This week’s parasha, Vayera, begins with Abraham being visited by a trio of angels. Jewish tradition holds that these angels were Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael. The Ba’al HaTurim (Rabbi Yakov ben Asher, c. 1269-1343)—famous for his numerological commentary—points out that the words “And behold three…” (והנה שלשה), referring to the three angels, has the same gematria (701) as “these are Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael” (אלו מיכאל גבריאל ורפאל).
Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo ben Itzchak, 1040-1105) comments that each angel came for a specific mission: Michael to bless Abraham and Sarah with news of their impending child; Gabriel to destroy Sodom (which happens right after in the Torah); and Raphael to heal Abraham from his circumcision (which happened just before). The root of Gabriel is gevurah, “strength” or “restraint”, which is why Gabriel often appears in difficult situations, or acts of destruction. The root of Raphael is refuah, “healing”, so he appears whenever a recovery is required. Michael is the guardian angel of Israel, as we read explicitly in Daniel 12:1.
These three angels regularly appear together. They were originally depicted as the highest of the angels in the Heavens. Later mystical literature would place others above them (namely Metatron). Still, the trio of Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael remain the most well-known. What else do we know about them?
Michael: Priest and Saviour
In one mystical passage, the Talmud (Chagigah 12b) outlines the Seven Heavens. The first is called Vilon (“curtain”) and simply refers to the atmosphere stretching over the Earth like a curtain. This is the place of clouds and weather, serving no particular spiritual purpose. Then comes the Rakia, the vast realm beyond Earth’s atmosphere that includes the Sun, moon, and all the stars and planets, ie. outer space. The third Heaven is called Shechakim, which we learn from other sources is the interface between this physical universe and the spiritual realms beyond. The Sages sometimes metaphorically describe it as being composed of millstones, or slabs of pure marble. The Talmud says this is the source of the manna that the Israelites ate in the Wilderness.
The fifth, sixth, and seventh Heavens are called Ma’on, Machon, and Aravot, but it is the fourth Heaven that is of particular interest for the present discussion. Here one will find the illustrious Yerushalaim shel Ma’alah, the Heavenly Jerusalem, a spiritual version of the Jerusalem below. Mirroring the one on Earth, there is a Temple up there, too, and there it is Michael who serves as High Priest.
Michael also serves as “Prince of Israel” and our Heavenly Guardian. In this role, he stands opposite Samael, the Heavenly “Accuser” who seeks to harm Israel. Hence, Michael stands at the gates of Heaven, admitting the righteous and guiding their souls. Similarly, he was Israel’s guide during their forty years in the Wilderness, being identified with the “angel that will go before you” (Exodus 23:20, 32:34), as God has promised (Midrash haNe’elam, Beresheet 2).
Naturally, Michael is a great saviour for the Jews. It was he who saved Abraham from the fiery furnace (Beresheet Rabbah 44:16), and protected Sarah when she was abducted by Avimelech (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer 26). In one intriguing Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Beresheet 134), we learn that Michael saved the baby that was born from Dinah’s rape by Shechem. Michael took the baby to Egypt, into the care of a wealthy childless couple. That wealthy man was Potiphar, and the adopted baby was Osnat, future wife of Joseph.
Gabriel and the Founding of Rome
When it comes to Joseph, it was Gabriel that helped him throughout his journey. According to the Talmud (Sotah 36b), Gabriel taught Joseph overnight (or perhaps “uploaded” into his brain) knowledge of the seventy languages, which allowed him to become viceroy of Egypt. Gabriel also taught Joseph all of the esoteric mystical wisdom of the Torah (while Raphael taught the same wisdom to Isaac; see Ravad on Sefer Yetzirah).
The Talmud credits Gabriel with setting the foundations of Ancient Rome (Shabbat 56b). This happened on the very same day that King Solomon married an Egyptian princess. Although Solomon’s intensions were certainly good, his many marriages spiralled out of control, and ultimately led to his downfall. In poetic fashion, King Solomon first builds Jerusalem’s Temple, and simultaneously sows the seeds of its destruction, for Rome would go on to destroy Jerusalem’s Temple for good, ushering in an endless exile which we are still in.
Interestingly, archaeologists have found coins bearing images depicting this version on Rome’s founding. The coins show a divine being of some sort planting reeds in the Tiber River to set the foundations of the “eternal city”, just as the Talmud describes. These coins were minted in the time of Emperor Antoninus Pius. This is most fitting, since the Talmud tells us that a Roman emperor named Antoninus was good friends with Rabbi Yehudah haNasi, and the two engaged in many philosophical discussions.
Coins minted by Emperor Antoninus depicting the founding of Rome.
Guardians and Healers
Gabriel, too, is a guardian angel. It was Gabriel that saved baby Moses when he floated down the Nile and was discovered by Pharaoh’s daughter (Sotah 12b). It was Gabriel that helped Mordechai and made sure the miraculously “coincidental” events of Purim took place (Megillah 16a). An alternate tradition has Gabriel saving Abraham from the fiery flames, not Michael (Pesachim 118a). And Gabriel will play a key role in the final events of the End of Days (Bava Batra 74b-75a).
Unlike Michael and Gabriel, we know very little about Raphael. While there are few traditional rabbinic sources, apocryphal texts shed a little more light: The Book of Jubilees (10:10-14) has Raphael teaching all the secrets of medicine and healing to Noah. Apparently, Noah wrote it all in a book, and passed it down to his beloved son Shem. (This may be the same “Book of Remedies” that was hidden away by King Hezekiah, as described in Pesachim 56a). The Book of Enoch (10:4-6) holds that Raphael was the one who defeated and bound the fallen angel Azazel.
The Zohar comments on this week’s parasha that Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael correspond to the mystical Sefirot of Chessed (“Kindness”), Gevurah (“Restraint”), and Tiferet (“Beauty”), respectively. Elsewhere (on parashat Ekev), the Zohar tells us that Israel has three guardian angels: Michael, Gabriel, and Nuriel. The acronym for these three angelic names is magen (מגן), “shield”. This is the secret meaning behind the word magen, which we often invoke in our prayers.
