Tag Archives: Cain

The Seven Earths

This week’s parasha, Vayikra, begins outlining all the sacrificial services in the Tabernacle (and future Temple). One category of offerings is called shelamim, “peace offerings”, introduced at the start of chapter 3. Our Sages taught (as cited by commentators like Rashi and Bartenura) that these offerings are called “peace offerings” because they serve to infuse the entire world with peace. The Zohar (III, 9b) picks up on this and opens a discourse on the nature of the “entire world”, and what it is really composed of. The Zohar states that when God created the world, He created “seven heavens above, seven earths [or lands] below, seven seas, seven [great] rivers, seven days, seven weeks, seven years [in a cycle] seven times, and seven thousand years [of civilization] that the world will endure…”

An 1808 Persian illustration of the Seven Heavens

The Zohar here draws from a more ancient Midrash that “all sevens are beloved” (Vayikra Rabbah 29:11). That Midrash expounds on another place in Vayikra that outlines the High Holidays, which are specifically in the seventh month of the year. Why the seventh? The Midrash states that there are seven heavens, and the highest heaven, called Aravot (from Psalms 68:5), is the most beloved. Of the seven earths or lands, the highest is called Tevel (as in Psalms 9:9), which we humans inhabit, and it is most beloved. The seventh generation from Adam was most beloved, for this was the generation of Enoch, who “walked” with God and never died, transforming into an angel. Similarly, the seventh generation of God’s chosen people was most beloved, for Moses was the seventh generation starting from Abraham. The Midrash continues with other sevens, including that the seventh day (Shabbat) is most beloved, as is the seventh Sabbatical year (Shemitah), and the seventh month, Tishrei, which is why the High Holidays are in that month.

Now, the Midrash above seems to suggest that just as the seven heavens are overlayed one on top of another, so too are the seven “earths” overlayed one of top of another. The surface world is our Tevel, and beneath us are six more layers of worlds, respectively called Eretz, Adamah, Arka, Gai, Tziyah, and Neshiya (אֶרֶץ, אֲדָמָה, אַרְקָא, גַּיְא, צִיָה, נְשִׁיָּה). The Zohar first quotes this teaching, tracing it back to Adam himself, and says that the lower worlds are arranged concentrically like an onion. In each subterranean world are distinct creatures that are different than those in our world. However, the Zohar then brings an alternate teaching from the great Rav Hamnuna Saba. This one is absolutely breathtaking because of its precise scientific knowledge, way ahead of its time:

… the entire world spins around like a ball, with some [people] on top and some [people] below. The living beings [across the seven lands] all differ in their appearance because of the different environments in each land, yet are all like other human beings.

When one land has light, another land has darkness, so that when it is daytime for one group [of people], it is nighttime for the other. In one land, it is always daytime, except for a short hour of night. And this is the [true meaning] of what is written in the ancient Book of Adam.

The Zohar here addresses all of our concerns and makes sense of the seven lands. The truth is that the seven lands are all on the surface, just different continents around our globe. The beings in these worlds are not distinct, bizarre creatures, but just like all shar bnei nasha, other normal human beings, but with different skin colours and appearances since they adapt to their environment!

Not only does the Zohar reveal that there are seven continents (something that humans would not uncover for hundreds of more years!) but it also tells us the world is spherical, and that it is rotating “like a ball” (not confirmed by scientists until the 1800s!) The Zohar knows about time zones, too, and says that it is daytime in some continents while it is simultaneously night in other continents. More incredible still, it knows that in the continent of Antarctica (first sighted only in 1820!) it is sometimes entirely day with practically no night, and vice versa. (This is true in the Arctic as well, but the Arctic is not a continent.)

