Modeling Behavior for the Sake of Humankind

By Walter Herzberg,


In the last narrative in Parashat Beha’alotehkha, it seems that Miriam and Aaron are speaking against their brother Moses—though the nature of the complaint is far from clear. Whatever the complaint may be, God summons Miriam and Aaron and takes them to task for not being “afraid to speak against My servant Moses”:

  1. The Lord suddenly said to Moses, Aaron and Miriam, “Go out, all three of you, to the Tent of Meeting!” And all threewent out. 5. The Lord descended in a pillar of cloud and stood at the entrance of the Tent. He called to Aaron and Miriam, and they both went out. 6. He said, “Please listen to My words. If there be prophets among you, [I] the Lord will make Myself known to him in a vision; I will speak to him in a dream. 7. Not so is My servant Moses; he is faithful throughout My house. 8. With him I speak mouth to mouth; in a vision and not in riddles, and he beholds the image of the Lord. So why were you not afraid to speak against My servant Moses? 9. The wrath of the Lord flared against them and He left. (Num. 12:4–9)

Notice, however, that before chastising Miriam and Aaron, God speaks “suddenly” to Moses, Aaron, and Miriam requesting that “all three of you” go to the Tent of Meeting: The following verse, however, is somewhat puzzling since God “called [only] to Aaron and Miriam and they both went out”. Why does God ask all three of them to appear at the Tent of Meeting, yet he invites only Aaron and Miriam to come forward?

Rashi articulates our question as “Why did [God] separate them from Moses?” He then offers two possible solutions, firstly:

“Because [it is appropriate that people] say [only] part of a person’s praise in his presence, and all of it when not in his presence.”

According to this explanation, God did not want Moses to be present when He was praising Moses as highly as he does in verses 6–8:The lesson that Rashi is teaching is clear—but the rationale is not! Why should one not praise a person too highly in his presence? Some possible reasons:

  1. Most obviously, praising a person too highly in his presence may cause the person to become haughty.
  2. Or possibly, the dictum is not meant for the sake of the one who is being praised, but rather for the one doing the praising: by praising a person too highly to his face, one runs the risk of appearing like a disingenuous flatterer. (Rashi actually makes this point in his commentary on the Talmud [BT Eruvin 18b].)

In other words, it may be laudable to praise a person, but don’t overdo it; you must consider the potential ramifications for both the one who is being praised and for the one doing the praising. Interestingly, Rashi’s comment can be understood from either the perspective of the one receiving or the one giving praise.

Characteristically, Rashi offers an alternate explanation for God’s having separated Miriam and Aaron from Moses:

“Alternatively, God separated [Miriam and Aaron from Moses] so that he [Moses] should not hear Aaron’s reprimand.”

But why shouldn’t Moses hear it?
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