The Sefirot of mochin above (in blue) and the Sefirot of the middot below (in red) on the mystical “Tree of Life”.
The earlier Sefer HaBahir (ch. 108), one of the most ancient of Kabbalistic texts, states that God has three major camps of angels. The one on the right is led by Michael, the one of the left by Gabriel, and the one in the middle by, not Raphael or Nuriel, but Uriel. Here on Earth, however, God had appointed four angels to watch over the four Israelite camps in the Wilderness: Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, and Uriel (Bamidbar Rabbah 2:10). The Arizal has the last word, bringing together a variety of sources to describe seven major angels, corresponding to the seven lower Sefirot, or Middot: Michael, Gabriel, Raphael, Uriel, Nuriel, Akatriel, and Metatron (see, for example, Sha’ar HaGilgulim, ch. 39). All of these serve as Heavenly princes and guardians of Israel.
Abraham’s Journey to Canaan, by Jozsef Molnar (1850)
After two parashas that span the first two millennia of civilization, the Torah shifts its focus to the origins of Israel and the Jewish people starting with, of course, Abraham. Abraham is probably most famous for something that he actually isn’t: being the first monotheist. Noah was a monotheist long before Abraham, as was Noah’s son Shem, who was already a priest of the one Supreme God (El Elyon, as in Genesis 14:18). In Jewish tradition, it is said that Shem established the first yeshiva, and the patriarchs studied there. Was Abraham the first monotheist? No, but he is described as being the first person to actively preach monotheism to the world. He took it upon himself to crusade against idolatry—and the immoral behaviours that went with it.
Some of our Sages also state that Abraham invented the concept of a positive mitzvah. This means drawing closer to God not by abstinence and asceticism but through acts of kindness and the performance of physical actions. For this reason, the gematria of “Abraham” (אברהם) is 248, equal to the number of positive commandments in the Torah. Not surprisingly, Abraham is well-known for his legendary hospitality, his great compassion, and his ceaseless efforts on behalf of his fellow man.
Jewish tradition describes Abraham’s house as having a front door on each side so that guests wouldn’t have to look for the entrance. Meals were always on the house, as long as the guest was willing to thank God for it. Of his compassion, we read in the Torah how Abraham questioned God before the destruction of Sodom, seeking to exonerate the people despite their cruelty (Genesis 18). In this week’s parasha, Lech Lecha, we read of all the “souls that they had made” (Genesis 12:5), the countless people that Abraham and Sarah inspired and brought closer to God. In fact, the Meshekh Chokhmah (of Rabbi Meir Simcha of Dvinsk) on Genesis 33:18 states that Abraham later migrated to Egypt specifically because it was the capital of idolatry and impurity at the time, and Abraham wished to bring some light to that dark place.
What else do we know about Abraham? Extra-Biblical texts reveal some intriguing details in the life of Judaism’s first patriarch.
There are three major opinions as to when Abraham came to know God. The Talmud (Nedarim 32a) holds that he first recognized his Creator when he was three years old. This is deduced from Genesis 26:5, where God says Abraham had “listened to My voice”, ekev asher shama Avraham b’koli. The term “ekev” (עקב) has a numerical value of 172, and since we know Abraham lived 175 years, we learn that Abraham had listened to God’s voice for 172 of them, starting at age 3.
The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204), meanwhile, writes in his Mishneh Torah that Abraham came to know God at age 40 (Hilkhot Avodat Kochavim 1:3). A more commonly-held view is that Abraham came to know God at age 52. This is based on the Talmudic statement that history is divided into three eras: the first 2000 years being the era of “chaos”, the next 2000 years being the era of Torah, and the final 2000 years being the era of Mashiach (Avodah Zarah 9a). Since we know that Abraham was born in the Hebrew year 1948, and the era of Torah started in the year 2000, Abraham must have been 52 when he came to know God.
One way to reconcile these three opinions is as follows: Abraham first realized there must be one God when he was three years old. By age 40, he was ready to begin his life’s work, and set forth in preaching his message. This got him into a lot of trouble, for which he was imprisoned, and ultimately sentenced to death. The Talmud (Bava Batra 91a) clarifies that he was imprisoned for 10 years. Then came the day of his execution. Abraham was thrown into the flames of Ur Kasdim when he was 52, and at this point God actually revealed Himself to Abraham for the first time, miraculously saving him from death. Therefore, there are those who say it wasn’t God who chose Abraham, but Abraham who chose God.
Abraham was already preaching long before he received any kind of prophecy or communication from Hashem. He logically deduced there must be one Creator to this world, and recognized the folly of idolatry on his own. He then took it upon himself to teach this truth, despite never having “heard” anything from God, or being summoned to do so. God chose him precisely because of this incredible initiative. We learn this explicitly from Genesis 18:19, where God says:
For I have known him, that he commands his children and his household after him, that they should keep the way of God, to do righteousness and justice; therefore God brings upon Abraham that which He has spoken of him.
God chose Abraham because he was already teaching others to be more Godly! At age 52, the God that Abraham had been preaching about for so long finally revealed Himself, in miraculous fashion. This sets off a new 2000-year era, that of Torah and prophecy, spanning from Abraham until the times of Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, who compiled the Mishnah, thus putting the Oral Torah in writing for the first time.
Abraham the Kabbalist
The Talmud (Bava Batra 91a) states that Abraham was world-famous for being an unparalleled astrologer and healer. According to tradition, he was also a great mystic. It is believed that he authored, or in some other way originated, Sefer Yetzirah, the “Book of Formation”, one of the most ancient Kabbalistic text. The book explains how God fashioned the universe through the Hebrew letters. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 67a) suggests that mastery of this text would allow the mystic to create ex nihilo, out of nothing, and such was done by Rav Oshaya and Rav Chanina every Friday afternoon. These two rabbis would create a chunk of veal, and make a barbecue!
