Tag Archives: Derekh Eretz Zuta

Two Reincarnations You Need to Know About

This week’s parasha, Yitro, begins: “So Moses’ father-in-law, Jethro, took Tzipporah, Moses’ wife, after she had been sent away, and her two sons… to the desert where [Moses] was encamped, to the mountain of God.” (Exodus 18:2-5) After the Israelites safely made it to Mt. Sinai following the Exodus, Moses’ family returned to join him. However, we had previously read that when Moses first left Midian for Egypt before the Exodus, he had taken his family with him! (Exodus 4:20) Where did they go? Rashi answers:

When the Holy One, blessed be He, said to [Moses] in Midian: “Go, return to Egypt” (Exodos 4:19), “and Moses took his wife and his sons…” (Exodus 4:20), and Aaron went forth “and met him on the mount of God” (Exodus 4:27), [Aaron] said to [Moses]: “Who are these?” He replied, “This is my wife, whom I married in Midian, and these are my sons.” “And where are you taking them?” [Aaron] asked. “To Egypt,” he replied. [Aaron] said, “We are suffering with the first ones, and you come to add to them?” [Moses] said to [Tzipporah]: “Go home to your father.” She took her two sons and went away.

Aaron protested Moses bringing his family down to Egypt—there were already enough people suffering there! Ibn Ezra (Rabbi Avraham ben Meir ibn Ezra, 1089-1167), meanwhile, comments that it was Moses himself who sent his wife back home after the “incident at the inn”. Recall that on their way to Egypt:

… it came to pass on the way at the inn, that God met him, and sought to kill him. Then Tzipporah took a flint, and cut off the foreskin of her son, and cast it at his feet; and she said: “Surely a bridegroom of blood you are to me.” (Exodus 4:24-25)

These difficult words require a great deal of explanation. Apparently, God sought to “kill” Moses, and Tzipporah saved him at the last second. The classic answer is that Moses’ second son, Eliezer, was born on the same day that Moses first ascended Sinai and met God through the Burning Bush. Moses spent a week on the mountain, meaning he returned on the eighth day—the time for Eliezer’s circumcision. Moses reasoned he needed to leave immediately, as God commanded, so he decided he would get going and do the circumcision at an inn on the way. When he arrived at the inn, he forgot about the circumcision! Tzipporah stepped in and got it done.

At this point, Moses realized that having his little children with him would probably be a distraction from his mission. The Or HaChaim (Rabbi Chaim ben Moshe ibn Attar, 1696-1743) explains that this is why Moses sent Tzipporah and the kids back to Midian. The problem for Tzipporah is that she missed out on the whole Exodus! Did she not deserve to be there as well? (A modern parent “stuck at home with the kids” can probably relate.) How would this lost opportunity be corrected? And what does it have to do with that circumcision at the inn? Why was it so important for the child to be circumcised at that very moment?

Tzipporah: Moses’ Successor

‘Deborah’ by Gustave Doré

Rabbi Menachem Azariah de Fano (Rema miFano, 1548-1620) addresses the first problem in his Sefer Gilgulei Neshamot (Likkutim, 3). He says how Tzipporah was deeply saddened that she had missed out on the Exodus, especially God’s miraculous salvation at the Splitting of the Sea, and the song that followed. So, God gave Tzipporah another chance. He had her soul reincarnated in Deborah the Prophetess and Judge! The “Judges”, Shoftim, starting with Joshua, were the successors of Moses, and the chief Jewish leaders of the era, before the time of Kings.  Deborah was the fourth Judge of Israel after Moses.

When Deborah took the reins, Israel was being terribly oppressed by the Canaanite king Yavin and his mighty general Sisera, who rode with 900 undefeated iron chariots (Judges 4:2-3). Deborah summoned the warrior Barak to lead the Israelite forces against Sisera. Barak told her: “If you will go with me, I will go; if not, I will not go.” (Judges 4:8) The commentators wonder why he insisted that she join him for the battle? In light of the Rema miFano’s teaching, we can understand the answer: Because she had missed it last time, Deborah needed to be there at this redemption, and see God’s miraculous salvation for herself.

Of course, just as with the Splitting of the Sea when there was a great song sung afterwards, Deborah also sang a song following the salvation from Sisera (Judges 5). In fact, Deborah’s song is the Haftarah that we read after the Song at the Sea in parashat Beshalach. The Sages make an explicit connection between the two redemptions. And the connection goes deeper.

At the Splitting of the Sea, the Torah tells us that 600 of Pharaoh’s chariots were drowned. In Deborah’s battle, Sisera’s 900 chariots were drowned as well, as we read: “The Kishon brook swept them away, that ancient brook, the brook Kishon…” (Judges 5:21) The Talmud (Pesachim 118b) asks what the connection is between these two sets of drowned chariots, and wonders why the Tanakh calls Kishon an “ancient” brook? It answers that after the drowning of the Egyptians at the Splitting of the Sea, the Israelites were still afraid and “of little faith”. So, God commanded the Sea (or, the angel in charge of the seas) to “spit out” the drowned Egyptians so that the Israelites would see their corpses. The Sea protested:

“Does a master make a gift to his servant and then take it back from him?!” [God answered with a promise:] “‘I will give you one and a half times their number.” [The Sea] replied: “Master of the Universe, can a servant claim [a debt] from his Master?!” [God answered:] “Let the brook of Kishon be surety for Me.” Right away, he spewed them forth on the dry land…

Many decades later, when Sisera came to battle Israel, his warriors went down

to cool off and refresh themselves in the brook of Kishon. Said the Holy One, blessed be He, to the brook of Kishon: “Go and deliver your pledge.” Right away, the brook of Kishon swept them out and cast them into the sea, as it is said, “The Kishon brook swept them away, that ancient brook” [Judges 5:21]. What does “that ancient brook” mean? The brook that became a surety in ancient times.

