"Let the Words Talk to You"
Maybe I heard that stated only once, but that's all I needed. It was decades ago when a wise Rabbi said this during one of his thousands of lectures. His words left a lasting impression.
He was referring to the correct method for deriving the intent of any Torah verse, as well as any Torah section. "Let the words talk to you" as opposed superimposing our own notions. We may have true ideas, but Torah study is "study", where we are receivers: we seek to unveil the underlying meaning and not suggest anything unwarranted. We must learn to become highly sensitized to the deliberate nuances of a verse and the unique design of each of the Torah's clues. God had Moses write each verse in such a way that if we are properly trained, we will notice astonishing questions that lead to their very answers.
"What must you say?" was another bit of this Rabbi's invaluable advice. With these words, the Rabbi's intent was to make us aware that one could possibly attribute many meanings to a verse. But that doesn't mean our interpretation is the true intent. By ensuring we do not say anything else than what is absolutely warranted by the written words and phrases, we remain true to God's message, and do not convolute it with our projections unintended by the verses.
The Rabbi desired to uncover God's intended truths. He understood that God encoded the Torah with a method of study, and that method is the only key to unlocking the purposefully obscured and profound ideas. Better than any other teacher, he understood how to bring a Torah section to life with remarkable insights that floored you...and fit the words perfectly. It was that amazement at how he taught that caused myself and hundreds of others to stand in awe of the Creator and His remarkable Torah.
Applying his lessons, I took up the area of leprosy and Lashon Hara with a friend, since we read that last week. In his Mishneh Torah (Laws of Tumah and Tzaraas 16:10) Maimonides refers to two Torah sections. Deuteronomy 24:8.9 reads as follows:
"Be on guard regarding the affliction of leprosy to be exceedingly careful to do as all the Levite priests teach you as I have commanded; you shall guard to do. Remember that which God did to Miriam on the way when you left Egypt".
We must review that earlier account of Miriam's affliction of leprosy. But we must be clear: Maimonides openly states that Miriam did not speak Lashon Hara about Moses, as he classifies only 'derogatory' speech as Lashon Hara (Dayos 7:3).
Maimonides says the following in Tumah and Tzaraas 16:10 :
"Ponder well what happened to Miriam who spoke about her brother [Moses]; and she was older than him, and she raised him on her lap, and she risked her life to save him from the sea, and she did not speak of him derogatorily. Rather, her error was that she equated him [Moses] to all other prophets, and he was not particular on all these matters as it says "And the man Moses was exceedingly more humble than any man on the face of the Earth". And even so, Miriam was afflicted immediately with leprosy. Certainly, regarding foolish wicked people who continually speak great, wondrous things."
Maimonides teaches that Miriam did not speak Lashon Hara, although she erred and received leprosy. He informs us that from Miriam one may derive an a fortiori argument (from the lesser to the stronger) i.e., one will certainly receive leprosy if one does in fact intend to degrade another person with speech. We thereby learn that leprosy is not only given for Lashon Hara, but for other forms of mistakes made with speech, as is the case regarding Miriam. Let us now study that sin of Miriam.
"And Miriam and Aaron spoke about Moses regarding the matter of the black woman that he married; for he married a black woman. And they said, "Is it only with Moses that God speaks, does God not also speak with us?" and God heard. And the man Moses was exceedingly more humble than any man on the face of the Earth. And God said suddenly to Moses and to Aaron and to Miriam: "The three of you come out to the tent of Meeting", and the three of them came out. And God was revealed in a pillar of cloud and it stood [at] the opening of the tent and He called Aaron and Miriam and the two of them came out. And He said, "Listen please to My words: if there will be prophets of God: in a vision to him I will make Myself known; in a dream I will speak to him. Not so is it with My servant Moses; in all My house he is trusted. Face to face I speak with him and in vision and not with riddles; and the form of God he beholds...and why were you not fearful to speak against My servant, against Moses?" And their burned God's anger with them and He left. And the cloud removed from upon the tent and behold Miriam was leprous like snow, and Aaron turned to Miriam and she was leprous."
Now let's apply the Rabbi's methodology. I won't get into the exact issue about Moses marrying the "black" woman; whether that is literal or not. I will focus on Maimonides' words that Miriam erred by equating Moses to all other prophets as quoted above. Meaning, we will follow the commentary that says Moses separated from his wife as God commanded after Revelation at Sinai. For through Sinai, Moses rose to a higher level and marriage was no longer befitting this level.
"Is it only with Moses that God speaks, does God not also speak with us? and God heard"
Miriam responds that she and Aaron did not separate from their spouses as did Moses, although they too received God's prophecies. She equated herself and Aaron to Moses, an error that Maimonides says is the core issue. But we must ask why Miriam had to "discuss" her opinion. What forces one – with any opinion – to advance the "thought" to a "discussion"? The only change is that a discussion includes another person. Perhaps here, Miriam was too much preoccupied with "social" framework: meaning, she assessed her relationship with Moses. But man should be focused on his or her relationship to God, not to other people.
"and God heard"
Of course God heard...God hears everything. We must question the necessity to mention this here, and not in other cases where people sinned through speech.
One answer: Miriam was not engaged in relating to God when she discussed Moses with Aaron. Therefore, God wrote in His Torah that He did in fact hear, indicating that this is where she should have been focused. Had Miriam acted properly, she would not have concerned herself with her status relative to Moses. She would not be "comparing". By teaching us the He did hear, we learn that Miriam was talking in a manner 'not in pursuit of God'. God is subtly teaching us that Miriam's sin was in the directing of her attention more towards man, than towards God. By contrast, "and God heard" highlights her focus on man.
