Friday, June 12, 2020

Behaalosecha: Moshe’s Mysterious Marriage

For an response to the view of Ibn Kaspi as presented in this post, see Rabbi Yaakov Trachtman's enlightening article Moshe's Disguised Divorce - a Response to Ibn Caspi.

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Artwork: Autumn's Veil, by Kekai Kotaki

Behaalosecha: Moshe's Mysterious Marriage

The Question 

Parashas Behaalosecha marks the turning point in Sefer Bamidbar from the hopeful to the nopeful.[1] Bnei Yisrael are marching towards Eretz Yisrael with the Ark of Hashem in their midst, poised to bring the Redemption from Egypt to a close with the establishment of a Torah society in the land promised to Avraham, Yitzchak, and Yaakov. Then tragedy strikes. A series of missteps by the nation and by individuals culminates in the sin of the spies, resulting in 40 years of wandering the Wilderness, and the death of the generation that left Egypt. 

Our parashah concludes with one such misstep: the sin of Miriam and Aharon. The sin itself is recorded in a single pair of pesukim (verses): 

Miriam and Aharon spoke about Moshe regarding the matter of the Kushite [2] woman that he married, for he had married a Kushite woman. They said, “Was it only to Moshe that Hashem spoke? Didn’t He also speak with us?” and Hashem heard. (Bamidbar 12:1-2). 

What, exactly, happened here is murky, to say the least. We are told that Miriam and Aharon spoke about Moshe “regarding the matter of the Kushite woman that he married” – yet, the statement attributed to them is entirely about prophecy, as is Hashem’s focus when He subsequently reprimands them. What does this have to do with “the matter of the Kushite woman that he married”? Furthermore, how are we to understand the seemingly redundant phrase “for he had married a Kushite woman”? What is this intended to add or explain? 

But perhaps the most basic question of all is: Who is this Kushite woman? She is not identified by name and is not mentioned anywhere else in Tanach. This is the question we will focus on. We will not aim to explain the sin of Miriam and Aharon in full. Instead, we will focus on the three methodological approaches taken by the commentators. 

A survey of the commentators reveals that there are essentially two camps. One camp maintains that the Kushite woman is Tziporah, the daughter of Yisro whom Moshe married in his youth after fleeing Egypt as a fugitive. The second camp maintains that the Kushite is some other woman, aside from Tziporah. 

Camp “Tziporah” 

According to the Tziporah camp, there are two questions which must be addressed. The first question is: Why is she called “the Kushite woman”? After all, Tziporah has been mentioned by name three times prior to this incident. Why not call her by name here? The second question is: Why is she called “the Kushite woman” if she was, in fact, not Kushite, but Midianite? 

Onkelos, the Aramaic translator of the Torah, often deviates from a literal translation of the Hebrew in order to address certain issues in the pshat (straightforward meaning of the verse). In this case he is bothered enough by our questions that he makes two rather radical changes. 

Original Hebrew: Miriam and Aharon spoke about Moshe regarding the matter of the Kushite woman that he married, for he had married a Kushite woman. 

Onkelos’s Aramaic: Miriam and Aharon spoke about Moshe regarding the matter of the beautiful woman that he married, for the beautiful woman he married he [subsequently] abandoned. 

Rashi, following Onkelos’s lead, answers both of our questions by explaining that “Kushite” is a euphemism for Tziporah’s beauty – either her physical beauty or the beauty of her deeds. How does “Kushite” function as a euphemism? Rashi explains: “just as the skin-color of a Kushite is universally acknowledged, so too was Tziporah’s beauty universally acknowledged.” [3] Apparently, it was deemed uncouth, immodest, or somehow inappropriate to explicitly speak about Tziporah’s beauty – hence the need for circumlocution. Rashi adds that the gematria (numerical value) of the word “Kushite” equals that of the phrase “beautiful appearance.” 

