Criticizing Leadership. Numbers 8:1 – 12:16.Parashat Beha`alotekha.25.05.13.

Numbers 8:1 – 12:16             Criticizing Leadership                                         25.05.13

Parashat Beha`alotekha


Howard Adelman


The parashah is about lamps (intelligence – 8:2), cleansing the all powerful high priests and Levites (8:6) who had to wash their linen in public (8:21), keeping Passover even for the unclean (9:10), about how the tabernacle is a tent of testimony and that you cannot move when a cloud covers it – you are fixated (9:15-9:23), about the burdens of leadership as indicated by the complaints of Moses to God in response to the people’s complaints against him that he is unable to carry the burden of his people on his back (11:11- 11:15), about the constitution of the Israeli Senate – the council of second thought, especially Eldad and Medad who themselves became prophets and were welcomed as such by Moses and not viewed as illegitimate competitors (11:16-11:30). After all this discussion of intelligence, washing your linen in public, including in the Passover celebration of freedom even for the unclean, the creation of a council of second thought, the emergence of competitive prophets, and the plague on a people getting what they wished for in excess, we then read about Miriam and Aaron criticizing Moses for marrying a Kushite (12:1).

Chapter 12 reads as follows:

12 Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman. And they said, “Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us also?” And the Lord heard it. Now the man Moses was very meek, more than all people who were on the face of the earth. And suddenly the Lordsaid to Moses and to Aaron and Miriam, “Come out, you three, to the tent of meeting.” And the three of them came out. And the Lord came down in a pillar of cloud and stood at the entrance of the tent and called Aaron and Miriam, and they both came forward. And he said, “Hear my words: If there is a prophet among you, I the Lord make myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream. Not so with my servant Moses. He is faithful in all my house. With him I speak mouth to mouth, clearly, and not in riddles, and he beholds the form of the Lord. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant Moses?” And the anger of the Lord was kindled against them, and he departed.

10 When the cloud removed from over the tent, behold, Miriam was leprous,[h]like snow. And Aaron turned toward Miriam, and behold, she was leprous.11 And Aaron said to Moses, “Oh, my lord, do not punish us[i] because we have done foolishly and have sinned. 12 Let her not be as one dead, whose flesh is half eaten away when he comes out of his mother’s womb.” 13 And Moses cried to the Lord, “O God, please heal her—please.” 14 But the Lord said to Moses, “If her father had but spit in her face, should she not be shamed seven days? Let her be shut outside the camp seven days, and after that she may be brought in again.” 15 So Miriam was shut outside the camp seven days, and the people did not set out on the march till Miriam was brought in again. 16 After that the people set out from Hazeroth, and camped in the wilderness of Paran.

The criticism of Moses is not for his political leadership, nor for his military leadership which has been delegated to Joshua, nor for his religious leadership which has been delegated to Aaron and the Levites, nor for his legislative leadership which has now been shared with a Council of Elders, nor for his prophetic abilities and ability to foresee what is coming for that is now shared as well, but either for his religious intermarriage or for his racial intermarriage for Tzipora was a Kush, in Yiddish, a schwartze, a dark coloured person. She was also, like very many Ethiopian women, reputedly extraordinarily beautiful.

If the criticism was for religious intermarriage, one might think that criticism of leadership might be fully legitimate, especially for the leader of the Jewish people. But it appears not to be for religious intermarriage for, if we recall, when God came to kill Moses (Exodus 4:24-27) en route back to Egypt according to God`s orders, Tziporah circumcised their son Gershom with a sharp stone making Moses “a husband of blood” (Exodus 4:26) thereby, voiding God`s rationale for the murder of Moses.  For Moses had evidently not circumcised his sons, particularly his first born who was consecrated to God. Moses had broken the most sacred covenant. “He who is born in your house and he who is bought with your money must be circumcised, and My covenant shall be in your flesh for an everlasting covenant. And the uncircumcised male child, who is not circumcised in the flesh of his foreskin, That person shall be cut off from his people.” (Genesis 17:10-14) If Tzipora had not circumcised her eldest son, God would have literally cut Moses off from his people by killing him. Tziporah saved his life and, therefore, saved the Israelites. Perhaps God is angry at Miriam, but supposedly not Aaron, for her racism.

