In two successive chapters Moses faces three successive challenges. First, the people complain to Moses about their unvaried menu (Numbers 11:6). The Joshua complains to Moses that Eldad and Medad exceeded the limits of their appointment (Numbers 11:28). And finally, Miriam and Aaron complain to Moses about the Cushite woman he marries as well as his monopoly on divinely assigned power (Numbers 12:1-2). First the people, then its leadership, and ultimately Moses’ own family turn against him. But it was the challenge from his own family that was most painful – as judged by Moses’ own reaction.
When the people complain, Moses refers their challenge to God (Numbers 11:11). God provides meat for the Israelites and assistants for Moses. When Joshua complains about Eldad and Medad continuing to prophesy in the camp, Moses quickly rebukes him (Numbers 11:29). It is not Joshua’s place to condemn others, especially when others are doing that which Moses thought best for the people. But to his family, Moses says absolutely nothing. Surely his silence cannot be attributed to passivity or meekness. He is bold enough to complain to God and assertive enough to castigate his apprentice, Joshua. Moses’ silence is due to his pain.
In his book In Speech and in Silence, Rabbi David Wolpe writes (p. 185) that “for certain moments, times of tremendous emotion…only silence will suffice.” Quoting the Kotzker Rebbe, Rabbi Wolpe adds that “the cry one holds back is the most powerful one of all.” There was nothing Moses could say to his siblings. The pain of being betrayed by members of his family defied verbalization. There were simply no words to express his disappointment. The Torah ascribes his silence to humility (Number 12:3) but it is much more than that. Moses’ silence is just as powerful and just as painful as the silence of his brother Aaron reacting to the death of his two oldest sons (Leviticus 10:1-3). Moses held back his cry of anguaish for there was no way to express his pain.
The structure of the narrative also supports this reading. The people Israel were continually complaining so another instance of rebelliousness was not out of the ordinary. The complaint of Joshua was not anticipated but understandable. After all, if he is Moses’ designated successor, other prophets in the camp would be a threat to him more than to Moses. But the challenge from Moses’ family was both shocking and unexpected. It is placed last in the order of complaints because it is the most serious. Families are expected to be supportive. It is one of the few things we count on in life. When that support is lacking or worse, when support is replaced by criticism, the pain is too much to even express.