"And the man Moses was exceedingly more humble than any man on the face of the Earth"
Since Moses was so humble, he would not take such discussions to heart and concern himself with the relative statuses of people. It means nothing to the perfected man whether he "measures up" to others. He is not a competitor and his values have nothing to do with social acceptance or status. Rather, the perfected man is a philosopher, so only truths and God's approval concern him. This verse explains at least two things: 1) why Moses didn't respond, and 2) it contrasts Moses' perfection to Miriam's imperfection, making Miriam's error more acutely identifiable.
And God said suddenly to Moses and to Aaron and to Miriam: "The three of you come out to the tent of Meeting", and the three of them came out. And God was revealed in a pillar of cloud and it stood [at] the opening of the tent and He called Aaron and Miriam and the two of them came out."
Again we read of an unusual case: God said "suddenly". Why was a 'sudden' prophecy essential? The Rabbis explain that unlike Moses, other prophets required preparation so as to receive prophecy. But in this one exception, God allowed Miriam and Aaron to receive a prophecy without preparation, "suddenly". Miriam equated her prophetic level to that of Moses. It was therefore necessary that she experience another type of prophecy; one in which she understands that she erred in grouping all prophets under one type.
To support this point, I would ask why God does not address them after all three came out. Why does He again call only Miriam and Aaron, and only then He addresses them after that second calling?
This is to teach that the first calling (of all three) was not for the 'content' of the prophecy, for nothing was spoken. Rather, the absence of any message during the first calling taught Miriam and Aaron that the prophecy was meant to allow them to experience a prophetic 'style' different than what they knew...a "sudden" prophecy. Thus, nothing was communicated during that first calling. For it was not intended for any communication, but rather an experience. Experiencing a different level of prophecy, Miriam and Aaron could now grasp they were wrong...they were now open to what comes next: God's rebuke.
"And He said, "Listen please to My words"
God again uses an unusual introduction. But in fact, in every Torah portion, there is something unusual, or rather, "new". For every portion must teach something we can not know from any other portion. Torah is not redundant. And when we are successful at identifying that unique lesson in each given area, we have sensed the distinction of this area...and we have learned!
Now, why does God open with these introductory words? Consider that Miriam's error was in equating her prophetic level with that of her brother Moses. One error has already been addressed: she has been shown that other levels of prophecy exist, aside from what she had experienced. She learned of a "sudden" prophecy. But prophecy is not only a unique phenomenon and experience with various levels. Prophecy also communicates "content". In this too there are levels. This is the next lesson God offers Miriam and Aaron...
God opens with the request "Listen", which means that without pondering the content – without "listening" – simple audibility is insufficient. God asks Miriam and Aaron to "listen", to contemplate the meaning of His forthcoming words. God intimates to them that here is another area that you differ from Moses. And God elaborates on this...
"if there will be prophets of God: in a vision to him I will make Myself known; in a dream I will speak to him. Not so is it with My servant Moses; in all My house he is trusted. Face to face I speak with him and in vision and not with riddles"
God teaches Miriam and Aaron that Moses need not ponder God's word, for Moses sees the truth openly "face to face". There are no riddles, since Moses is a higher intellect. In contrast, Miriam and Aaron must decipher prophetic content, for they are not on Moses' level. They need to "listen" to God's words. The second lesson is now clear.
"and the form of God he beholds"
God teaches another fundamental. When Moses receives a prophecy, it offers him a new reflection of God's ways. It would appear that with other prophets, such is not the case. Other prophets must first decipher the prophecy, which initially may not offer knowledge regarding God, but abstract illustration...perhaps impressing upon Miriam that Moses perceives matters she has not.
"...and why were you not fearful to speak against My servant, against Moses?
God just described how Moses was involved in accurately comprehending the most lofty matters. He reached the highest level of perfection and was the "zenith of the human species" as the Rabbis state. This being so, Miriam and Aaron must have had a false idea concerning human existence. This was their crime. Instead of appreciating the true role of man, which would be expressed as learning from Moses, they missed this point momentarily and discussed their relative, prophetic statuses as compared to Moses. Such a discussion completely misses the mark. Similarly, if one takes a perfect pearl and uses it to play marbles, he has wrongly categorized the pearl. Miriam and Aaron should have never viewed Moses in any light other than his true worth: a perfected human – from whom to learn and not judge.
Their error was grave: it was regarding a Torah fundamental. As my friend Howard pointed out, Maimonides 13 Principles includes Moses' unique, prophetic classification as the greatest prophet ever. The primary reason this is a fundamental is that it precludes all others from claiming greater authority than the Torah. For if someone would claim to be greater than Moses, then the Torah – given by Moses – could be overridden. Torah depends on prophecy, another of Maimonides' 13 Principles. For Torah is synonymous with "communication from God".
Moses reached the highest spiritual level any man can ever reach. Having made such an error about man's role, Miriam and Aaron received a punishment equated with death, teaching that such an error removes us from the objective of life.
The many lectures I attended by that wise Rabbi displayed a Torah system that requires patience until one finally "hears the words talk". And when they do, it is amazing. Torah also trains us to say "only what must be said": we learn to be receivers – not projecting anything we feel onto the verses. Torah ultimately excites us with an anticipation for each new area we explore in our pursuit of God's endless wisdom.