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Marrying the Kushite woman

At the end of parshat Beha’alotcha we find a mysterious and puzzling narrative. Its first three verses don’t seem to follow on from each other at all:

1. And Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Kushite woman whom he had married; for he had married a Kushite woman. 2. And they said, Has the Lord indeed spoken only by Moses? has he not spoken also by us? And the Lord heard it. 3. And the man Moses was very humble, more than any other men which were upon the face of the earth.

I am intrigued by verses 1 and 2 and the disconnect between them. We need to ask at least a couple of questions:

- What is the complaint here? Is it that Moses has married a Kushite woman (and if so, what is the problem with that?)

- What are Miriam and Aaron trying to say in verse 2 and what does that have to do with the Kushite woman?

The Midrash, Rashi and others suggest a non-literal interpretation – the complaint was that Moses had separated from his wife Tzipporah, and his siblings felt that that this was unnecessary and inappropriate. They too were prophets and yet had not separated themselves thus. This approach adequately explains the connection between the two verses, but it deviates from the plain meaning of the first verse: that Moses indeed married a Kushite woman.

Obviously if we follow the plain meaning, this in and of itself raises questions, such as: Where did he meet this woman? and: Why did he marry her? Rashbam and Daat zekenim quote a work called Divrei Hayamim LeMoshe Rabbenu, that somewhere between age 40 and 80, Moses married an Ethiopian queen (though he did not sleep with her. See further discussion of this interpretation here).

Daat zekenim goes on to explain the second verse as follows: They protested: “Was Moses so proud, because G-d spoke to him face to face, that he married out of the tribe? We (Miriam and Aaron) also had G-d speak to us, and we did not marry out of the tribe.”


I’d like to suggest an alternative reading. Unlike Miriam and Aaron, who grew up in amongst the Israelites in Egypt, Moses grew up in Pharaoh’s palace as a non-Jew. He then fled to Midian, lived once again among non-Jews, and married Tzipporah, daughter of an idol-worshipping priest (as Yitro was then). Moses spent his life among those who were other to him, and was familiar and comfortable with that. Thus, when G-d chose him to receive prophecy on a level never before or since attained, and to give the Torah through him – making him the ultimate Other, a human being with an experience he cannot share with any other person – he already had the inner kli (vessel) prepared and available to contain such a role.

Miriam and Aaron in all their greatness did not have this kind of vessel. Their protest derived from a lack of understanding of the greatness of Moses, who could be the leader of a people to which he was, in some regards, other. They saw him breaking the rules, and thought it was due to hubris in being spoken to G-d; but it was not. Hence verse 3, clarifying for us: No, Moses was humble.

In fact, if I can be bold enough as to take the Kushite woman as a metaphor, but in a different way than the Midrash does, and without meaning to be racist but simply to take the Tanach on its own terms and in its own context: the Kushite is a symbol of the quintessential Other, in that he is dark-skinned and exotic. When Moses marries the Kushite woman, he is embracing (“marrying”) his otherness to the full – perhaps accepting fully, finally, that he will never be just like everyone else, or like anyone else. Perhaps Miriam and Aaron sensed this and could not bear to fully, finally accept the separation from him that this would entail, as their younger brother whom they saved from death in the river.

- With thanks to Dan Goldblatt, through whose Bibliodrama session I arrived at this insight: Tammuz 5773