In this cycle, through the Torah, we will be taking a mystical journey. Our guide will be Rabbi Larry Tabick’s book, The Aura of Torah, published in 2014 by the Jewish Publication Society and the University of Nebraska. Translations of kabbalistic texts are by Rabbi Larry Tabick. Translations of the Torah and other commentaries are from Sefaria, except where otherwise noted. Translations of the Talmud are the Steinsaltz, William Davidson Talmud, on Sefaria.
Initially the parsha seems a continuation, as the Torah describes additional priestly rituals, minor holidays, and the process of traveling through the wilderness. Then it shifts — we start to hear grumbling among the people about food and unexpectedly Miriam and Aaron gossip about Moses’ wife. Something is going wrong …
“Aaron did so; he mounted the lamps at the front of the candelabrum, as the LORD had commanded Moses.”
And Aaron did so: This is stated in order to tell the praise of Aaron — that he did not shinnah [change, deviate, or repeat] [from God’s command].
There is no Talmud text related to this verse. The Hasidic commentary however refers to a Talmudic text, without a specific citation. Can we find it? Yes, with Sefaria’s help!
Rosh Hashanah 16b:9-11
And Rabbi Yitzḥak said: A person is obligated to purify himself on a Festival, as it is stated: “And their carcasses you shall not touch; they are impure to you” (Leviticus 11:8). This verse is referring to the Festivals, as taught in the following baraita.
This is also taught in a baraita: The verse states: “And their carcass you shall not touch.” One might have thought that ordinary Jews are prohibited from touching an animal carcass. Therefore, the verse states: “Speak to the priests, the sons of Aaron, and say to them: There shall none be defiled for the dead among his people” (Leviticus 21:1). It is derived from here that the sons of Aaron are prohibited from defiling themselves, but the children of Israel, i.e., non-priests, are not prohibited from doing so.
But are these matters not an a fortiori inference? If, with regard to of severe impurity, i.e., contact with a human corpse, priests are prohibited from defiling themselves, while ordinary Israelites are not prohibited from doing so, in the case of light impurity, e.g., touching an animal carcass, is it not all the more so that Israelites be permitted to defile themselves? Rather, what is the meaning when the verse states: “And their carcass you shall not touch?” It means that on a Festival all are obligated to purify themselves.
Rabbi Mordechai will transform this teaching by treating “festival” as a state of mind rather than a moment in the calendar.
Mordechai of Izbica, 19th century, Poland
[Refers to Rashi’s comment above]
Shinnah means that it was not something he felt he was just repeating, like someone acting out of habit. On the contrary, he always performed the commandment as something new that a person does with joy and enthusiasm. Hence it says in the Gemara: “People should purify themselves for a festival, as it is said, ‘And their carcasses you shall not touch’ [Leviticus 11:8].” “Carcass” refers to a thing from which life has departed, and thus, if anyone performs a commandment without joy and enthusiasm, simply as “a command learned from other people by rote” [Isaiah 29:13], it is as if it had no life in it. Therefore, [it says] “for a festival.” Because God sends life to Israel, each person must receive that life with joy.
At a command [עַל־פִּ֥י] [by the mouth] of the LORD the Israelites broke camp, and at a command [וְעַל־פִּ֥י] [and by the mouth] of the LORD they made camp …
However, Rabbi Yosei holds that with regard to every destructive action, if he dismantles in order to rebuild in the same place, then it is considered to be dismantling, and he is liable for having performed a prohibited labor on Shabbat. However, one who demolishes in order to build elsewhere it is not considered performance of the prohibited labor of dismantling. He merely performed a destructive act and is not liable. When one extinguishes the flame to spare the lamp or the oil, he does not do so in order to relight them. When he does so to spare the wick, he indicates that he intends to relight the wick.
Rabba said to him: That reasoning is implausible. After all, all labors prohibited on Shabbat, we derive them from the labors performed in the Tabernacle, and there it was a case of dismantling in order to build elsewhere. They would dismantle the Tabernacle and reconstruct it at the next encampment. Ulla said to Rabba: That is not a proof, as there, in the case of the Tabernacle, it is different. Since it is written: “At the commandment of the Lord they encamped” (Numbers 9:23). The time and place of their travels and their encampments were not determined by them but rather by the word of God. Consequently, when they took down the Tabernacle it was tantamount to demolishing in order to build in the same place. Since the demolition and the construction were both accomplished at the command of God, there was never a case of destruction without a constructive purpose.
Yishayah Horowitz, 17th century, Poland
Later on, it is written: “At the mouth of the Eternal they would camp, and at the mouth of the Eternal they would move on” (Numbers 9:20), There is a hint of a [spiritual] discipline here: for every act or movement that you perform, you should say “God willing” or “with the help of God.” For example, when going on a journey, you should say: “I am traveling with the help of God; it is my plan to camp at such and such a place, with God’s help, if God wills it.” And when you arrive at the intended place, you should give thanks and say: “With the help of God have I come here, and it is my plan to move on at such and such at time, with God’s help, if God wills it.” Thus , the name of heaven will regularly be on your lips whenever it arises in your thought or whenever you undertake any action.
Now Moses was a very humble man, more so than any other person on earth.
Avot D’Rabbi Natan 9:2
Our ancestors tested the Holy Blessed One ten different times, but they were punished only for the sin of slander ([which was one of them]). These are the ten: Once at the sea, once when the manna was first given, once when the manna stopped coming down, once at the first appearance of quails, once at the latter appearance of quails, once at Marah, once at Refidim, once at Horev, once [at the Calf, and once] with the spies. And the sin of the spies was the worst of them all, as it says (Numbers 14:22), “They have tested Me these ten times, and have not heeded My voice.” And also (Numbers 14:37), “The men died before God by plague, for spreading bad reports about the Land [of Israel].” And from this we can reason that if the Holy Blessed One punished the spies for insulting the land, which has no mouth to speak, no reaction, and no shame, then all the more so would the Holy Blessed One punish someone who speaks ill of his friend and shames him.
