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?
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 Ur 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.
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.”
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.
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 millenium 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.
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.
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!