‘Abraham and the Three Angels’ by James Tissot
It appears the same was done by Abraham. We read in Genesis 18:7 that when the angels visited him, Abraham hastened to “make” a calf, v’imaher la’asot oto. The Malbim (Rabbi Meir Leibush Wisser, 1809-1879) comments on the Torah’s strange choice of verb by stating that Abraham literally created a calf through the wisdom of Sefer Yetzirah. This is why, he explains, the next verse has Abraham serving butter and milk. It is unthinkable that Abraham would serve veal with dairy—an explicit Torah prohibition—unless the veal was of his own creation, and was therefore not real meat that once had a soul. Abraham may have been the first person to serve vegan burgers.
Where did Abraham get this wisdom? According to one tradition, the angel Raziel (literally “God’s secret”) taught these mysteries to Adam. Adam passed it down to his son Seth, and onward it went down to Noah, then to his son Shem. Midrashic texts have Shem teaching Abraham, circumcising Abraham (Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 29), and even ordaining Abraham as a priest (Midrash Aggadah, Genesis 14:19).
Alternatively, Abraham received mystical knowledge on his own. Kabbalah implies something “received”, and is often seen as being conferred directly by the Heavens to those who are worthy. In his commentary on Sefer Yetzirah, the Ravad (Rabbi Avraham ben David, c. 1125-1198) lists the names of the angels that taught our patriarchs this mystical wisdom:
The master of Shem was Yofiel. The master of Abraham was Tzidkiel. The master of Isaac was Raphael. The master of Yakov was Peliel. The master of Yosef was Gabriel. The master of Moshe Rabbeinu was Metatron. The master of Elijah was U’maltiel. Each of these angels passed down Kabbalah to his disciple, whether through a book or orally, in order to enlighten him, and to inform him of future events.
According to the Book of Jubilees (12:25), Abraham was also taught Hebrew directly from Heaven. It had been lost following the Great Dispersion of the Tower of Babel. Now, the Holy Tongue was restored. Of course, it wouldn’t have been possible for Abraham to learn Kabbalah and the mysticism of Sefer Yetzirah without knowledge of Hebrew, upon which it is all based. Interestingly, the Book of Jubilees (11:6) also paints Abraham as a great engineer. He first became famous for inventing a seed-scattering device attached directly to a plow, as well as a method for keeping birds from eating the seeds of farmers.
The Torah tells us that at the end of his life, Abraham gave over his entire inheritance to Isaac, his rightful heir, but left various matanot, “gifts”, for his other children (Genesis 25:6). He then sent those other children eastward, to live outside the borders of Israel, so that it would be clear that the Holy Land belongs solely to Isaac and his descendants. What were these gifts? The Sages state that these were kernels of mystical wisdom to take with them. Some say this was white magic, and others black magic. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 91a) associates it with impure wisdom of some sort. Many see in these gifts the mystical wisdom that would give rise to the ancient religions of the Far East. So perhaps there is a connection after all between the Hindu concept of Brahman—and the Hindu priestly caste of Brahmins—with the name Abraham.
While Abraham is generally seen as a forefather—whether biological or spiritual—of Jews, Christians, and Muslims, he is also a forefather of many other nations through his many other children that we often forget about (see Genesis 25). Our Sages say he is called “Avraham” because he is av hamon goyim, the father of a multitude of nations. He might very well be the father of all the world’s major religions, too.
“Death of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram” by Gustave Doré
This week’s parasha is named after Korach, the rebellious cousin of Moses. Korach felt he had been unfairly slighted. Moses had apparently made himself like a king over the people, then appointed his brother Aaron as high priest. The final straw was appointing another cousin, the younger Elitzaphan, as chief of the Kohatites, a clan of Levites of which Korach was an elder. Where was Korach’s honour?
Korach’s co-conspirators were Datan and Aviram, leaders of the tribe of Reuben. They, too, felt like they’d been dealt a bad hand. After all, Reuben was the eldest son of Jacob, and as the firstborn among the tribes, should have been awarded the priesthood.
The Sages explain that Reuben indeed should have held the priesthood. Not only that, but as the firstborn, he should have also been the king. Reuben, however, had failed in preventing the sale of Joseph, and had also committed the unforgivable sin of “mounting his father’s bed”. For this latter crime especially, and for being “unstable like water”, Jacob declared that Reuben would “not excel” or live up to being “my first fruit, excelling in dignity, excelling in power” (Genesis 49:3-4).
Instead, the status of “firstborn” was awarded to Joseph, who had taken on the mantle of leadership and saved his entire family in a time of terrible drought. Jacob made Joseph the firstborn, and thus gave Joseph a double portion among the Tribes and in the land of Israel. He put Joseph’s sons Ephraim and Menashe in place of his own firsts Reuben and Shimon (Genesis 48:5). Meanwhile, the excellence of “dignity”—the priesthood—went to the third-born son, Levi, and the excellence of power—royalty—went to the fourth son, Judah. (The second-born Shimon was skipped over because he, too, had greatly disappointed his father in slaughtering the people of Shechem, as well as spearheading the attempt to get rid of Joseph.)
Levi merited to hold the priesthood because the Levites were the only ones not to participate in the Golden Calf incident (Exodus 32:26). The Book of Jubilees (ch. 32) adds a further reason: Jacob had promised to God that he would tithe everything God gave him (Genesis 28:22), and everything included his children. Jacob thus lined up his sons, and counted them from the youngest up. The tenth son, the tithe, was Levi (who was the third-oldest, or “tenth-youngest”, of the twelve). And so, Levi was designated for the priesthood, to the service of God.
Judah merited the royal line for his honesty and repentance—particularly for the sale of Joseph, and for the incident with Tamar. He further established his leadership in taking the reins to safely secure the return of Benjamin. The name Yehudah comes from the root which means “to acknowledge” and “to be thankful”. Judah acknowledged his sins and purified himself of them. Ultimately, all Jews would be Yehudim, the people who are dedicated to repentance and the acknowledgement and recognition of Godliness in the world. Much of a Jew’s life is centered on prayers and blessings, thanking God every moment of the day, with berakhot recited before just about every action. The title Yehudi is therefore highly appropriate to describe this people. Yet, it is not the only title.
