Tag Archives: Sexuality

Wasting Seed: Minor Taboo or Grave Sin?

In this week’s parasha, Vayeshev, we read about the incident of Yehuda and Tamar. Yehuda’s eldest son, Er, marries a beautiful woman named Tamar. Unfortunately, Er “was evil in the eyes of God, and God put him to death.” (Genesis 38:7) As was customary in those days, since Er died without a son, it was expected that his brother, Onan, would perform levirate marriage and take Tamar as his wife. As the Torah describes, the purpose of this is to essentially provide a sort of heir for his childless brother. Onan was happy to marry Tamar, but

knew that the progeny would not be his, and it came about, when he came to his brother’s wife, he wasted [his semen] on the ground, in order not to give seed to his brother. And what he did was evil in the eyes of God, and He put him to death also. (Genesis 38:9-10)

As we know, Yehuda would end up being with Tamar himself, and out of that union would come Peretz, the ancestor of King David.

‘Judah and Tamar’

The big question is: what was it that Er and Onan did that was so despicable to God? The classic answer is that they wasted their seed (as the Torah states above), which is why they were punished so severely. This narrative is then used as proof from the Torah that wasting seed is among the gravest of prohibitions.

And yet, the Torah itself does not actually prohibit wasting seed anywhere, at least not explicitly. Considering how strictly the Sages spoke about not wasting seed, we might be surprised to find that it is not one of the 613 commandments. So, what is the true extent of this prohibition? Where did it come from? And what was really going on with Er and Onan?

A Closer Look at Er and Onan

While the Torah tells us that Er was evil in God’s eyes, it does not explain why. Many commentators (including Rashi and Rabbeinu Bechaye) assume that he must have been evil for the same reason his brother Onan was: for wasting seed. Rabbeinu Bechaye (1255-1340) clarifies that the sin was not the act of wasting seed itself, but rather for an ulterior motive. Er did not want to impregnate Tamar so that her beauty would not be ruined. He wanted her solely for physical pleasure. This is what was despicable to God.

Similarly, a careful look at the Torah makes it clear that Onan’s sin was not wasting seed either. What the Torah says is that Onan did not want to fulfil the mitzvah of levirate marriage. He avoided impregnating Tamar because he “knew the progeny would not be his”, and the reason he spilled his seed on the ground was “in order not to give seed to his brother”. The sin here was not the act of wasting seed, but rather disrespecting his own brother, and refusing to fulfil the mitzvah of levirate marriage.

Such is the opinion of Tzror haMor (Rabbi Abraham Saba, 1440-1508), and we see similar comments by Sforno (Rabbi Ovadiah ben Yakov, 1475-1550). Chizkuni (Rabbi Hezekiah ben Manoach, c. 1250-1310) goes even further, saying that Onan was really out to increase his share of land, for if he would have fulfilled the mitzvah, the child would receive Er’s portion of land, and if not, then Onan would be the inheritor. From these commentaries, and the Torah’s own simple reading, we can definitively conclude that the sin was not the wasting of seed itself but the evil ulterior motives behind it, especially the disrespect for a brother.

All of this is right in line with the Torah’s persistent theme of brothers failing to love each other, starting with Cain and Abel and continuing through Isaac and Ishmael, Jacob and Esau, Joseph and his brothers, and Yehuda’s sons. The Torah takes every possible opportunity to remind us to love each other wholeheartedly (as we are all brothers), and that tragedies always befall the Jewish people when we lack brotherly love—as our Sages explicitly state countless times.

Going back to the subject at hand, nowhere else in the Torah is wasting seed an issue. The Torah does state that a man who has an “emission” is impure for purposes of going to the Temple. What he must do is bathe in water, and wait until the evening for the impurity to go away (Leviticus 15:16). No other punishment is prescribed, irrespective of why the man might have the emission.

Spilling Seed, or Spilling Blood?

It is in the Talmud where wasting seed takes on its grave overtones. The Sages compare one who wastes seed to a murderer, an idolater, and an adulterer (Niddah 13a-b). This is quite shocking, considering that murder, idolatry, and adultery are the three “cardinal sins” of Judaism. These are the things one must give up their life for in order to avoid, even if coerced. The Sages are equating wasting seed with the worst possible sins.

