The Varieties of Religious Experience
In parashat Beha’alotcha Miriam and Aaron speak out against Moshe “on account of the Cushite woman he had married” (Numbers 12:1), a reference to Moshe’s wife Tziporah, who was described as a Cushite on account of her beauty (12:1). Rashi explains that Miriam had discovered that prior to the giving of the Torah, Moshe abstained from sexual relations with Tziporah, and she had relayed this information to Aaron. They objected to Moshe’s abstinence, insisting that God also spoke to them, and yet they did not have to separate from their spouses. Why are Miriam and Aaron so disturbed by Moshe’s behavior? A close look at this episode from our parashah offers insight into the nature of prophecy and the way we relate to those whose gifts and talents are different from our own.
God responds to Miriam and Aaron’s negative words about Moshe by pointing out that it is only with Moshe that God speaks face-to-face; with all other prophets, God speaks in a vision or a dream. This mention of the unique nature of Moshe’s experience of prophecy highlights a stark contrast between Moshe and each of his siblings. For Moshe, prophecy is an experience of solitary communion with God. When Moshe first encounters God, he is alone on a mountain shepherding a flock of sheep. And his ultimate revelatory experience—the one known simply as revelation—takes place when he ascends that same mountain on his own to be alone with God for forty days and forty nights, leaving the rest of the people below. When Moshe is with God, he is withdrawn from the rest of society – which may explain why he separates from his wife Tziporah before speaking face-to-face with God.
Miriam, too, has prophetic abilities, but her prophecy is not about withdrawal from society but about bringing people together. The Talmud (Megillah 14b) relates that before Moshe was born, Miriam prophesied, “My mother is destined to bear a son who will deliver the Jewish people to salvation.” The midrash (Exodus Rabbah 1:17) adds that when Pharaoh decreed that all Israelite baby boys be thrown into the Nile, Miriam’s father Amram “immediately separated from his wife, had no intercourse with her, even divorced her when she was three months pregnant.” Miriam, who foresaw that she was destined to have a sibling who would save the Jewish people, reprimanded her father for his behavior and exhorted him to return to his wife: “Your decree is harsher than that of Pharaoh, for Pharaoh decreed the elimination of male children only, while you decree the elimination of male and female alike.” Amram heeded his daughter and reunited with his wife, and then Moshe was conceived. According to this midrash, Miriam’s very first prophecy was about bringing husband and wife together – which may explain why she was so troubled that Moshe separated from his wife in order to hear God’s word.
The next time we are told that Miriam is filled with divine inspiration is when she takes a timbrel and leads the women in singing and dancing at the Sea of Reeds. The song she leads is very similar to the first verse of the song led by Moshe, with one telling difference not entirely apparent in the English translation. Whereas Moshe’s song begins, “I will sing to the Lord for He has triumphed gloriously” (15:1), Miriam’s version begins, “Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously” (15:21). Moshe speaks in the first person singular, whereas Miriam uses the plural form to invite the women to join with her. For Moshe, calling out to God is an individual experience, whereas Miriam exhorts the people to encounter God collectively.
When Miriam takes up her timbrel at the Sea of Reeds, she is identified as “Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister” (15:20) – perhaps an indication that when it comes to prophecy, she is more like her brother Aaron than like her brother Moshe. Aaron, like Miriam, is a leader whose religious experiences take place among people, rather than removed from them. Although he is Moshe’s partner in liberating the Israelites from Egypt, he comes to this role from a very different place than his brother. Moshe grew up in Pharaoh’s palace and learned about the Israelites’ suffering only when he left home and went out into the world. He first became sympathetic to the plight of the slaves when he witnessed an Egyptian taskmaster beating a Hebrew and, appalled by the injustice, struck down the Egyptian. Aaron, in contrast, grew up as a slave at the mercy of Pharaoh’s tyranny, and his people’s suffering was his own suffering as well. He is motivated to help lead the people out of Egypt not by an innate sense of justice or by a divine call from a bush aflame, but rather by the backbreaking labor that he and his kinsmen have had to endure. Aaron is a leader from among the people, unlike Moshe, who was never himself a slave. Perhaps it should not come as a surprise, then, that while Moshe goes up the mountain to commune with God at Sinai, Aaron leads the people in an ecstatic religious experience down below.
The Talmud further hones this contrast between Moshe and Aaron’s leadership in the beginning of tractate Sanhedrin (6b), which considers the question of whether absolute justice is possible in our imperfect world. The rabbis contrast Moshe and Aaron: Moshe strove for absolute justice and lived by the motto, “Let the law cut through the mountain,” insisting that the iron rule of law could break through the dirt and dust of this world; Aaron was devoted to the pursuit of peace and advocated instead for compromise, settlement, and accommodation. Moshe, whose innate sense of justice motivated him to kill an Egyptian taskmaster, believed that God’s justice must triumph at all cost. Aaron, who is described as “loving peace and pursuing peace, loving all of God’s creatures and bringing them close to Torah” (Avot 1:12), was less focused on the triumph of divine law than on drawing people close together. Moshe was often enervated by his contact with the people and had little patience for their desert grumblings, whereas Aaron was a gifted mediator and a genuine “people person.”
Given that Miriam and Aaron’s religious leadership was all about drawing people close, it comes as no surprise that they are so disturbed when Moshe separates from his wife. His prophetic style is foreign to them, which is why God has to teach them about His unique relationship with His trusted servant and about the varieties of religious experience. In our world we need all kinds of divine servants – those who are motivated by a clear and absolute sense of justice, as well as those who can restore people’s faith in the future and bring them close to one another. As Moshe tells Joshua earlier in the parashah, “Would that all of God’s people were prophets” (11:29). If we can learn to appreciate everyone’s unique divine-given gifts, we might discover that indeed they are.