And so, the battle with Sisera was a giant spiritual rectification. In the time of Moses, God made a promise to the Sea regarding a quantity of chariots. That promised was filled in the time of Deborah, who was a reincarnation of Moses’ wife Tzipporah. In the time of Moses, his wife Tzipporah missed a miraculous salvation, so she came back as Deborah to witness the spiritual continuation and fulfilment of that first salvation! She got to sing her own song, too, just as Moses did in the past. God made it up to Tzipporah in a big way—as Deborah, she was the Moses of her generation!

‘The Defeat of Sisera’ at the Battle of Mount Tabor, by Giordano Luca, c. 1692

And what exactly had Tzipporah done to merit this? The Rema miFano answers:

“Then Tzipporah took a flint, and cut off the foreskin of her son…” for this she merited to reincarnate in Deborah, and to sing a song through the Holy Spirit. She alluded to this when she said in her song “When locks of hair go untrimmed [bifroa peraot] in Israel…” [Judges 5:2] referring to periat milah [circumcision]…

For that huge mitzvah of circumcising her son and saving Moses’ life, Tzipporah earned the merit to come back as Deborah, lead an entire generation, and witness a miraculous salvation comparable to the Splitting of the Sea. That leaves one last question: why was it so absolutely vital for the child to be circumcised at that particular moment, so much so that God sought to “kill” Moses for not doing it?

The Two Eliezers

The son that Moses was supposed to circumcise at the inn was Eliezer. We know essentially nothing of this person. The Torah does not divulge any details at all about his life (he is only mentioned once, in this week’s parasha). However, there is one other person (and only one other person) in the Torah named Eliezer, and that was Abraham’s devoted servant. Of course, there are no coincidences in the Torah. So why did Moses’ son carry the same name as Abraham’s servant?

Abraham’s servant Eliezer was an exceedingly righteous individual. In fact, the Sages say he was one of only nine (or ten) people in history to avoid an earthly death and “enter Heaven alive” (Derekh Eretz Zuta 1:43). The Midrash famously states that when Abraham tasked Eliezer with finding a wife for Isaac, Eliezer had hoped that Isaac would be able to marry Eliezer’s own daughter. Although Eliezer certainly “converted” (as much as was possible then, before the Torah’s giving), he was nonetheless still impure because he was a Canaanite, cursed since the time of Noah. Abraham told him that as much as he would have liked Isaac to marry Eliezer’s daughter, the fact of the matter was that Eliezer still carried a curse: “You are cursed while my son is blessed, and cursed and blessed cannot go together,” Abraham said (Beresheet Rabbah 59:10).

The righteous Eliezer, too, needed a rectification. The Sages offer a number of explanations as to how his curse was eventually lifted. Eliezer wanted nothing more than to be a full-fledged Jew, blessed from birth. God made it happen: Eliezer the servant was reincarnated in Eliezer the son of Moses! Because of this, it was of tremendous importance that Eliezer the son of Moses be circumcised on the eighth day as required. This was the key to make Eliezer blessed and Jewish once and for all. His entire tikkun depended on it. We might now understand why Moses’ error was so grave, to such a degree that the Torah says God sought to eliminate him entirely! Tzipporah saved the day and merited an incredible rectification of her own. (It is worth mentioning that a part of Eliezer’s soul also reincarnated in Caleb, as the Arizal explains in a number of places.)

‘Eliezer and Rebekah’ by Gustave Doré

Everything comes full circle at the Sinai Revelation, in this week’s parasha. Eliezer the servant—now Eliezer the son of Moses—stands with all the Israelites at Mt. Sinai to receive the Torah. The Talmud (Avodah Zarah 22b) states that it was at this very point when the zuhama—referring to all the curses and spiritual impurities, going all the way back to the Serpent in the Garden of Eden—were lifted and removed from all those that stood at Sinai. Eliezer’s tikkun was complete. Amazingly, Eliezer the servant alluded to this himself back in Genesis, as the Ba’al HaTurim (Rabbi Yakov ben Asher, 1269-1343) beautifully points out (on Exodus 20:13):

The number of words [in the passage of the Ten Commandments] is 172 (עק״ב), which was alluded to by Eliezer [when he gifted Rebecca with jewellery] whose weight was a beka (בק״ע). And the two bracelets that he gave her hint to the Two Tablets. And their ten shekels of gold allude to the Ten Commandments…

By being a most devoted servant of Abraham, and bringing Isaac the perfect wife in lieu of his own daughter, Eliezer merited to stand at Sinai himself.

Did Moses Have a Black Wife?

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!