתו, וא"כ א"צ לו להכנה ולפרוש מן האשה, וישמע ה' וה' שמע והבין דבריהם שהגם שדברו תלונה נגד משה בכ"ז לא היה זה מפני שרצו להשפיל כבודו כי נהפוך הוא שהיה קדושתו גדולה בעיניהם עד שחשבו שיוכל להשאר בקדושתו גם אם ישוב לאהלו ולא יופרש מן האשה, וע"כ בא ה' להראותם שטעו בזה, כי יש מדרגה למשה שבו נעלה הוא מכל הנביאים שאל מדרגה זו צריך הוא להכנה ולפרוש מן האשה כמו שיתבאר:

[21] Midrash Rabbah Shmot 1:17: “And Calev took unto him Efrat,’ this is Miriam. And why was she called Efrat? Because Israel were fruitful (paru) and increased, thanks to her.
שמות רבה (וילנא) פרשת שמות פרשה א סימן יז
ויקח לו כלב את אפרת זו מרים, למה נקרא שמה אפרת שפרו ורבו ישראל על ידיה.