Wednesday, June 21, 2006

parshat Behaalotecha: Why Was Miriam, and not Aharon, Punished?

Why is Miriam the only one to develop leprosy? Was it because, as one commenter elsewhere writes, she was a woman, and so she was being "uppity?" Why does Aharon get a free pass?

In fact, the answer may lie in the pesukim decribing the sin, and in fact some of the standard commentaries note this. Bemidbar 12:1:
א וַתְּדַבֵּר מִרְיָם וְאַהֲרֹן בְּמֹשֶׁה, עַל-אֹדוֹת הָאִשָּׁה הַכֻּשִׁית אֲשֶׁר לָקָח: כִּי-אִשָּׁה כֻשִׁית, לָקָח. 1 And Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married; for he had married a Cushite woman.
ב וַיֹּאמְרוּ, הֲרַק אַךְ-בְּמֹשֶׁה דִּבֶּר יְהוָה--הֲלֹא, גַּם-בָּנוּ דִבֵּר; וַיִּשְׁמַע, יְהוָה. 2 And they said: 'Hath the LORD indeed spoken only with Moses? hath He not spoken also with us?' And the LORD heard it.--
ג וְהָאִישׁ מֹשֶׁה, עָנָו מְאֹד--מִכֹּל, הָאָדָם, אֲשֶׁר, עַל-פְּנֵי הָאֲדָמָה. {ס} 3 Now the man Moses was very meek, above all the men that were upon the face of the earth
On pasuk 1, Rashi picks up on the fact that Miriam is mentioned first:
Miriam and Aaron spoke She spoke first. Therefore, Scripture mentions her first. How did she know that Moses had separated from his wife? [See below] R. Nathan says: Miriam was beside Zipporah when Moses was told that Eldad and Medad were prophesying in the camp. When Zipporah heard this, she said,“Woe to their wives if they are required to prophesy, for they will separate from their wives just my husband separated from me.” From this, Miriam knew [about it] and told Aaron. Now if Miriam, who did not intend to disparage him [Moses] was punished, all the more so someone who [intentionally] disparages his fellow. — [Tanchuma Tzav 13]
But it is not just that she is mentioned first. The verb וַתְּדַבֵּר is feminine sigular, rather than masculine (=neutral) plural. Perhaps this follows from Miriam being mentioned first. But it also raises the possibility that it was only Miriam who spoke.

Indeed, speaking is something that involves two people as well as the subject matter to be discussed. The subject matter was negative statements about Moshe. (As Ibn Ezra demonstrates, the root dbr followed by a b introduction as in בְּמֹשֶׁה seems to connote negative speech.) Perhaps it would be awkwards to state vatedaber Miryam el Aharon beMoshe, and so the construction is instead veAharon, but it means simply that Miriam spoke and Aharon was silent, or that Miriam did most of the speaking and Aharon agreed. (Indeed, see Ibn Ezra who more or less says this.)

What then of the next verse?
ב וַיֹּאמְרוּ, הֲרַק אַךְ-בְּמֹשֶׁה דִּבֶּר יְהוָה--הֲלֹא, גַּם-בָּנוּ דִבֵּר; וַיִּשְׁמַע, יְהוָה. 2 And they said: 'Hath the LORD indeed spoken only with Moses? hath He not spoken also with us?' And the LORD heard it.--
Here, וַיֹּאמְרוּ is masculine (=neutral) plural, to cover both of them. And furthermore, the word בָּנוּ is also plural. There are two possibilities. First, perhaps one can say that this is slightly different subject matter - a complaint about the nature of Moshe's prophecy being the same of their own, and so perhaps both said this, or words to this effect. The second possibility is that this is a partial elaboration of the previous verse. If so, we already had vatedaber in the previous verse to tell us who the speaker is and who the listener is, as well as the general subject matter, and here we can write more naturally. Since two are involved in the conversation, וַיֹּאמְרוּ might still be acceptable even if only one is talking. And בָּנוּ is of course acceptable even with one speaker, since he or she would be talking about them both.

3 comments:

Ariella said...

Rashi quotes that explanation of Miriam speaking at this point to explain smichas parshios. But there is also another version that says that Miriam noticed that her sister-in-law no longer donned "tachshitey nashim" - the adornments of women (regarded, perhaps, as we do makeup today). When she asked her about it, Tzipora hedged by saying, "Your brother is not 'makpid' on such things." From this Miriam inferred that they were no longer cohabitating.

As it is Miriam who draws the inferences from which she arrives at the conclusion that Moshe is at fault, she takes a more active part in this whole ma'ase.

But Miriam has a lot more positive things going for her. I think she is the only woman in Torah (not all of TaNaCh) who is declared to be a nevia in the text itself. And, as I pointed out in a few blog postings, she is distinguished in another aspect.

joshwaxman said...

thanks for commenting! you make some nice points.

indeed, I agree that smichut parshiyot plays a role, though not in the initial statement of Rashi on why Miryam in mentioned first.

source-wise, the fact that Miryam spoke first is from the Sifrei.

meanwhile, the end of Rashi, connecting it to Eldad and Medad, in explanation of how Tzipporah knew, is from Tanchuma on Tzav.

The midrash you cited, about noticing the lack of tachshitim, is a bit later in the Sifrei.

The goal of the latter two midrashim is to explain how she knew he refrained from being fruitful and multiplying. The goal of the inital Sifrei cited by Rashi is to explain why Miryam is mentioned first (or perhaps also why "vatedaber" is used).

The first point is more of a peshat concern, which is why, for example, we see Ibn Ezra deal with it.

The second point already assumes that the issue is Tzipporah and peru urevu, and tries to fill in the gaps. To this end, semichut it utilized. but not just smichut but also the connection between Moshe's reaction "if only all Israel were prophets" and Miriam/Aharon's "has he not also spoken with us." thus, I would not say that Rashi is coming to *answer* smichut (I am much against the What Was Bothering Rashi approach), but rather smichut is used midrashically to fill in certain details.

Also, I don't think the Sifrei meant to contrast these as two reasons for vatedaber Miryam, with Miryam listed first. Rather, vatedaber Miryam is answered by her speaking first, or by speaking in front of her brother Aharon. Working with this, the latter midrash only seeks to fill in the info of how she knew so that she then spoke first.

mevaseretzion said...

>I think she is the only woman in Torah (not all of TaNaCh) who is declared to be a nevia in the text itself.

"ודבורה אשה נביאה אשת לפידות"

שופטים ד:ד

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