Long before Yehudi, this people was known as Ivri, “Hebrew”, and then Israel. What is the meaning of these parallel names?
Hebrew: Ethnicity or Social Class?
The first time we see the term “Hebrew” is in Genesis 14:13, where Abraham (then still called Abram) is called HaIvri. The meaning is unclear. The Sages offer a number of interpretations. The plain meaning of the word seems to mean “who passes” or “who is from the other side”. It may refer to the fact that Abraham migrated from Babel to Charan, and then from Charan to the Holy Land. Or, it may be a metaphorical title, for Abraham “stood apart” from everyone else. While the world was worshipping idols and living immorally, Abraham was “on the other side”, preaching monotheism and righteousness.
An alternate approach is genealogical: Ever was the name of a great-grandson of Noah. Noah’s son Shem had a son named Arpachshad, who had a son named Shelach, who had a son named Ever (see Genesis 11). In turn, Ever was an ancestor of Abraham (Ever-Peleg-Reu-Serug-Nachor-Terach-Abraham). Thus, Abraham was called an Ivri because he was from the greater clan of Ever’s descendants. This must have been a powerful group of people recognized across the region, as attested to by Genesis 10:21, which makes sure to point out that Shem was the ancestor of “all the children of Ever”. Amazingly, archaeological evidence supports this very notion.
“Habiru” in ancient cuneiform
From the 18th century BCE, all the way until the 12th century BCE, historical texts across the Middle East speak of people known as “Habiru” or “Apiru”. The Sumerians described them as saggasu, “destroyers”, while other Mesopotamian and Egyptian texts describe them as mercenary warriors, slaves, rebels, nomads, or outlaws. Today, historians agree that “Habiru” refers to a social class of people that were somehow rejected or outcast from greater society. These were unwanted people that did not “fit in”. That would explain why Genesis 43:32 tells us that Joseph ate apart from the Egyptians, because “the Egyptians did not eat bread with the Hebrews; for that was an abomination to the Egyptians.”
One of the “Habiru” described in Egyptian texts are the “Shasu YHW” (Egyptian hieroglyphs above), literally “nomads of Hashem”. Scholars believe this is the earliest historical reference to the Tetragrammaton, God’s Ineffable Name, YHWH.
Defining “Hebrew” as an unwanted, migrating social class also solves a number of other issues. For example, Exodus 21:2 introduces the laws of an eved Ivri, “a Hebrew slave”. When many people read this passage, they are naturally disturbed, for it is unthinkable that God would permit a Jew to purchase another Jew as a slave. Yet, the Torah doesn’t say that this is a Jew at all, but an Ivri which, as we have seen, may refer to other outcasts from an inferior social class. The Habiru are often described as slaves or servants in the historical records of neighbouring peoples, so it appears that the Torah is actually speaking of these non-Jewish “Hebrews” that existed at the time. Regardless, the Torah shows a great deal of compassion for these wanderers, and sets limits for the length of their servitude (six years), while ensuring that they live in humane conditions.
Rebels and Mystics
Though he was certainly no slave or brigand, Abraham was undoubtedly a “rebel” in the eyes of the majority. To them, he was a “criminal”, too, as we read in the Midrash describing his arrest and trial by Nimrod the Babylonian king. Abraham spent much of his life wandering from one place to another, so the description of “nomad” works. So does “warrior”, for we read of Abraham’s triumphant military victory over an unstoppable confederation of four kings that devastated the entire region (Genesis 14). There is no doubt, then, that Abraham would have been classified as a “Habiru” in his day.
His descendants carried on the title. By the turn of the 1st millennium BCE, it seems that all the other Ivrim across the region had mostly disappeared, and only the descendants of Abraham, now known as the Israelites, remained. The term “Hebrew”, therefore, became synonymous with “Israelite” and later with Yehudi, “Judahite” or “Jew”. (This is probably why later commentators simply assumed that the Torah was speaking about Jewish slaves in the Exodus 21 passage discussed above.) To this day, in many cultures and languages the term for a “Jew” is still “Hebrew”. In Russian it is yivrei, in Italian it is ebreo, and in Greek evraios. In other cultures, meanwhile, “Hebrew” is used to denote the language of the Jews. It is Hebrew in English, hebräisch in German, hébreu in French.
In fact, another rabbinic theory for the origins of the term Ivri is that it refers specifically to the language. In Jewish tradition, Hebrew is lashon hakodesh, “the Holy Tongue” through which God created the universe when He spoke it into existence. The language contains those mystical powers, and because the wicked people of the Tower of Babel generation abused it, their tongues were confounded in the Great Dispersion. At that point, God divided the peoples into seventy new ethnicities, each with its own language, giving rise to the multitude of languages and dialects we have today.
A possible language tree to unify all of the world’s major tongues, based on the work of Stanford University Professor Joseph Greenberg. (Credit: angmohdan.com)
Hebrew did not disappear, though. It was retained by the two most righteous people of the time: Shem and Ever. According to tradition, they had built the first yeshiva, an academy of higher learning. Abraham had visited them there, and Jacob spent some fourteen years studying at their school. The Holy Tongue was preserved, and Jacob (who was renamed Israel) taught it to his children, and onwards it continued until it became the language of the Israelites.
Alternatively (or concurrently), Abraham learned the Hebrew language from his righteous grandfather Nachor, the great-grandson of Ever. We read of the elder Nachor (not to be confused with Nachor the brother of Abraham) that he had an uncharacteristically short lifespan for that time period (Genesis 11:24-25). This is likely because God took him away so that he wouldn’t have to live through the Great Dispersion. (Nachor would have died around the Hebrew year 1996, which is when the Dispersion occurred. The Sages similarly state that God took the righteous Methuselah, the longest-living person in the Torah, right before the Flood.)
Interestingly, we don’t see much of an association between the Hebrew language and the Hebrew people in the Tanakh. Instead, the language of the Jews is called, appropriately, Yehudit, as we read in II Kings 18:26-28, Isaiah 36:11-13, Nechemiah 13:24, and II Chronicles 32:18. The term Yehudit may be referring specifically to the dialect of Hebrew spoken by the southern people of Judah, which was naturally different than the dialect used in the northern Kingdom of Israel.