Rav Hamnuna Saba concludes that this is the true meaning of the ancient secret of the seven lands. One should not think that the worlds are subterranean and arranged like an onion, for this is an incorrect interpretation. To help confirm this, the Zohar goes on to relay a story about Rav Nehorai Saba, who rejected the Midrash about the seven lands and did not believe it could be true. It happened that he was once at sea and a terrible storm began to rage. The ship capsized and Rav Nehorai was cast into the depths of the ocean. He washed up on a foreign land, with strange-looking people speaking a language he did not understand. Eventually, a miracle happened and he was teleported back to his home. He would often be found crying in the study halls, and when people asked why, he answered: “Because I sinned against belief in the words of the Sages…” Rav Nehorai would henceforth teach: “Happy are the righteous who labour in the Torah and know the mysteries of the supernal secrets; woe to those who disagree with them and are not believers!”

Rav Nehorai was not alone in his initial doubt. Even the Ramak (Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, 1522-1570) living in the 16th century still had a hard time believing in the seven lands, and admitted that it seemed impossible and baffling! He concluded that, like Rav Nehorai, one should accept it on faith alone (see Pardes Rimonim, Gate 6, Chapter 3). Today, we don’t have to be baffled, and we have all the empirical evidence we need to know that Rav Hamnuna Saba was correct all along. Science has finally caught up and confirmed what was once a most profound mystical secret.

Cain’s Children

Elsewhere (I, 9b), the Zohar states that when God banished Cain following his murder of Abel, he was exiled to the land of Arka, one of the “seven lands”. While some erroneously thought this to mean that Cain was somehow sent deep into the nether regions of the planet, the truth is that, as we’ve seen, he was simply banished to another continent. We learn that Cain mated with the people there, and this is where his children came from. This confirms the statement of Rav Hamnuna Saba that the inhabitants of the other lands are human beings, too, and not strange otherworldly creatures. Cain just went to another continent, probably Africa or Asia. (The Torah says in Genesis 4:16 that Cain went to the region of Nod, east of Eden.)

The Zohar above solves another great mystery: if Adam and Eve were the only people, and they only had Cain and Abel, the latter of which died, who could Cain have mated with? The Zohar reveals that there were other, “uncivilized” people, too. Adam and Eve were unique in that they were given a divine intellect, but they were not alone. This also explains why the Torah seemingly mentions the creation of man twice, in both chapters 1 and 2 of Genesis. The inescapable conclusion is that chapter 1 of Genesis describes the creation of mankind, all human beings, while chapter 2, in the Garden of Eden, describes the birth of the first fully civilized man, infused with a unique divine spirit, and given the tools to transform the world. Cain would have been the first to set forth and “civilize” the rest of the world. This may be why the Torah specifically tells us that Cain went and built a city (Genesis 4:17).

In any case, Cain’s descendants all perished in the Great Flood, leaving only the line of Seth, from whom Noah and his children descended. Intriguingly, Rav Yonatan Eybeschutz (1690-1764), in his Tiferet Yonatan commentary on the Torah, held that the Great Flood did not affect the Americas! Only the Old World of Asia, Africa, and Europe were punished. His reasoning is pretty solid: Had the Flood destroyed everyone around the globe, how could Noah’s children have populated the New World? They didn’t have the advanced ships needed to traverse the oceans! We must conclude that America was spared, and the people there, who were not affected by the sins of the Old World anyway, were completely unharmed. (We probably have to include Australia here, too.)

On this note, it is important to mention that some in the religious world think that the continents only split as a result of the Great Flood. Both Torah and science agree that the continents were once joined together (a landmass scientists refer to as Pangea). However, scientists estimate that the continents split long ago, and it could not have happened within the timeframe of human history. Rav Eybeschutz’s statement also confirms that the continents were already split at the time of the Flood. As the Midrash cited above states, God created the world initially with seven lands, so the seven distinct continents surely already existed at the time of Adam’s creation.

How scientists map the development of the continents, which drift about 2.5 centimetres per year. For how to deal with the age of the universe and reconciling it with Torah chronology, see here.

Continental Sefirot

The three upper Sefirot of mochin (in blue) and the seven lower Sefirot of the middot (in red).

When the Zohar speaks of all the sevens embedded in Creation, it implies that these correspond to the seven lower Sefirot. So, how do we connect the continents to the Sefirot? The Old World three of Asia, Africa, and Europe are surely tied to the three main axes of Chessed, Gevurah, and Tiferet. We generally say that Noah’s sons divided up the three Old continents amongst themselves, with Shem getting Asia, Ham getting Africa, and Yefet getting Europe. The Zohar (I, 73a) tells us that the three sons embody Chessed, Gevurah, and Tiferet, so we can easily conclude that Asia is Chessed, Africa is Gevurah, and Europe is Tiferet.