Onkelos maintains that the phrase “for he had married a Kushite woman” actually means that Moshe “abandoned the beautiful woman he had married.” It is unclear whether “abandoned” means that Moshe separated from Tziporah, or whether he actually divorced her. The question is: How did Miriam know that Moshe separated from Tziporah, and why was she talking about this now? Rashi [4], citing a midrash of Chazal [5], fills us in with the backstory: 

From where did Miriam know that Moshe separated from his wife? Rebbi Nosson says: Miriam was next to Tziporah at the time when it was said to Moshe: “Eldad and Medad are prophesying in the camp!” (Bamidbar 11:27). Upon hearing this, Tziporah exclaimed: “Woe unto the wives of these [men] once they are needed for prophecy, for they will have to separate from their wives in the same way that my husband separated from me!” From there Miriam knew [about Tziporah’s separation from Moshe] and told it to Aharon. And if Miriam didn’t intend to degrade Moshe and was punished thus, kal va’chomer (all the more so) one who speaks in order to degrade his friend! 

There you have it: “Camp Tziporah” answers our questions by positing that “the Kushite woman” is Tziporah, by explaining “for he had married a Kushite woman” to be a veiled reference to their separation, and by filling in the back-story explaining why Moshe and Tziporah separated and why Miriam only brought this up now. 

Camp “Other Woman” 

The Rashbam is known for his pshat explanations. He rarely cites midrash and prefers to answer questions conservatively, based on the principles of Hebrew grammar and the information provided in the text. It is not surprising that he rejects Rashi’s midrashic explanation. What is surprising is that he bases his answer on an obscure “outside text” entitled Divrei ha’Yamim Shel Moshe Rabbeinu (loosely translated as The Moses Chronicles in English). 

This non-canonical text is controversial, to say the least. Those who hold by its authenticity, such as the Rashbam, treat it as a historical account of “the missing years” of Moshe’s life which are not recorded in the Torah. Those who question or reject its authenticity, such as the Ibn Ezra [6], treat it as little more than “Moshe Rabbeinu fan-fiction,” and regard it as worthless. 

Nevertheless, the Rashbam [7] cites this text to explain who Moshe married, supporting his answer with the second question we raised on the position of Camp Tziporah: 

It is written in The Chronicles of Moshe Rabbeinu that he ruled as king in Ethiopia for 40 years and married an [Ethiopian] queen but didn’t sleep with her, as it is written there – but [Miriam and Aharon] didn’t know when they spoke about [Moshe] that he didn’t sleep with her. This is the essential pshat, for if they were speaking about Tziporah, what need was there to explain “for he married a Kushite woman”? Did they not know until now that Tziporah was a Midianite? Another objection is as follows: she wasn’t Kushite! Kush was one of the suns of Cham, but Midian was one of the children of Keturah who was descended from Avraham. 

Unlike Rashi, the Rashbam does not elaborate on why Miriam saw fit to bring this up to Aharon now, nor does he explain why the subsequent dialogue focuses on prophecy rather than on Moshe’s marriage to this Ethiopian queen (whom the Torah doesn’t bother to mention). 

But there is another pshat commentator who answers our question based on the text, and he has quite a lot to say. I am speaking of R’ Yosef ibn Kaspi. Allow me to preface my citation of his commentary with a confession: the whole reason I wrote this article was as an excuse to bring up this excerpt from ibn Kaspi’s commentary. It is one of the most scathing indictments of Rashi’s midrashic approach that I have ever encountered. My jaw dropped as I read it. 

Here is a full translation of what ibn Kaspi had to say, with my own paragraph divisions: 

I am astounded by the early [commentators], who were all more perfect than I am – I who couldn’t even reach their heel. How did they always fall into their own imagination, explaining the Torah to be the opposite of what is written, whether by substituting one word for the opposite word, or adding words with the opposite meanings? 