Israel and Jeshurun
The evidence leads us to believe that “Hebrew” was a wider social class in ancient times, and our ancestors identified themselves (or were identified by others) as “Hebrew”. This was the case until Jacob’s time. He was renamed Israel, and his children began to be referred to as Israelites, bnei Israel, literally the “children of Israel”. The twelve sons gave rise to an entire nation of people called Israel.
The Torah tells us that Jacob was named “Israel” because “he struggled with God, and with men, and prevailed” (Genesis 32:29). Jewish history really is little more than a long struggle of Israel with other nations, and with our God. We stray from His ways so He incites the nations against us to remind us who we are. Thankfully, throughout these difficult centuries, we have prevailed.
Within each Jew is a deep yearning to connect to Hashem, hinted to in the name Israel (ישראל), a conjunction of Yashar-El (ישר-אל), “straight to God”. This is similar to yet another name for the people of Israel that is used in the Tanakh: Yeshurun. In one place, Moses is described as “king of Yeshurun” (Deuteronomy 33:5), and in another God declares: “Fear not, Jacob my servant; Yeshurun, whom I have chosen.” (Isaiah 44:2) Yeshurun literally means “upright one”. This is what Israel is supposed to be, and why God chose us to begin with. “Israel” and “Yeshurun” have the same three-letter root, and many believe these terms were once interchangeable. The Talmud (Yoma 73b) states that upon the choshen mishpat—the special breastplate of the High Priest that contained a unique stone for each of the Twelve Tribes—was engraved not Shivtei Israel, “tribes of Israel”, but Shivtei Yeshurun, “tribes of Yeshurun”.
What is a Jew?
By the middle of the 1st century BCE, only the kingdom of the tribe of Judah remained. Countless refugees from the other eleven tribes migrated to Judah and intermingled with the people there. Then, Judah itself was destroyed, and everyone was exiled to Babylon. By the time they returned to the Holy Land—now the Persian province of Judah—the people were simply known as Yehudim, “Judahites”, or Jews. Whatever tribal origins they had were soon forgotten. Only the Levites (and Kohanim) held on to their tribal affiliation since it was necessary for priestly service.
As already touched on previously, it was no accident that it was particularly the name of Yehuda that survived. After all, the purpose of the Jewish people is to spread knowledge of God, and within the name Yehuda, יהודה, is the Ineffable Name of God itself. This name, like the people that carry it, is meant to be a vehicle for Godliness.
Perhaps this is why the term Yehudi, or Jew is today associated most with the religion of the people (Judaism). Hebrew, meanwhile, is associated with the language, or sometimes the culture. Not surprisingly, early Zionists wanted to detach themselves from the title of “Jew”, and only use the term “Hebrew”. Reform Jews, too, wanted to be called “Hebrews”. In fact, the main body of Reform in America was always called the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. It was only renamed the “Union for Reform Judaism” in 2003!
All of this begs the question: what is a Jew? What is Judaism? Is it a religion? An ethnicity or culture? A people bound by some common history or language? By the land of Israel, or by the State of Israel?
It cannot be a religion, for many Jews want absolutely nothing to do with religion. There are plenty who proudly identify as atheists and as Jews at the same time. We are certainly not a culture or ethnicity, either, for Ashkenazi Jews, Sephardi Jews, Mizrachi Jews, Ethiopian Jews, all have very different customs, traditions, and skin colours. Over the centuries, these groups have experienced very different histories, too, and have even developed dozens of other non-Hebrew Judaic languages (Yiddish, Ladino, Bukharian, and Krymchak are but a few examples).
So, what is a Jew? Rabbi Moshe Zeldman offers one terrific answer. He says that, despite the thousands of years that have passed, we are all still bnei Israel, the children of Israel, and that makes us a family. Every member of a family has his or her own unique identity and appearance, and some members of a family may be more religious than others. Family members can live in distant places, far apart from each other, and go through very different experiences. New members can marry into a family, or be adopted, and every family, of course, has its issues and conflicts. But at the end of the day, a family is strongly bound by much more than just blood, and comes together when it really matters.
And this is precisely what Moses told Korach and his supporters in this week’s parasha. Rashi (on Numbers 16:6) quotes Moses’ response:
Among each of the other nations, there are multiple sects and multiple priests, and they do not gather in one house. But we have none other than one God, one Ark, one Torah, one altar, and one High Priest…
There is something particularly singular about the Jewish people. We are one house. We are a family. Let’s act like one.
Towards the end of this week’s Torah portion, Behaalotcha, we read that “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman.” (Numbers 12:1) This verse brings up many big questions, and the Sages grapple with its meaning. Who is this Cushite woman? When did Moses marry her? Why did Miriam and Aaron speak “against” Moses because of her? Why the superfluous phrasing of mentioning twice that he married the Cushite woman? What does “Cushite” even mean?
Traditionally, there are two main ways of looking at this passage: either Moses actually took on a second wife in addition to his wife Tzipporah, or the term “Cushite” simply refers to Tzipporah herself. The second interpretation is problematic, since we know Tzipporah was a Midianite, not a Cushite. The term “Cushite” generally refers to the people of Cush, or Ethiopia, and more broadly refers to all black people or Africans. Scripture does connect the Cushites with the Midianites in one verse (Habakkuk 3:7), which some use as proof that the Midianites were sometimes referred to as Cushites, or had particularly dark skin.
‘The Fight at Jethro’s Well’ – where Moses first meets Tzipporah – scene from ‘The Ten Commandments’ (1953) painted by Arnold Friberg.
Rashi (Rabbi Shlomo Itzchaki, 1040-1105) prefers the second interpretation. He says that Tzipporah was called a “Cushite” because she was very beautiful. He cites Midrash Tanchuma in stating that just as everyone can immediately identify a black person (Cushite), everyone immediately recognized the incomparable beauty of Tzipporah. The same Midrash offers another possibility: apparently if a person had a very beautiful child in those days, they would call them “Cushite” to ward off the evil eye. This suggests that a Cushite was not considered beautiful at all, yet Rashi provides a numerical proof that Cushite does indeed mean “beautiful”, since the gematria of Cushite (כושית) is 736, equal to “beautiful in appearance” (יפת מראה), the term most frequently used in the Torah to describe beauty.
