Last year my friend Rabbi Schneeweiss posted about the mystery of the Moshe’s “Kushite wife”.
He quoted Ibn Caspi, who harshly rejects Chazal’s interpretation as the exact opposite of Pshat, as bad as if they said black means white or love means hate. (Did Ibn Caspi also think that the blind Rav Sheshet (Sagi Nahor) was eagle-eyed).
I am somewhat uncomfortable with Ibn Caspi’s cavalier rejection of Chazal, Onkelos etc. and while I greatly appreciate the pshat approach, I think in this case it is pushed too far and ultimately misses an important principle of pshat itself.
I think the reason for Chazal’s approach is that this parsha addresses the Fundamental principle of Nevuas Moshe.
The Rambam in Yesodei hatorah 7:6 expands on why Moshe separated from Tzippora .
And this is what God promised him, as it says: ‘Go, say to them, return yourselves to your tents. But, you, here, will stand (maintain permanently) with me’. From here you learn that, once their prophecy ceases, all prophets return to their tents, which represents all physical needs, like the rest of the nation; and therefore they do not separate from their wives. But Moshe did not return to his original tent, therefore he permanently separated from women, and from everything similar, and his mind attached to the source of the universe, and the glory was never removed from him, and his face shone with light, and he was sanctified like the angels.
Rambam explains that Moshe’s uniqueness came from his complete removal from the physical, permanently maintaining, at an individual level, the state that the entire people had at Sinai. Separating from his wife was a feature of his unique nevuah. Aaron and Miriam’s criticism came from not understanding the phenomenon of Nevuat Moshe, and thinking it is similar to other neviim. Chazal view the dispute as being about the fundamental principle of the separation of Moshe’s prophecy from the imagination and the physical world.
To marry another wife would go against the basic principle of Moshe’s prophecy emerging from a separation from the physical. According to Ibn Caspi the content of their lashon hara was only incidentally related to the primary focus on his prophecy, (thinking they had a right to know his reasons for an unrelated action) rather than the core issue of his prophecy. Worse, according to Ibn Caspi, Moshe, for undisclosed reasons, was told to become more involved in the physical!
At this point we should explore the more general question of how to learn pshat.
Ibn Caspi is maintaining a limited view of the method of pshat. If pshat is merely based on the translation of words then his criticism is on the mark. However, in general, our reading of a text is not only based on literally translating the words (which is why the art of translation is so difficult). Specifically, he ignores two significant factors in finding pshat.
a. The broader context, not only of parsha but of the Torah as a whole.
b. The fundamental principles of the Torah. These principles are assumed to be common knowledge and therefore the lens by which to read the Torah.
These two principles are the source of Chazal’s reading.
They start with the story line which began in Shemot. After Sinai Moshe was told to remain separate from the physical. His Ohel shifted from being a place of satisfying physical needs and instead became the Ohel Moed where those seeking God would go. Moshe never returned from existing in the Ohel Moed to his old “tent”. Because of the cheit haegel Moshe’s ohel left the camp until it was restored with the construction of the Mishkan. This transformation of Moshe was reflected in the light radiating from his face (for the meaning of face see MN 1:37.) The people would watch his every move as he went to his (new) tent, in order to understand the Derech Hashem (analogous to him seeing God’s ‘back’) (see MN 1:4, Shmoneh Perakim ch 4 etc.). At such a time it was clear that his every move was ‘al pi Hashem’ (according to God’s will).
Of course they didn’t criticize him earlier. After Sinai the uniqueness was manifest. Would Aaron, who was afraid to even approach the light, be able to speak against him!? It was manifest his nevuah was different and that he was acting according to God’s will. Only after the shift from the ‘hopeful to the nopeful’, with the crisis of his leadership did they begin to wonder. Suddenly they were not only unafraid to approach, they weren’t even afraid to speak about him!
In the crisis of kivrot hataava they saw cracks in Moshe’s leadership. He is unable to lead the people and needs the intermediary of the 70 elders to help bridge the gap.
