It is an unequivocal rule of families: siblings fight. This is not always a bad thing, but often just a part of growing up: learning to assert yourself, contesting for your point and your position, discovering your own strength as you try to find your place in the order of things. I, for example, learned how to pull my sister’s hair while my brother tripped her over, a very valuable asset in life.
But surely the most quizzical case of sibling rivalry in history is between Moshe and his sister Miriam. Aharon seemed to have been caught in the middle, but Hashem actually punished Miriam for a seemingly innocuous comment made as she wondered about the Cushite woman Moshe married (BeMidbar 12:1). Interestingly, while Rashi connects this Cushite woman to
Tzipporah, Moshe’s wife from earlier in Shemot, Rashbam links her instead to Moshe’s adventures in Cush, which some early sources use to fill the gaps of forty or more years in Moshe’s life before he arrived in Midyan, making this a new woman whom Miriam had never met before. Moshe did not respond to this seeming criticism, but Hashem did not let the slight go unnoticed, and gave her Tzaraat as a punishment.
What was Miriam’s mistake? Was she criticizing Moshe? Her point is unclear; her sin, even less so. Hashem’s response is also difficult to understand; if Moshe did not think the question merited a response, then why did Hashem react for him?
The second question is easier to answer than the first. “VeHaIsh Moshe Anav Meod MiKol HaAdam Asher Al Penei HaAdamah,” “Moshe was exceedingly humble, more than any person on the face of the earth” (12:3). While Moshe may have been too humble to defend himself from Miriam’s slur, Hashem saw Miriam’s comment against Moshe as an affront to his authority, and perhaps as a prelude to challenges to his leadership. Aharon and Miriam were both more popular with Bnei Yisrael than Moshe himself was; they were more involved with people’s daily lives, dealt more directly with them, and Moshe was often viewed as a more intimidating presence (perhaps because of his direct connection with Hashem, symbolized by the mask he wore to protect others from the light of his face). Hashem wanted to prevent anyone from building up a challenge to Moshe’s leadership, as Korach would in the near future. But Korach was a mere outsider, a rabble-rouser. How much more damaging could it be if criticisms of Moshe came from within his own family? Such comments could quickly grow into a rumor mill, damaging Moshe’s credibility.
The first question is much harder to answer. Moshe’s life was a complicated mish-mash of experiences, and at this point in the story, the 20th of Iyar, just more than a year after leaving Egypt, it is hard to tell how much down time Moshe and his company had gotten. Things had been a little hectic and he likely had not had much of a chance to catch up on the last eighty years of his life with his siblings. Growing up as a member of Paroh’s household, his (possible) adventures in Cush, his rejection from Egypt after saving the slave, his time in Midyan…Moshe had led a packed life, and it had taken the impact of all of those events to shape him into the leader he needed to become, the only one capable of fulfilling Yosef HaTzadik’s prophecy of the one who could say “Pakod Pakadti,” “I have surely remembered you” (Shemot 3:16) of leading Bnei Yisrael out of Egypt. How dare you, Hashem seemed to say, question Moshe’s life or his choices? How dare you snicker at a wife who finds him after so many years, a symbol of the things he had to experience to prepare him for this life?
Often, we see moments in other’s lives. A flash of an instant, and our judgment is made. How can we know all that went before, how can we understand the thousands of moments, the myriad choices and options and paths taken and ignored, that led to this one point, the one we arrogantly judge? Such is the height of arrogance. Moshe, being the least arrogant man of all, may not have even taken offense. Of course they are curious, he might have thought, they don’t know what I’ve done in my life! Hashem stepped in to correct Miriam’s mistake, but we must be careful to prevent such things from clouding our own judgment.