We are told thatin this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Beha’alotcha, “Miriam and Aaron spoke despairingly of Moses and the Cushite woman he had married.” They said, “Has Adonai spoken only through Moses? Has God not spoken through us as well?” The real questions of this episode are: What prompts Moses’ sister and brother to protest against him? Why does it appear to be a public matter rather than a private, “in-the-family” discussion?
Some commentators express surprise, claiming that there is no apparent explanation for Miriam’s and Aaron’s criticism of Moses. Others argue that the explanation is clearly offered in the text. Are we not told, they point out, that Moses’ sister and brother condemn him for his marriage to a Cushite woman and for acting as if God speaks exclusively through him? Those maintaining that there is no apparent explanation for Miriam’s and Aaron’s criticism respond that, while the Torah text provides a hint of an explanation, it does not offer any evidence that Moses claimed to speak “exclusively” for God.
Given this justified difference of opinion, the real question is: How do we make sense of this troubling Torah story? Why do Miriam and Aaron speak against their brother, and why is Miriam more severely punished for doing so? The crux of this issue is whether Aaron and Miriam are upset with Moses for marrying a second wife (other than Zipporah), or that they are upset because she is not an Israelite. In the first scenario, the commentators, including Rashi, read into this that we should only have one husband or wife in our lives. This answer is convenient in hindsight looking back at the Torah, but considering many characters have multiple wives after Moses, this is simply the medieval commentators placing their own values on the issue.
The second reason for the complaint is also interesting. During Biblical times, it was common for Israelites to marry someone from a different tribe or religion. However, by the time the medieval commentators made their remarks, this was not a common practice. Thus, many read into this that we are only supposed to marry other Jews and should be chastised if we intermarry.
While some may carry this view, I think the story is much more nuanced. The fact that Miriam is punished for her complaint shows that God understands that not every Jew will marry another Jew, including Moses! In our time, intermarriage is widely prevalent. There are those who simply shun others who marry a non-Jew. I would like to suggest that instead of pushing intermarried couples away, we take the time to embrace them and reach out (keruv) to welcome them into our community. As I spoke about last Rosh Hashanah, we need to create a keruv committee that works on ways we can reach out to intermarried families and show everyone that there is a place for all at CSI.
It does seem poignant and apropos when we read the words Moses uttered to his non-Jewish father-in-law, “Come with us and we will be generous with you.” I have said it before and I say it again, All Are Welcome!
Rabbi Jeffrey Abraham
Rabbi Abraham’s message will be on hiatus for the next two weeks, returning on June 14th since he will be on the congregational trip to Israel. In place of the message, please be on the lookout for exciting updates from the trip.