Let`s review the text again. The passage seems to suggest that there is one rule for all the rest and another rule for Moses with whom God speaks “mouth to mouth” and clearly rather than through riddles, dreams and visions. The presumption of Miriam and Aaron that anyone can speak to God and is capable of leadership is said to be wrong. God seems to be offering the principle that there is one role for the people of Israel but his loyal servant, Moses, has a unique role, while still being equally subject to the law. For Moses ìs “faithful in all my house.” However, the punishment meted out to Miriam seems totally out of proportion to what Miriam might have done wrong; she contracts leprosy. Finally, Aaron who joined with his sister, Miriam, in the criticism, seemingly escapes any punishment. How unjust does this all appear!

Look at the story within the context of what precedes it. The portion seems to be about political principles, the principles of governance such as intelligence guiding policy, transparency, accountability, inclusiveness, burden sharing, sharing power, constitutionalism and moderation. Is anti-racism to be added to this list?

Other principles seem to be at work such as the political principle of exceptionalism – the norm that there is one rule for the people and another for the leadership. Further, another interpretation is that it is one thing for the people to turn against and criticize the great leader, Israel`s greatest prophet and the selfless shepherd of his people, but this is family. This is not only like Doug Ford criticizing Rob Ford, but Rob Ford`s sister – if there was one – joining in the criticism. And not for allegedly smoking crack cocaine or of not speaking about it, but for marrying a Black! Further, Moses does not even defend himself or Tzpora, his wife, but seems to meekly to let the criticism ride.  And, to repeat, Aaron who joined in the criticism seems to get off without so much as even a reprimand.

At the very least we have to be confused. More deeply, something appears not to be kosher.

Let`s go back to Miriam and Aaron`s criticism. Is it really racist? Perhaps Miriam and Aaron are criticizing, Moses not for marrying Tzipora – a criticism that might have been offered decades earlier, but for abandoning Tzipora, for sacrificing Tzipora for his public dedication to the Israelites. The criticism is not based in racism or abandoning religious continuity, but the irresponsibility of a politician who dedicates his life to a public cause but at an enormous cost, the sacrifice of his family life for a larger political purpose. That would make more sense of why Miriam is targeted for punishment for she was probably the instigator of the criticism in defense of all the suffering wives of male politicians.  

I want to bring one other element into the discussion before I try to make sense of the passage. In parasha Tazria-Metzora (Leviticus 12:1 – 15:33)        that we discussed last month as possibly a passage about spiritual impurity expressed in a physical form, for in the midrash, מְּצֹרָע, metzora (leprous) is read as a contraction for motzi shem ra, gossiping about and slandering another. As I wrote then, “Exiling someone from the community can be interpreted as a blessing, as forcing someone to get a rest and go on a retreat. After all, sometimes people suffering a spiritual breakdown need to get away and get out of the community.” Perhaps Miriam is punished for slandering Moses, for accusing him of sacrificing his wife and obligations to his family when he has dedicated his life to obeying God and service to his people. Further, the issue is not about Miriam`s punishment but her therapy and rehabilitation, about welcoming her back into the community after she has become an outcast for unwarranted criticism of the political leader and, therefore, of God and of God`sacrifice on behalf of the Hebrews.

Miriam became “leprous” (מְצֹרַעַת, m’tzora’at) in Numbers 12:1 for being critical of Moses not because he married a Kushite – Miriam and Aaron are not racists – and certainly not for intermarriage for Tziporah like many gentile women in the Torah are exceptional in their dedication to the continuity of the Jewish people. Miriam has slandered Moses by regarding his treatment of his wife critically when it was a necessary sacrifice for the people in the service of God. Moses was someone special, someone who could speak to God face to face, and exceptional leaders need to be respected as such, not as exceptions under the law but as understanding that they must make exceptional sacrifices.

Further, tzara’at is a special disease, an affliction brought on by failure to obey God. (Deuteronomy 24:8-9) or to understand God`s especially appointed one and to comprehend the sacrifices that entails. This failure in understanding and intelligence, this failure to comprehend what is required when one is accountable to an even higher calling than dedication to one`s family, the failure to understand that in addition to the principle of inclusiveness, some must be respected for their exclusive calling, that no matter the degree of burden and power sharing, a true leader in the end must carry an extraordinary burden while being also subject to the rule of law and governed by a principle of moderation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s