THEIR OWN FLAME
Various places in rabbinic literature discuss the name of this week’s reading. The rabbis wondered why the
“When you kindle (the lights)”.
The explanation they arrived at was that Aaron had to start off the lighting and then allow the flame to rise up by itself.
As a symbol for the task of the spiritual leader this means that the rabbi or mentor has to kindle the initial spark but then hope that the individual will develop his or her own enthusiasm for the task so that they could be relied upon to keep Judaism going independently.
A BOOST FOR AARON
Moses’ brother Aaron was upset. He was a truly pious person who loved God and yearned to serve Him. He saw so much activity going on around him in preparation for the dedication of the sanctuary in the wilderness, and he felt slighted and left out because he had not been asked to bring a gift or donation.
His depressed state of mind is described by Rashi, who links it with the opening verses of the sidra, in which God tells Moses to pass on to Aaron the news that it would be he who had the culminating honour, to kindle the lamps of the menorah (Num. 8:1-3). Not only would Aaron light the menorah, but it would be his descendants’ task throughout history (Ex. 27:21)
Moses’ father-in-law Yitro (Jethro) had quite an impact on Israelite history in the wilderness. He told Moses that a leader has to learn to delegate. Otherwise, one ends up with what today is called burn-out.
Jethro’s final appearance is this Shabbat in the portion of B’ha’alot’cha, in Num. 10:29-32. Actually, in this passage he is not called Jethro but Chovav, which is another of his seven names. Ramban says that this name, meaning “beloved”, was given to him when he entered the faith of Israel.
In verse 31, Moses calls his father-in-law “our eyes”. Maybe the phrase means “our guide”, but the rabbinic sages understood the word not in a physical but a poetic sense. Jethro, they posited, was well versed in all the then known religions, and recognised – with the eye of intellectual and spiritual perception – that no faith had such an elevated God concept as the faith of Israel.
He was said to derive from the family of Cain, whose unethical tradition he rejected in favour of the Ten Commandments, which appear in the Torah (Ex. 20) in the portion called Yitro after him.
MOSES & THE CUSHITE WOMAN
Forty years of leadership were no sinecure for Moses. The people complained, Korach and company complained, and even Moses’ own siblings complained:
“And Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married” (Num. 12:1).
Who the Cushite woman was exercises many of the commentators. One possibility is that it was Zipporah, who came from Midian, which is also known (Habakkuk 3:7) as Cushan. Or maybe what Miriam and Aaron meant by a Cushite woman was an Ethiopian, since Cush generally denotes Ethiopia (as at the beginning of the Book of Esther); if so, the woman was someone else than Zipporah and was a second, South Egyptian wife.
But in neither case did Miriam and Aaron complain about Moses’ choice of a wife, but about the way he treated his marriage.
What was their problem? According to Rashi, it was that he had separated himself from his wife; when Zipporah heard that Eldad and Medad were acting as prophets (Num. 11:27), she said,
“Woe to the wives of these men if they have anything to do with prophecy, for they will separate from their wives just as my husband has separated from me!”
In Avot d’Rabbi Natan, Rabbi Shimon ascribes to Miriam and Aaron a similar comment,
“Since he (Moses) is so overweening (priding himself on reaching prophetic heights), he has separated himself from his wife!”
The implication of both comments is that a person in public life, like Moses, must not sacrifice his or her marriage and family life for the sake of the community.
Why, then, does the Torah not spell out the facts of the episode?
Presumably because even when critics are making a valid point, as Miriam and Aaron may well have been doing, they have to exercise restraint in disparaging a spiritual leader. Even if it is their own sibling! Though he was their brother, Moses was still the God-appointed leader and his own family was not exempt from treating him with respect.
Rabbi Apple served for 32 years as the chief minister of the Great Synagogue, Sydney, and was Australia’s highest profile rabbi and the leading spokesperson for Jews and Judaism on the Australian continent. He is now retired and lives in Jerusalem.