"Moses heard and fell on his face." (Num. 16:4)

The Talmud asks what it was precisely that Moses had heard (Sanhedrin 110a) and Rabbi Samuel son of Nachmeyni says that he had heard that these people suspected him of committing adultery (Baal HaTurim) since we read in the verse "And they envied Moses in the camp" (Psalms 106:16) which is interpreted by Rabbi Shmuel bar Yitzchak as meaning that each Jewish husband suspected Moses of adultery with his wife, since the Torah had stated that "Moses took his tent and put it up outside the camp". (Ex. 33:7) The question arises that, even granted the Jewish people were sinful, how could they have suspected Moses of adultery?! After all, Miriam had criticized Moses for not even living with his own wife, much less with other husbands' wives! What possible reason could these people have had to suspect Moses of something so patently absurd?

Moses removed his tent to silence these suspicions….

Many commentators have written that this accusation is not to be taken at face value, but rather that the rebels denied the quality of Moses' prophetic insights, claiming that it was not, as stated, of a face-to-face variety as described in Deut. (34:10) i.e. qualitatively superior to the prophetic powers of other prophets. The rebels claimed that the angels by means of whom prophetic images are transmitted are known as "ishim", "men", meaning that they are the means by which humans receive intelligence from celestial sources. The recipient would then be described as "eishet ish", "a married woman", much as a wife describes herself as such, seeing she is the "passive" part of her husband. (Their intention then was to deny Moses his special relationship with G‑d).

The Maimonides, in his "Guide for the Perplexed", maintains that the people were protesting Moses' arrogant behavior in claiming special status. I fail to understand how Maimonides, i.e. the Talmud, wants to prove this from the verse in Psalms quoted earlier. The language employed there is one describing "jealousy". This lends more credence to those who understand the accusation leveled against Moses as being meant literally! They were apparently alleging that the reason Moses appointed Aaron and his sons as Priests was to avoid being involved in the procedure of the bitter waters that a wife suspected of infidelity has to drink, seeing the priest was his blood relation and as such unable to administer the procedure.

The quarrel was directed at Aaron. This is why these men reasoned that there must be substance to the people's suspicions. One cannot argue that since Moses had taken his tent out of the camp, this occurred before Aaron ever began his function as a High Priest, seeing that Moses removed his tent on the morrow of the Day of Atonement, when the Tabernacle had not yet existed. It is a fact that as soon as Moses gave instructions to collect materials for the building of the Tabernacle and the weaving of the priests' garments, he had also announced who was to wear those garments, i.e. Aaron and his sons. There were grounds then for the suspicions, and Moses removed his tent to silence these suspicions. This is what Rashi explains there. Now that a quarrel had surfaced these suspicions were voiced openly, and that is why Moses fell on is face when he "heard". This is how one has to explain the plain meaning of the verse.

[Translated and adapted by Eliyahu Munk.]