Miriam and Aaron were led to wonder about Moshe’s choices. Perhaps his difficulty in leading the people was a result of separating too much from the physical (as expressed in separating from his wife). Worse, as Rabbi Schneeweiss noted in a post about Nadav and Avihu , not marrying could be a sign of arrogance! But the opposite was true, Miriam and Aaron, much like the people, failed to understand Moshe, who was the humblest of people. To understand Moshe, they needed to be called to the ohel moed (Moshe’s new Ohel, removed from bodily needs), and immediately told to leave.
Miriam’s speech was another step in the breakdown of the educational relationship to Moshe developed in response to the Egel, culminating in the sin of the spies. While Moshe’s prayer successfully prevented the destruction of the Jewish people, there was no alternative method of developing an educational relationship with the people. They would die in the desert and he would need to be replaced.
Returning to the broader question of how to learn Pshat. Ibn Caspi wants the pshat to be manifest in the most local context of the language of the pasuk. But Pshat means the straightforward reading of a text, which should make use of context to identify the rhetorical methods being used. In this case, contra Ibn Caspi, if one takes the whole context, including the rest of behalotecha, the full development of Moshe beginning in Shemot (and especially Parshat Ki Tisa), and the fundamental premises of Judaism (in this case the uniqueness of Mosaic prophecy), Chazal’s approach is the pshat, a pshat which directly teaches us the Yesodei HaTorah. According to Chazal, Moshe’s separation from the physical is the direct source of the four superiorities of Moshe’s prophecy over regular prophecy, which are the core lesson of this Parsha.
Ironically, Ibn Caspi would accuse me of making an analogous error to Aaron and Miriam. My argument is predicated on the possibility of figuring out what is in line with the perfection of Moshe. Specifically, that reentering the realm of the physical would be inconsistent with his unique prophecy. But Ibn Caspi would say that we have no way of knowing what God would tell Moshe, or why.
This points to a deeper issue in the principle of Nevuat Moshe. Ibn Caspi claims that implicit in the uniqueness of Moshe’s prophecy, is that we cannot understand the motivation for what he does, or the way that he related to the physical as a basis for the unique features of his prophecy. Moshe is able to surprise us, and we cannot rule out any possibility, even one as far-fetched as marrying two wives. Chazal, on the other hand, say that the his uniqueness as a Navi doesn’t prevent us from knowing things about his Nevuah, and that we can rightfully criticize an interpretation as being incompatible with the perfection of Moshe that the Torah presents.
This framework is sufficient to answer Ibn Caspi’s challenge, but to fully understand the Parsha we would also want to explain why the Pesukim speak in this obscure manner. Why use rhetorical reversal? Why say “Cushite” to mean “beautiful”? And “taking” to mean divorcing?
To address this in detail is beyond the scope of this post, but to outline a few kinds of approaches to the question. The literal reading might be hinting to an esoteric understanding of Moshe’s prophecy, and its relation to matter (‘Isha’). By writing in an obscure way it would guide the advanced reader to study the significance of ‘taking’ a ‘cushite’ ‘woman’.
Alternatively, it could be addressing a pre-Onkelos beginner who is best introduced to the problem of lashon Hara by thinking about the story as if she was criticizing him for marrying an actual Cushite wife.
Finally, it could be using the rhetorical techniques of dysphemism (the opposite of euphemism), irony, innuendo or allusion in order to shape our perception of Miriam’s gossip.
But even without developing these possibilities, the defense of Chazal stands. If we read this event with an eye to the centrality of ikkarim, and with the broader context of Ki tisa in mind, we see that, contra Ibn Caspi, Chazal’s drash is the best pshat (as the best drash should be?).
 I guess Ibn Caspi didn’t learn the lesson about not speaking against “my servant Moshe”
 This might not be a problem on the pshat level, since, unlike in the culture of the Rishonim, Tanach might view Cushites as beautiful (evidence for this might come from Yirmiya 13:23, but that will take us far afield.)