If the Cushite is Tzipporah, then why did Miriam and Aaron suddenly have a problem with her? Rashi cites one classic answer: because Moses had become so holy—recall how after coming down Sinai, his skin glowed with such a blinding light that he had to wear a mask over his face—he had essentially removed himself from this material world. This means he was no longer intimate with his wife Tzipporah. Miriam had learned of this, and thought Moses was in error for doing so.
Unlike certain other religions, Judaism does not preach celibacy, and does not require complete abstinence to remain holy and pure. Conversely, Judaism holds that sexual intimacy is an important aspect of spiritual growth. The famous Iggeret HaKodesh (the “Holy Letter”, often attributed to the Ramban, Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270, but more likely written by Rabbi Joseph Gikatilla, 1248-1305) writes that it is specifically during sexual union (if done correctly) that a man and woman can bring down and experience the Shekhinah, God’s divine presence.
As such, Miriam and Aaron came to their little brother and admonished him for separating from his wife. This is why the Torah goes on to state that “They said, ‘Has God spoken only to Moses? Hasn’t He spoken to us too?’” (Numbers 12:2) Miriam and Aaron argued that they, too, were prophets, and they clearly had no need to separate from their own spouses! Moses was so humble and modest that he did not respond at all: “…Moses was exceedingly humble, more so than any person on the face of the earth.” (Numbers 12:3)
God immediately interjected and summoned Miriam and Aaron to the Ohel Mo’ed, the “Tent of Meeting”, where He regularly conversed with Moses. God told them:
If there be prophets among you, I will make Myself known to him in a vision; I will speak to him in a dream. Not so My servant Moses; he is faithful throughout My house. With him I speak mouth to mouth; in [plain] sight and not in riddles, and he beholds the image of the Lord…
God makes it clear to Miriam and Aaron that although they are also prophets, they are nowhere near the level of Moses. In all of history, Moses alone was able to speak to God “face to face”, while in a conscious, awake state. All other prophets only communed with God through dreams or visions, while asleep or entranced.
By juxtaposing the fact that Moses was the humblest man of all time, and also the greatest prophet of all time, the Torah may be teaching us that the key to real spiritual greatness is humility. Moses had completely destroyed his ego, and so he merited to be filled with Godliness. Fittingly, the Talmud (Sotah 5a) states that where there is an ego, there cannot be a Godly presence, because a person with a big ego essentially sees themselves as a god—and there cannot be two gods! “Every man in whom there is haughtiness of spirit, the Holy One, blessed be He, declares: ‘I and he cannot both dwell in the world.’”
Moses Had a Black Wife
The explanation above is certainly a wonderful one, yet it is hard to ignore the plain meaning of the text: that Moses actually married a Cushite woman. The repetitive phrasing of the verse seems like it really wants us to believe he had taken another wife. And many of the Sages agree. However, Moses hadn’t married her at this point in time, but many years earlier. The Midrash describes in great detail what Moses was up to between the time that he fled Egypt and arrived in Midian. After all, he had fled as a young man, and returned to Egypt nearing his 80th year. What did he do during all those intervening decades?
The Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Shemot 168) says that Moses initially fled to Cush. At the time, the Cushites had lost their capital in a war and were unsuccessful in recapturing it. Their king, named Koknus (קוקנוס, elsewhere called Kikanos or Kikianus), fought a nine-year war that he was unable to win, and then died. The Cushites sought a strong ruler to help them finally end the conflict. They chose Moses, presumably because he had fought alongside the Cushites and had a reputation as a great warrior. Moses did not disappoint, and devised a plan to win the war and recapture the Cushite capital. (His enemy was none other than Bilaam!) The grateful Cushites gave Moses Koknus’ royal widow for a wife, and placed him upon the throne.
Charlton Heston as Egyptian General Moses, also by Arnold Friberg
This Midrash is very ancient, and was already attested to by the Jewish-Roman historian Josephus (37-100 CE). Josephus writes (Antiquities, II, 10:239 et seq.) a slightly different version of the story, with Moses leading an Egyptian army against the Cushites. The Cushite princess, named Tharbis, watches the battle and falls in love with the valiant Moses. She goes on to help him win the battle, and he fulfils his promise in return to marry her. In some versions, Moses eventually produces a special ring that causes one to forget certain events, and puts it upon Tharbis so that she can forget him. He then returns to Egypt.
So, Moses married a Cushite queen. Yet, he remembered “what Abraham had cautioned his servant Eliezer” about intermarriage, and abstained from touching her. (If you are wondering how Moses later married Tzipporah, who was not an Israelite, remember that the Midianites are also descendants of Abraham through his wife Keturah, see Genesis 25:2. Thus, Moses still married within the extended family of Abrahamites.) Although Moses married the Cushite queen, he never consummated the marriage. The Midrash says he reigned over a prosperous Cush for forty years until his Cushite wife couldn’t take the celibacy anymore and complained to the wise men of Cush. Moses abdicated his throne and finally left Ethiopia. He was 67 years old at the time.
All of this was kept secret until it came out publicly in this week’s parasha. This is a terrific version of the story, but it doesn’t answer why Miriam and Aaron complained to Moses. For this we must look to the mysticism of the Arizal.
Soulmates of Moses
The Arizal cites the above Midrash in a number of places (see Sefer Likutei Torah and Sha’ar HaPesukim on this week’s parasha, as well as Sha’ar HaMitzvot on parashat Shoftim). He explains that both Tzipporah and the Cushite were Moses’ soulmates. This is because Moses was a reincarnation of Abel, who had two wives according to one tradition. This was the reason for the dispute between Cain and Abel, resulting in the latter’s death. Cain was born with a twin sister, and Abel was born with two twin sisters (otherwise, with whom would they reproduce?) Cain reasoned that he should have two wives since he was the older brother, and the elder always deserves a double portion. Abel reasoned that he should have the second wife since, after all, she was his twin! Cain ultimately killed Abel over that second wife.
