Who hasn't felt overworked and wanted to complain about it? And who hasn't felt, at times, that work is also our most important responsibility?
In this week's portion, we identify with the Jewish people and with Moses. The Israelites complain about hunger — and then gorge themselves on quail when it comes. Miriam and Aaron complain that Moses is taking all the leadership himself. Moses complains that he is sick of all this leadership! He says to God: "I cannot carry all this people by myself, for it is too much for me. If You would deal thus with me, kill me rather, I beg You … ."
Aaron and Miriam notice that Moses is feeling rather overworked. When they speak against him, they begin by criticizing his marriage to a Cushite woman, and then they challenge Moses as the sole leader by asking: "Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has He not spoken through us as well?"
What do these two complaints have to do with each other?
Rashi, the great medieval commentator on Torah, assumes that the criticism was not that Moses married the Cushite woman, Tziporah, but that he had separated from her and now divorced her.
We might understand this separation as a way to stay in a state of purity during a time of prophecy or increased contact with God. All of the Israelites are asked to refrain from sexual relations with their partners in preparation for receiving the Torah at Sinai. It stands to reason that an intense communication with God, such as the prophets and certainly Moses had, would entail a more permanent separation.
However, given Miriam and Aaron's concern with how much Moses is taking on — coupled with Moses' own complaint to God about having too much work — we might understand the separation differently.
Does Moses really need to separate from Tziporah in order to keep his close relationship with God, or is he so in love with that relationship that he no longer has interest in his wife? Is he a workaholic — self-confessed — who is so overwhelmed by this task of leading the people that he simply has no time to spend with his loved ones?
An Attempt to Be Superhuman
Rashi hints that, in trying to keep up his leadership and his special relationship with God, Moses is attempting to be superhuman. This leads him to failure in the realm of human relations.
Jewish tradition teaches us that Shabbat — the time when we can draw closer to God — is also the time we must spend with our families, come closer to our loved ones, rather than separate from them. While Judaism values work, Shabbat is a time each week to act on the wisdom that family and relationships are more sacred than work.
Miriam and Aaron offer a leadership model that encourages human relationship, rather than precluding it. When they ask if the Lord has spoken through them as well, they ask if their model of family and relationship can also be one that leads.
In the Jewish people's practice of Shabbat, it has been.
Rabbi Danielle Stillman is a Reconstructionist rabbi and Hillel adviser at Ursinus College.