Like many a great leader, Moshe—the greatest of all leaders—had difficulty delegating authority. Knowing you can do the job better than others, it is not easy to watch as subordinates are not quite up to the level of their superiors.

Even if this is true, acting alone can only carry one so far; generally, not nearly as far as one needs to go. It was Moshe’s father-in-law Yitro who first taught Moshe this crucial lesson. “[You will] stumble [and] stumble [some more], both you and the people who are with you, because it is too heavy; you will be unable to do it alone” (Shemot 18:18). It was based on this advice that Moshe established a court system, enabling him to focus much of his time on other pressing issues.

Interestingly, we do not hear of Moshe’s father-in-law again until Parshat Beha’alotcha when Moshe, appreciating his worldly insight, pleads with him to accompany the Jewish people as they prepare to enter the land of Israel. The Torah does not tell us if Moshe was ultimately successful in convincing his father-in-law to stay. Rather, the Torah goes on to detail dissension, complaints and bickering. Moshe, using almost the exact phraseology of his father-in-law, tells G-d, “I am unable to carry the people alone, because it is too heavy for me” (Bamidbar 11:15).

And in another striking parallel, G-d tells Moshe to gather 70 elders to assist him; this foreshadowed the Sanhedrin, who would lead, guide and unite the people. Moshe had apparently learned well.

Perhaps with this background, we can better understand the story behind the cryptic remark, “And Miriam and Aharon began speaking against Moshe because of the Kushite women he had taken” (Bamidbar 12:1). It is very difficult to understand why these faithful servants of G-d and partners of Moshe would suddenly speak evil against their brother. Miriam’s love and concern for her brother was unparalleled, and it was Moshe who pleaded with G-d to save Aaron from death after his role in the episode of the golden calf. We are not told who the Kushite women is; the commentaries debate whether the Torah is referring to Tziporah, Yitro’s daughter (and the only wife the Torah describes Moshe as marrying), or some other unnamed woman.

Even more perplexing is the placement of the story. We are not told when Moshe married this woman, and it seems rather unlikely that it happened at this juncture, in the desert. In contrast to the plain meaning of the verse, our sages understood that the Torah is actually not describing Moshe’s marriage; it describes his separation from Tziporah. G-d‘s defence of Moshe—that He speaks with Moshe face-to-face—is understood as the reasoning behind Moshe’s inability to lead a normal married life; he must always be ready for a rendezvous with G-d. But the story need not have been interpreted that way.

Our sages understood that the greatest and most important partner a person can have is a spouse. It is in our spouses we confide, and from them that we gain strength to deal with the challenges of life. If Moshe could not do it alone, surely he would need a most supportive wife! If Miriam and Aharon are being critical, our rabbis assert that it must be because Moshe was doing the exact opposite. Why, they wondered, would someone who just complained that he could not do it alone separate himself from his wife?

This line of reasoning would normally have been true, but in this particular case there were extenuating circumstances. Moshe was married to G-d, and he could not have a “normal” life. Miriam and Aharon had made a crucial but honest mistake, and the entire camp waited for them to recover from the tzara’at with which they had been afflicted before journeying on. This was an honour to these great leaders, but also a warning and rebuke of the dangers of speaking about others without knowing all the facts, something that is next to impossible to know.

Moshe himself had made a similar mistake when he had proclaimed to G-d that he should not go and try to redeem the Jewish people from Egypt, as “they will not believe me” (Shemot 4:1). The Torah's respose is clear; "And the people believed" (Shemot 4:31). Moshe, too, was stricken with tzara’at.

One cannot do it alone. Yet having the wrong partner is worse than having none at all. The Miriam story is immediately followed by the tragic story of the meraglim. Despite the best efforts at choosing men of great stature, the mission was a disaster.

Only Moshe could fully partner with G-d. We are to partner with G-d’s partners. May we choose wisely.