Therefore, the Arizal explains that Cain reincarnated in Jethro, and Abel in Moses. This is why Jethro gave his daughter Tzipporah to Moses, thus rectifying his past sin by “returning” the wife that he had stolen.* Moses’ other spiritual twin was the Cushite woman. The Arizal states that Miriam and Aaron were aware of this, and were frustrated that Moses did not consummate his marriage to the Cushite, for she was his true soulmate! Apparently, after the Exodus Moses summoned the Cushite woman and she happily joined the Israelites and converted to Judaism. However, this was after his time on Sinai, when he had become entirely holy, so it was too late to consummate the marriage. When Miriam heard about this, she brought the complaint to Moses.
And so, whatever the case may be, the crux of the matter is Moses’ separation from his wife (or wives). Having said all that, there is a third possibility. This comes from a simple reading of the Torah text, and the lesson that we learn from it is particularly relevant today.
Black or White
When we read the first two verses of Numbers 12 in isolation, we might be led to believe that Miriam and Aaron had a problem with Moses marrying a black woman. Was there a hint of racism in their complaint, or did they just genuinely wonder whether an Israelite was allowed to marry a black person? Either way, we see how perfectly the punishment fits the crime: “… Behold, Miriam was afflicted with tzara’aat, [as white] as snow.” (Numbers 12:10)
If the issue was about Moses separating from his wife, it isn’t clear why Miriam would be punished with tzara’at (loosely translated as “leprosy”). Rashi, for one, does not seem to offer a clear explanation why this in particular was her punishment. Of course, we know that God doesn’t really “punish”, and simply metes out justice, middah k’neged middah, “measure for measure”. It is therefore totally fitting that in complaining about Moses taking a black woman as a wife, Miriam’s own skin is turned white “like snow”. Perhaps God wanted to remind her that she is not so white herself.
We can learn from this that there really is no place for racism in Judaism. In fact, God explicitly compares the Israelites to the Cushites (Amos 9:7), and maintains that He is not the God of the Jews alone, but the God of all peoples: “‘Are you not as the children of the Cushites unto Me, O children of Israel?’ Said Hashem. ‘Have I not brought up Israel out of the land of Egypt, [just as I brought] the Philistines from Caphtor, and Aram from Kir?’” Among a list of nine holy people that merited to enter Heaven alive, without ever dying, the Sages include a Cushite man named Eved-Melekh (Derekh Eretz Zuta 1:43, see Jeremiah 39:16).
At the end of the day, there is no reason to hold prejudice against anyone, or discriminate against any individual at all, as the Midrash (Yalkut Shimoni, Shoftim 42) clearly states:
I bring Heaven and Earth to witness that the Divine Spirit may rest upon a non-Jew as well as a Jew, upon a woman as well as a man, upon a maidservant as well as a manservant. All depends on the deeds of the particular individual.
*The Arizal actually writes how Cain reincarnated in three people: Korach, Jethro, and the Egyptian taskmaster that Moses killed before fleeing Egypt. The rectification for the improper dispute between Cain and Abel was rectified in the dispute between Korach and Moses, with Moses’ victory. The rectification for the stolen wife was fulfilled by Jethro. And the rectification for Cain murdering Abel was that Moses, in return, killed the Egyptian taskmaster. Thus, all the rectifications were complete. We can see a hint in the name Cain (קין) to his three future incarnations: the ק for Korach (קרח), the י for Jethro (יתרו), and the ן for the Egyptian, whose name we don’t know but perhaps it started with a nun!
Much of this week’s Torah portion, Nasso, describes the gifts that each of the Twelve Tribes brought for the inauguration of the Mishkan. Although each tribe brought the exact same set of gifts, the Torah nonetheless repeats the gifts each and every time. Some say this is because God held dear what every single tribe brought and wanted to properly acknowledge each one—even though it was all the same. Others say that while each tribe brought the same thing, the way they brought it was different, with each tribe displaying their own unique qualities.
The Midrash famously parallels the Twelve Tribes with the twelve astrological signs of the zodiac. In Yalkut Shimoni (Shemot 418), for example, we are told that
The tribe of Yehudah was in the East, together with Issachar and Zevulun, and corresponding to them above are Aries, Taurus, and Gemini… The flag of Reuben was in the South, together with Shimon and Gad, and corresponding to them above are Cancer, Leo, and Virgo… The flag of Ephraim was in the West, together with Menashe and Benjamin, and corresponding to them Libra, Scorpio, and Sagittarius. The flag of Dan was in the North, together with Asher and Naftali… corresponding to them are Capricorn, Aquarius, and Pisces…
Another version puts the tribes in order of birth as opposed to their encampments in the wilderness. Thus, Reuben is Aries, Shimon is Taurus, and so on. A third version (noted by Rabbi Yonatan Eybeschutz) also follows the order of birth, but starting from Rosh Hashanah, so Reuben is Libra and Shimon is Scorpio, etc. Nonetheless, the Midrashic version above is the most common, and the one most frequently adopted in Kabbalistic texts. It was the system used by the Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, 1720-1797), and appears as early as Sefer Yetzirah, generally considered the oldest known Kabbalistic text.
As we’ve written before, Sefer Yetzirah goes through the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet and explains how God fashioned the universe through them (together with the Ten Sefirot). It divides the alphabet into three major groupings: the “mothers”, the “doubles”, and the “elementals”. The mothers are the three letters aleph, mem, shin, corresponding to air (avir), water (mayim), and fire (esh). The doubles are the seven letters that have two sounds in Hebrew: beit (and veit), gimel (and jimel), dalet (and dhalet, like the English “that”), kaf (and khaf), pei (and fei), reish (and the hard ‘reish), tav (and thav, like the English “three”). Most modern speakers have dropped the jimel, dhalet, and ‘reish from use, while Ashkenazis pronounce the thav as “sav” (much like all Eastern Europeans with an accent, when speaking English, would say “sree” instead of “three”). The remaining single-sounding letters make up the twelve elementals.