I am referring to the well-known commentary of Onkelos, about whom the Rambam said, “Onkelos ha’Ger was a great chacham (wise man)!” From where did [Onkelos] get the idea to explain “Kushite” as “beautiful,” [two words] which are as opposite as black and white? [8]

Furthermore, where did he get the idea to add opposite words after “for he married a Kushite woman” as though it was written in the Torah that “the Kushite woman he married he [subsequently] abandoned” or “distanced himself from.” If this were the intent of the Giver of the Torah, why didn’t He write this, and why did He write its opposite? 

Furthermore, who permitted us to do this? Who gave Onkelos so much power, or the Sages of the Talmud, or the Ibn Ezra – all of whom agree on this? Why can’t we do something like this, each man doing what is upright in his own eyes, to the point where we invert, “and you shall love Hashem, your God” to say – God forbid – “you shall hate Hashem, your God,” or “the one whom Hashem loves to “the one whom He hates.” 

And if you’ll say, “The Torah was received at Sinai and transmitted to Yehoshua, who taught us [as part of the] Oral Torah that this is the explanation of this verse” – the answer is what we responded to the initial claim: Why wasn’t the matter written out as it actually was, rather than writing a word which has the opposite meaning? Is the substitution of a word for its opposite worthy of being called an “explanation”? Rather, an “explanation” is what we call something which explains the words in accordance with their meaning in some way, as [the Sages] explained, “you shall not kindle a fire,” and “you shall not eat over the blood” with deep explanations which fit into what is written, and which certainly do not reverse its meaning. Anything other than this we call “an exchange” or “a reversal” or “an erasure” or “a revision” or “an uprooting.” And this is true in every language whatsoever. [According to the approach of Onkelos et al.,] why shouldn’t we say that “Hashem took you” really means “[Hashem] abandoned [you]”? Similarly, “he and his neighbor should take [can be interpreted to mean, “he and his neighbor should leave]. What advantage is there of this over this? 

As Hashem lives, this method – which is unanimously accepted by all of the early Sages, the pillars of the world and of faith and of strength to the Torah of Moshe – is so beyond me that I cannot accept it. God forbid I should do something like this, [which would be tantamount to] completely abandoning the Torah of Moshe and believing that a New Testament was made – God forbid! 

Let us pause here to process the ibn Kaspi’s objection to the approach taken by Onkelos, Rashi, and Chazal. He vehemently objects to those commentators who “interpret” the term “Kushite” as “beautiful,” based on his premise that the two terms are opposites. He refuses to accept the notion that this explanation is “part of the Oral Torah,” and he is so dedicated to the pshat that he implicitly equates the midrashic explanation to pledging allegiance to a New Testament! To be fair, his objection is not to midrash per se, but to midrashic explanations which go against the plain meaning of the text. This will be apparent from what follows. 

After this diatribe, he offers his own explanation: 

Therefore I say that the explanation of what is written here is according to what is necessarily understood from the Hebrew language, namely, that “Kushite” means a woman from the Land of Kush, and the meaning of “because he L.K.CH. [9] a Kushite woman” is that he took her [in marriage], for this is the explanation of the root L.K.CH. as opposed to A’.Z.V. All of this [is based on] the conventional use of the language. 

Accordingly, after Moshe married Tziporah, he married a Kushite woman in addition to Tziporah for a reason that he (peace be upon him) knew. One shouldn’t question the motives of his actions, for he undoubtedly did this out of wisdom. We don’t know the time period in which he married her, whether now when they were traveling or beforehand, because this hadn’t been mentioned in the Torah until this point, just as the Torah didn’t record many of the events that transpired. 

Because this wasn’t mentioned until now, then in order [that the reader] not be confused when it said “regarding the Kushite woman he married,” which we haven’t ever heard about, it said after this, “for he married a Kushite woman” – as if to say, “you should know that he married a Kushite woman, even though this hasn’t been mentioned yet, and this is what [Miriam and Aharon] were speaking about.” 

Because the reason for this additional marriage was hidden from them – perhaps Tziporah fell ill, or maybe she disobeyed him, or maybe it was some other reason we don’t know, or maybe they knew her reason, but they didn’t know [his] secret and the wisdom in this – therefore, they spoke about Moshe’s marriage to an additional wife, because one wife should have been enough for this perfected person. 