Asia is by far the largest continent, and Chessed is also called Gedulah, “largeness”. Asian cultures are known for their warm hospitality and their altruistic, tight-knit communities, a sure sign of Chessed. There is no doubt that hot Africa, with its difficult history, is the severity of fiery Gevurah, also called Din, harsh “judgement”. Tiferet is “beauty”, sharing a close root with Yefet, which means pretty much the same thing.

It is worth briefly exploring the unique case of the land of Israel. Geographically, we consider Israel to be a part of Asia, and those Asian qualities mentioned above are certainly prominent in the Holy Land. Yet, mystical texts typically associate Israel with Tiferet, which is closer to Europe. Indeed, Israel’s history is most closely intertwined with that of Europe, and not only in the present day when Israel is politically closer to Europe than Asia, but even in ancient times during its close encounters with Greece and Rome. Geologically, meanwhile, the land of Israel is actually part of the African continental plate! (This makes a lot of sense, too, since Canaan was a son of Ham, who got Africa.) We have to conclude that Israel, being a special land, is really outside of the seven divisions, and has elements of all the continents and all the Sefirot. (It’s important to note here that the continental plates don’t match up exactly with our divisions of the continents, since Europe and Asia are part of one Eurasian plate, while India and Arabia have their own tectonic plates.)

The “twin” continents of North and South America are undoubtedly the “twin” Sefirot of Netzach and Hod. This explains well the qualities of both: North America is the place that contains history’s most dominant and powerful empire—a fitting aspect of “victorious” Netzach. South America, meanwhile, is best known for its vibrant cultures and colours, and its showmanship in music, dance, and sports—a clear aspect of the “splendorous” Hod.

Australia is best paired with Yesod. An interesting parallel here can be made when we remember that the personification of Yesod was Joseph. He was a prisoner sent “down under” unjustly, but nonetheless emerged from this ordeal into greatness. Australia, too, is infamous for its origins as a penal colony, where the British originally sent their prisoners. (Australia celebrates its national holiday, Australia Day, on January 26th, the anniversary of the day that the penal colony was established in 1788!)

Finally, there is no doubt about the nature of cold and empty Antarctica at the very bottom of the globe. This is the “empty” Malkhut at the bottom of the Sefirot, with little energy of its own to emit and serving only as the receptable for the Sefirot above. We might learn from this that, while Antarctica has seemingly played no role in human history thus far, it has a significant role to play in the future era of Malkhut, when God’s Kingship will be revealed once again—an era which we all hope and pray will be upon us imminently.

How Korach Was Rectified in Samuel

“Death of Korah, Dathan, and Abiram” by Gustave Doré

This week’s parasha, Korach, describes the rebellion instigated by Moses’ Levite cousin Korach. Korach’s main accusation was against Aaron and the Kohanim: why did they tale all the priestly services for themselves and left nothing for the lay Israelite? Had not God stated that all of Israel will be a holy nation of kohanim? (Exodus 19:6) Why did only a small group of people (Aaron and his descendants) suddenly become kohanim? His argument was actually a valid one, and Rashi (on Numbers 16:6) records that Moses even agreed with Korach to some extent, and said that he too wishes that all of Israel could be priests! Why weren’t they?

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Did Moses Have a Black Wife?

Towards the end of this week’s Torah portion, Beha’alotcha, 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 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 and in holiness) 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 subdued 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 in 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 the royal widow of Koknus 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 suggests 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. The Arizal explains that this was a necessary tikkun, a spiritual rectification for her lofty soul. However, he could not consummate the marriage because her soul originated from a place of intense dinim gemurim, strict judgement and severity. It appears that when Miriam heard about his abstention from his wife, she complained to Moses, failing to grasp that a soul as pure as Moses’ had different requirements.

Whatever the case may be, the root 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!