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Summary

A woman I don't know posed the following question to me while getting a quick ride to her car: It seems that Rashi and Sifrei on Devarim 1:1 say that Moshe said that he himself had punished Miriam. Is this really what the Midrash and Rashi mean? If so, what are we supposed to learn from that?

Background

The first verse of the book of Devarim introduces Moshe's final great speech with a long list of geographical references:

אֵ֣לֶּה הַדְּבָרִ֗ים אֲשֶׁ֨ר דִּבֶּ֤ר מֹשֶׁה֙ אֶל־כָּל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בְּעֵ֖בֶר הַיַּרְדֵּ֑ן בַּמִּדְבָּ֡ר בָּֽעֲרָבָה֩ מ֨וֹל ס֜וּף בֵּֽין־פָּארָ֧ן וּבֵֽין־תֹּ֛פֶל וְלָבָ֥ן וַחֲצֵרֹ֖ת וְדִ֥י זָהָֽב׃

These are the words that Moses addressed to all Israel on the other side of the Jordan.—Through the wilderness, in the Arabah near Suph, between Paran and Tophel, Laban, Hazeroth, and Di-zahab,

Rashi, channeling various Midrashic teachings, explains that each of these references was actually a veiled criticism of the Israelites. Regarding "Hazeroth," Rashi provides two interpretations, one of which is:

אָמַר לָהֶם הָיָה לָכֶם לִלְמוֹד מִמַּה שֶּׁעָשִׂיתִי לְמִרְיָם בַּחֲצֵרוֹת בִּשְׁבִיל לָשׁוֹן הָרָע, וְאַתֶּם נִדְבַּרְתֶּם בַּמָּקוֹם:‏

He said to them, “You ought to have taken a lesson from what I did to Miriam at Hazeroth because of the slander she uttered, and yet you even after that spoke against the Omnipresent."

This interpretation is apparently based on Sifrei Devarim 1:15:

אמר להם: לא היה לכם ללמוד ממה שעשיתי למרים בחצרות? אם למרים הצדקת לא נשאתי לה פנים בדין - ק"ו לשאר בני אדם.‏

He said to them: Should you not have learned from what I did to Miriam in Chatzeroth? If I did not show favoritism in judgment to Miriam the righteous, how much more so (would I not do so) to others!

The incident in question, located in Hazeroth per Bamidbar 11:35, is recounted in Bamidbar 12: After slandering Moshe in conversation with Aharon, Miriam was stricken with tzara'at and banished from the Israelite camp for seven days.

Difficulty

In both Rashi's and Sifrei's renditions of this interpretation, it sounds like Moshe was ascribing the punishment of Miriam to himself. They both say "what I did to Miriam," and the speaker here seems very clearly to be Moshe. After all, the text being interpreted begins "These are the words that Moses addressed ...." This is surprising, since Miriam's primary punishment, tzara'at, was pretty clearly visited upon her by God, as it appeared just as His presence departed after He rebuked her and Aharon. The first and only action Moshe apparently takes in this episode is to pray for Miriam to be healed.

Questions

  • Did Sifrei and Rashi really mean to say that Moshe was saying that he had punished Miriam himself?

  • If not, why does it sound that way?

  • If so, what are Sifrei and Rashi trying to teach us with this surprising ascription?

  • Isn't he just quoting Hashem? See Ramban to Devarim 5:6 – robev Aug 6 '17 at 2:34
  • @robev Maybe, but that's certainly not obvious. See Devarim 1:5-6 and 1:9, where Moshe clearly uses the first person. – Isaac Moses Aug 6 '17 at 2:42
  • Further, only a Kohen can label someone a metzora, a title Moshe has long lost by that point. Maybe we're looking at this backwards: not at the punishment, but at the Tefillos afterwards: just as Moshe davened for her without taking into account that he was the target of the lashon hara, or that she was his sister, so, too, would he have reacted to any other metzora in the camp. Or maybe it refers to that HaShem told him to leave her outside for a week, and Moshe didn't bend the rules for her, letting her back in early. – DonielF Aug 6 '17 at 4:59
  • I checked the mefarshim on Sefaria to Rashi, but they all address the main part - what lashon hara they spoke against HaShem, or why he differs from the Sifrei there. I can't seem to find anyone who discusses the first half of the statement. Let me ask around - +1 for such a thought-provoking question. – DonielF Aug 6 '17 at 5:08
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As is clear from, e.g., the preceding passage in the Sifrei, on the preceding words in the verse, the Person speaking in the Medrash is G-d:

שוטים! כל עצמם של מלכים אין בוררים להם אלא לחם קל, שלא יהא דולריא אוחזתו; אבל אותה טובה שהיטבתי לכם - בה אתם מתוכחים ומתרעמים לפני? הוי כטובה שהיטבתי לאדם הראשון, שאמרתי לו (בראשית ב) אעשה לו עזר כנגדו, בטובה שהיטבתי לו - בה מתרעם לפני: (בראשית ג) ויאמר האדם האשה אשר נתת עמדי היא נתנה לי מן העץ ואוכל:

"Fools, the very essence of kings is that they are fed only 'light' bread, so they not be seized with diarrhea — but you have grumbled at the good that I have given you, following the precedent of your father (Adam). I told him that I would make a helpmate for him (Bereshith 2:18), and for this good that I granted him he grumbled against Me, (Ibid. 3:12) 'The woman that You gave to me — she gave me from the tree and I ate.'"

Perhaps the idea is that the rebuke Moshe gave was on behalf of and/or at the behest of G-d. Similarly, we find throughout Tanach that prophets and angels speak in the first person on behalf of G-d.

While the language of the following verses are presented by Moshe as Moshe talking, the medrash is expounding the first verse which is actually in the 3rd person about Moshe. Thus it represents more directly the final directive of G-d to Moshe of how to transcribe his speech for the generations as part of the Torah. So perhaps that is why the rebuke is presented as directly from G-d.

Furthermore, assuming the peshat (simple meaning of the verse) is also literally true that Moshe's speech was made relative to the listed places that happened to be so historically named, that would be a coincidence that is more reasonably ascribed directly to divine providence than to Moses.

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The I referred to here is that Moshe is saying to Bnai Yisrael that Hashem was referring to the lesson that they should have learned from what He did to Miriam and it was what Hashem was telling them as shown by the hint of the name.

  • See the comments to the OP - that understanding of the pesukim seems to be problematic. – DonielF Aug 6 '17 at 5:09

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