To summarize: ibn Kaspi maintains that Moshe married an ethnically Kushite woman in addition to Tziporah for reasons that were unknown to Miriam and Aharon, and undisclosed to us. The seemingly redundant phrase “for he had married a Kushite woman” is intended to validate the reader’s confusion upon learning of this fact, as if to say, “yes, this is a thing Moshe did, even though the Torah didn’t mention it until now.” 

Ibn Kaspi then goes on to explain the connection between Miriam’s statement and the subsequent discussion of prophecy. Miriam and Aharon reasoned that they were on a high enough level of prophecy to be “let in” on Moshe’s reasons for his unconventional decision to take a second wife. Because they overestimated the level of their own prophecy in relation to that of their brother, Hashem rebuked them and explained just how categorically superior Moshe’s prophecy was. And as for the “secret” reasons behind Moshe’s second marriage, Hashem’s silence on the matter indicates that it was really none of their business. 

Methodological Take-aways 

We have seen three approaches taken by the commentators to these two cryptic pesukim

(1) Onkelos and Rashi opt for a midrashic explanation which neatly answers all of the questions and fills in the gaps with an elaborate narrative. The weakness of this approach is that it puts a heavy strain on a literal reading of the text. 

(2) Rashbam rejects the midrashic approach and explains the text by making recourse to an outside source. The benefit of this approach is that it supplies us with missing information. This approach is very similar to the academic method employed by modern day Bible scholars. The weakness of this approach lies in the credibility of his source. Moreover, according to the Rashbam, what did Hashem intend for the reader of Torah to make of this episode? Did He expect everyone to have read The Chronicles of Moses

(3) Ibn Kaspi also rejects the midrashic approach – not only as false, but as a perversion of God’s word and the Hebrew language. Instead, he relies exclusively on the literal meaning of the text and conservatively infers a larger narrative from the minimal information provided in the pesukim. The downside of this approach is that it completely rejects the wisdom offered in the midrashic literature. 

Each of these three approaches has its pros and cons. Students of Chumash will likely be drawn towards one approach or the other. I, myself, favor the third, but recognize the value – and sometimes, the necessity – of the other two. 

This multiplicity of approaches is part of what makes the study of Chumash such an enjoyable and rich experience. 

[1] I began writing this article on two hours of sleep, and the conclusion of this first sentence was the amusing result. I was going to change it, but my friends convinced me to leave it in – perhaps as a memorial to my folly. 
[2] The word “Kushite” is traditionally translated as “Ethiopian,” but is often used to refer to people from sub-Saharan Egypt, in general. 
[3] Talmud Bavli, Moed Katan 16b 
[4] Rabbeinu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Bamidbar 12:1 
[5] Midrash Tanchuma, Tzav 13 
[6] Rabbeinu Avraham ibn Ezra, Long Commentary on Sefer Shemos 4:20 
[7] Rabbeinu Shlomo ben Meir (Rashbam), Commentary on Sefer Bamidbar 12:1 
[8] This statement will undoubtedly strike the modern reader as strange, inappropriate, or false. Others will deem it to be offensive, racist, and condemnable. Like it or not, the fact of the matter is that certain Rishonim (medieval commentators) regarded Kushites as unattractive, and maintained that the same aesthetic valuation was held by the figures in Tanach whose words and actions they aimed to decipher. Whether Miriam and Aharon actually found Kushites to be unattractive is a question for the historians and anthropologists. Our task as students of these Rishonim is to set aside our personal views in an attempt to understand what insight these commentators intended to convey through their explanations, regardless of whether or not we agree with the premises on which these explanations were based. (I would like to thank the members of the Facebook group “Orthodox Jews Against Discrimination and Racism” for reviewing this footnote to ensure that it was worded in a sensitive manner.) 
[9] Here the Ibn Kaspi actually spells out each letter of the three-letter root – presumably for snark value.

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