On the mystical Tree of Life, the three mothers are the three horizontal lines, the seven doubles are the seven vertical lines, and the twelve elementals are the twelve horizontal lines, as follows:
Sefer Yetzirah gives us further details, paralleling each letter to a cosmic force or entity. As already mentioned, the mothers are the three primordial elements of Creation: fire, water, and air. The seven doubles correspond to the seven major celestial bodies that are visible to the naked eye: the sun and moon, plus Mercury (kochav), Venus (nogah), Mars (madim), Jupiter (tzedek), and Saturn (shabbatai). They also correspond to the seven days of the week. This is why, in most cultures, the days of the week are named after these seven bodies: Saturday for Saturn, Sunday for the sun, Monday for the moon, and so on. In his Discourse on Rosh Hashanah, the Ramban (Rabbi Moshe ben Nachman, 1194-1270) comments that these seven bodies “rule” over the days of the week, and provides a siman, or mnemonic, to remember them: KaNTzaSh ChaLaM (כנצ״ש חל״ם). The Ramban concludes that Jews, unlike the pagans, name our days of the week in memory of Creation and Shabbat (ie. yom rishon, “first day”; yom sheni, “second day”; yom shelishi, “third day”, etc.)
Finally, the twelve elemental letters correspond to the twelve astrological signs of the zodiac, and the twelve months of the year. To these, we can add the Twelve Tribes of Israel. The result is the following:
Letters and Biblical Figures
If the Twelve Tribes correspond to the twelve elemental letters, which Biblical figures correspond to the mothers and doubles? Sefer Yetzirah (3:2) does suggest that from the three mothers come the “fathers” (avot). However, it does not explicitly say that the fathers are Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Generally, the seven doubles are paralleled with the seven lower sefirot, and the seven lower sefirot correspond to the Seven Shepherds of Israel, among whom the patriarchs are already included. So, the three mothers must parallel some other figures. Indeed, we see three major figures in the Torah before Abraham. These are Adam, Noah, and Enoch.
Adam is, of course, the first civilized human, the first to be created, and originally a towering figure whose body shone with blinding light. Noah is at the other end of the pre-Abraham period, and was the righteous one in his generation that merited to recreate a new world. In between is Enoch, of whom the Torah curiously states that he “walked with God and was no more, for God had taken him” (Genesis 5:22).
In mystical traditions, Enoch was taken up by God’s blazing divine chariot (much like Elijah would be far in the future), and was transformed into an angel, usually identified with Metatron. Although the Torah gives us essentially no information on Enoch, the Book of Jubilees (4:17-20) explains that Enoch was the first true sage in history. He was a scribe and an astrologer, created history’s first calendar, and taught people how to accurately count months and years. He was a great prophet in his own right, seeing all of the past and all of the future. So holy was he that he never died, and was transfigured into an angel.
These three figures in Genesis neatly parallel the three mother letters of Creation: Adam being aleph, the first man, made in God’s image (which the letter aleph represents); Noah being mem, alluding to the flood waters; and Enoch being shin, alluding to the flaming chariot that took him to Heaven, and his transformation into a fiery archangel (joining the seraphim, literally the “blazing ones”).
The seven doubles, meanwhile, are the Seven Shepherds. On the Tree of Life, the letter beit leads to Chessed, personified by Abraham; the letter gimel to Gevurah, personified by Isaac; the letter dalet to Tiferet, personified by Jacob; kaf to Netzach, which is Moses; pei to Hod, Aaron; reish to Yesod, Joseph; and tav to Malkhut, David.
To summarize the above:
On a practical note, one can use this information to explore their name (or any Hebrew word for that matter) based on the meaning of its letters. If one understands the qualities associated with each letter, they may derive deeper meaning from their name, and how it may affect their own qualities, strengths, weaknesses, or even their destiny.
It is important to note that although Sefer Yetzirah has Saturn for Friday (and Joseph), and Jupiter for Saturday (and David), there are other traditions. Jupiter (Tzedek) is more fitting for Joseph, called Yosef haTzadik, while Saturn (Shabbatai) is more fitting for Shabbat and King David. Yet another tradition has the moon for King David. On the level of Sefirot, this makes most sense, since the moon is a reflection of the sun much like Malkhut is often said to be a reflection of Tiferet.
For example, Moses (משה) was famously thrown into the waters (מ) of the Nile as a newborn, led the Israelites through the waters of the Red Sea, and later had his fatal error by striking the rock for water. Meanwhile, he first encountered God at the burning bush (ש) and as a child burned his mouth with a smoldering coal (according to the Midrashic explanation for his later being “heavy of tongue”). In fact, the Arizal taught (Sha’ar HaPesukim on Ki Tisa) that Moses was a reincarnation of Noah, while other mystical texts compare him to an earthly Metatron. Finally, the hei in his name corresponds to Aries and the month of Nisan, symbolizing the pesach offering and the Exodus which happened in that month, under that sign. Thus, we see in the letters of Moses an allusion to essentially every major event of his life, and even his past life.
Thankfully, Sefer Yetzirah provides us with the exact qualities associated with each letter. The seven doubles have both positive and negative aspects clearly stated (4:2-3). The twelve elementals, meanwhile, have a certain “foundation” (5:1), which may be used for good or for evil. The three mothers are described (3:7-9) based on the qualities of their element, fire being “hot” and water being “cold”, etc. They are also paralleled to a body part. While the qualities given in Sefer Yetzirah are not always so clear, there are many commentaries which help to extract the proper meaning. These are elucidated in detail in Rabbi Aryeh Kaplan’s monumental Sefer Yetzirah: The Book of Creation, In Theory and Practice.
Putting it all together, we have:
One can use the chart above to explore the features associated with each letter of their name, as well as the qualities associated with their astrological birth sign, birth month, birth day of the week, and even birth time of day. The positive qualities are potential traits that one has within and should work to express to the fullest, while the negatives are traits that one should be aware of and particularly focused on to repair.