By Shlomo Riskin
“And Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite (Midianite) woman he had taken to wife (and divorced) ….And they said, ‘Did the Lord speak only to Moses? Did He not also speak to us?’” (Num. 12:1-2)
Towards the end of our biblical reading, we find this very strange dialogue between Miriam and Aaron, the elder brother and sister of Moses. Why are his siblings criticizing Moses, and what do they mean by insisting that God spoke to them as well as to their younger brother?
This text is clarified by a proper understanding of the general name for the study of our mystical tradition, the Kabbala. The Hebrew term “kabbala” means “acceptance”; for our great mystical teachers, everything is dependent upon our ability to properly accept.
Rabbi David Aaron, the founder and director of Israelite, tells of the first time he attended a class given by a well-known mystic in Jerusalem. The teacher summoned Rabbi David and held out an apple, presumably for him to take. Rabbi David put his hand over the apple only to find that the teacher removed his hand with the apple. This was repeated a number of times, with Rabbi David attempting to lift the apple from the mystic’s hand and the mystic “teasing” him by removing his hand again and again. The other students began to laugh; one of them whispered to David not to grab or take the apple, but rather to accept it in his open and cupped hand. That’s what David did, and the mystic immediately placed the apple in his cupped hand and smiled. And so, he learned the first lesson of Jewish mysticism: Everything depends on one’s ability to accept. One’s hand must always be ready to receive; to share one’s bounty with anyone else who may wish to partake of it.
In the portion of Balak, we shall read of Balaam’s talking donkey, who teaches him an important lesson (Num. 22:21-35). Rabbenu Tzadok of Lublin explains that the Bible is teaching us that God is constantly sending out “Divine Rays of Splendor” which are waiting for human beings to receive them; we must have the antennae to receive the transmissions which are around us.
Rabbenu Tzadok proves his point by recounting how he was once walking along a desolate road when he saw a peasant walking towards him carrying a large bale of hay; the bale turned over, the hay fell to the ground, and the hapless farmer asked the rabbi to help him lift his produce. “I’m sorry but I can’t,” answered Rabbenu Tzadok, already feeling weak and thirsty from his travels. “You mean you won’t,” responded the peasant farmer. Rabbenu Tzadok immediately began helping the gentile, thanking him for the invaluable message he had taught him. Whenever we say that we can’t, we really mean that we won’t; if there is a strong enough will, virtually anything becomes possible. Apparently, God speaks through donkeys, through farmers; through children… We must develop within ourselves the finely honed antennae to receive the Divine transmissions.
This is the meaning of the verse “These words the Lord spoke to all your assembly in the mount out of the midst of the fire, of the cloud, and of the thick darkness, with a great voice which never ceased” (Deut. 5:19). The Divine Voice heard at Sinai constantly continues to communicate; it is up to us to develop our minds and our souls sufficiently to be able to accept the Divine waves or rays.
Let us now return to Moses’s siblings, who couldn’t understand how this great prophet could have divorced his Midianite wife, Zipporah. Maimonides explains that, in an attempt to raise the spiritual level of the Israelites and prepare them for the Revelation at Sinai, the Almighty instructed them to separate from their spouses for three days prior to the appearance of the Almighty atop the Mount. At the conclusion of the Revelation, God instructs His prophet, “Go now and tell them to return to their tents (and their wives)” (Deut. 5:27). Miriam, therefore, tells Aaron that Moses, too should have returned to his wife Zipporah. After all, was not the commandment to return to the natural familial situation after the Revelation given to everyone, including Moses?
What Miriam did not understand was that Moses was sui generis, unique and different from everyone else, and even from every subsequent prophet. God specifically singled out Moses and separated him from the general return to the family tents when He said to him, “But you stand here with Me and I shall (constantly) speak to you…” (Deut. 5:28).
All other prophets had their ‘prophetic moments of Divine communication’, either in a dream or in a vision; Moses prophesied when awake and standing…the holy spirit garbed and enveloped him, whenever he desired it…He was constantly prepared and ready for Divine communication, just like a heavenly angel. Therefore, the other prophets would return to their homes and to their bodily, physical needs once the spirit of prophecy departed from them, whereas Moses could not return to his wife, but had to separate himself from her forever, because his mind was constantly bound up the ‘mind’ of the Rock of Eternity, whose Divine glory never left him” (Maimonides, The Laws and Basic Principles of the Torah 7:6).
Moses was in a continuous state of prophecy, always attuned to the Divine signals of emission; he was an eternal “receiving” (kabbala) station, a receptor of the Divine rays of splendor. He was the mekubal par excellence.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone and chief rabbi of Efrat, Israel.