Rabbi Shimon would say: Afflictions come upon those who speak slander. For so we find with Aaron and Miriam, who spoke slanderously about Moses, and punishments came upon them – as it says (Numbers 12:1), “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses.” And why does the verse place Miriam before Aaron? [This teaches us that Tziporah (the wife of Moses)] went and talked to Miriam, and then Miriam went and told everything to Aaron, and then the two of them began to speak against this righteous man. And because these two spoke against a righteous man, punishments came upon them, as it says (Numbers 12:9), “And the Eternal became angry with them, and departed.”
What do we learn from “and departed”? This teaches us that God departed from Aaron and attached to Miriam, because Aaron was not as engaged as Miriam in spreading slanderous words around, so she was (immediately) punished more. Miriam said: Prophecy has come to me even though I have not separated from my husband. And Aaron said: Prophecy has come to me even though I have not separated from my wife. And even our earliest ancestors received prophecy even though they did not separate from their wives. But Moses, because he is so arrogant, separated from his wife.
They did not take this up with [Moses] directly, nor did they know for certain that it was true. It was not at all clear that he was being arrogant. We can reason from this that if Miriam, who spoke against her brother only secretly, was still punished, then if one speaks against his friend publicly, and shames him, all the more so will he be punished. At that time, Aaron said to Moses: Moses, my brother, you think that this skin disease affects only Miriam, but it is also upon the flesh of our father Amram.
I will give you a parable to tell you what this is like: Like someone who has a hot coal placed in his hand. Even if he tosses it around from place to place, his flesh is still burned.”1The idea here is that Amram and Miriam, father and daughter, are of one flesh, and therefore, if one of them is affected, so is the other. This is why it says (Numbers 12:12), “Please, do not let her be like one who is dead [when she emerges from her mother’s womb, with half of her flesh eaten away].” Meanwhile, Aaron attempted to pacify Moses by saying: Moses, my brother, have we ever done harm to anyone in the world? He replied: No. Aaron continued: So if we have done no harm to anyone in the world, would we have wished to harm you, who are our brother? Now what can I do? Will this mistake come between the covenant between us? (For he had established a covenant with Aaron and his sons,) as it says (Amos 1:9), “They did not remember the covenant of brotherhood.”
At that moment, Moses drew a small circle on the ground and stood inside it, and asked for mercy for Miriam. He said: I will not leave this spot until my sister Miriam is healed, as it says (Numbers 12:13), “Please, God, heal her.” Then the Holy Blessed One said to Moses: If a king had reprimanded her, or if her father had reprimanded her, it would have been appropriate for her to sit in shame for seven days. And since it is I, the King of all kings, all the more so is it just for her to sit in shame for fourteen days! However, for your sake, I will forgive her, as it says (Numbers 12:14), “The Eternal said to Moses: If her father spat in her face [would she not sit in shame for seven days?]”
“Now Moses was a very humble man” (Numbers 12:3). Could it be that he was meek and not beautiful and praiseworthy? But we learn from the verse (Exodus 40:19), “He spread the tent over the Tabernacle”: That just as the Tabernacle was ten cubits high, so was Moses also ten cubits high. Could it be that he was as humble as the angels, who serve God? But we learn from that [same] verse [that Moses was humble] “more than any other person”; more than other people, that is, but not more than the angels who serve God. Could it be that he was humbler than those in previous generations? But we learn from that [same] verse, “on the face of the earth”; in his own generation, that is, and not previous generations. There are three types of skin-afflicted people in the world: moist, dry, and polypous, and Moses made himself lowlier than them all.
Avot D’Rabbi Natan 23:1
Ben Zoma would say: Who is wise? One who learns from every person, as it says (Psalms 119:99), “From all my teachers I gained insight.” Who is the humblest of all? One who is humble like Moses our teacher, as it says (Numbers 12:33), “And the man Moses was exceedingly humble.” Who is the richest of all? One who is happy with what he has, as it says (Psalms 128:1), “You will eat from the work of your hands, and you will be happy and prosperous.” Who is the strongest of all? One who is able to conquer his desire, as it says (Proverbs 16:32), “Better to be forbearing than mighty, to have self-control than to conquer a city.” And one who conquers his desire is considered as if he had conquered a city full of warriors, as it says (Proverbs 21:22), “One wise man prevailed over a city of warriors.” The true warriors are warriors in Torah, as it says (Psalms 103:20), “Mighty warriors do His bidding.” Some say these are the angels who serve God, as it says (ibid.), “Bless the Eternal, His angels, [mighty warriors.]” And some say: One who can turn an enemy into his friend.
Simchah Bunim, 19th century, Poland
Rabbi Tabick provides two versions of the same teaching by Simchah Bunim.
Rashi explains “humble” [as] “lowly and patient.” Our holy teacher used to speak about two [kinds of] people — those who, if they think they are not fit at all, are unable to live, and the second who know their lowly state but nevertheless are patient with themselves — for the service of the latter is much superior, for they are lowly and accept their lowliness.
Rashi explains “humble” [as] “lowly and patient,” meaning: even though Moses our teacher was lowly in his own eyes, that is, he knew the lowliness of his status, nevertheless he was patient with himself, as expressed in the verse: “His heart was lifted up through the ways of the Eternal” (2 Chronicles 17[:6]).