In the same pages, we read how Rav Yochanan holds that one who wastes seed “deserves death”. Interestingly, he bases himself on the verses in the Torah concerning the deaths of Er and Onan! Yet, as we’ve seen, their sin was not the act of wasting seed, but their evil ulterior motives. In reality, the Sages are hard-pressed to find a good source for the prohibition. They resort to various colourful interpretations of Scriptural verses in an attempt to illustrate the evils of wasting seed. For example, Isaiah 1:15 says “And when you spread forth your hands, I will hide My eyes from you; when you make many prayers, I will not hear, [because] your hands are full of blood.” Rabbi Elazar says that “hands are full of blood” is referring to those who masturbate, since spilling seed is like spilling blood! This is far from the plain meaning of the verse, which is obviously talking about actual bloodshed.

We should keep in mind that in these Talmudic pages, the Sages are not just prohibiting masturbation or wasting seed, but even for a man to simply touch their “member”—even to urinate! “Rabbi Eliezer said: Whoever holds his member when he urinates is as though he had brought a flood on the world.” Rabbi Tarfon later adds that his hand should be cut off! It goes without saying that the Sages were exceedingly careful to avoid any sexual transgressions, and raised many “fences” to ensure that no one should even come close to sinning so gravely. We must remember that the Talmud often uses hyperbole to get a point across and it isn’t always wise to take statements literally. The Sages themselves question Rabbi Eliezer, and say that not holding one’s member would be very impractical, for “would not the spray splatter on his feet…?”

The point, rather, is to teach us that “such is the art of the evil inclination: Today it incites man to do one wrong thing, and tomorrow it incites him to worship idols and he proceeds to worship them.” (Niddah 13b) The Sages are specifically referring to one who fantasizes to “give himself an erection”, and that such a person “should be expelled”. After all, the yetzer hara works in such a way that it gets a person to make a tiny sin, and slowly leads them to greater transgressions. It might start with a small thought, grow into a consuming fantasy, and eventually leads one to grossly misbehave. In short, the fear is that a person will get accustomed to bad habits, and it will end up leading to more severe transgressions.

Halacha & Kabbalah of Spilling Seed

The Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1135-1204) codifies as law the prohibition of wasting seed, whether with one’s partner or on their own (Mishneh Torah, Issurei Biah 21:18):

It is forbidden to release semen wastefully. Therefore a person should not enter his wife and release outside of her… Those who release semen with their hands, beyond the fact that they commit a great transgression, a person who does this will abide under a ban of ostracism. Concerning them, it is said: “Your hands are filled with blood.” It is as if they killed a person.

The Rambam makes a distinction between a situation of husband and wife versus a man doing it on his own, which is far worse and likened to murder. Having said that, many other great authorities in Jewish law were more lenient when it comes to wasting seed, especially when the intention is not evil. The Rambam’s contemporary, Rabbi Yehuda haHasid (1150-1217), wrote in his Sefer Hasidim that while masturbation is forbidden, and requires a great deal of penance to repair, it is occasionally permitted if it will prevent a person from a more serious sin. On that note, the Rambam himself wrote elsewhere (Commentary on the Mishnah, Sanhedrin 7:4) that wasting seed is not an explicit Torah prohibition, and carries no actual punishment of any kind. However, he writes in the same place that although many things are permitted when done consensually between husband and wife, it is nonetheless important to be exceedingly modest when it comes to sexuality.

The later Kabbalists understood that the Torah carries no explicit punishment for wasting seed, but found an allusion to a more mystical punishment. They taught that wasting seed produces banim shovavim, literally “wayward children” (a term that comes from Jeremiah 3:14 and 3:22). These impure spirits—potential souls that are brought into this world without a body—attach to a man’s neck and cause him great damage, and can harm his children, too. There is no doubt that the Rambam, being a strict rationalist and staying away from anything “Kabbalistic”, would disagree with this approach. The Rambam did not believe in demons or evil spirits, and refused to accept the validity of many (if not all) Kabbalistic ideas and practices.

The Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572), perhaps the greatest of Kabbalists, was a major proponent of the banim shovavim notion. Since his time, it has become customary in some communities to focus on purifying from sexual sins and from wasted seed during the weeks when we read the consecutive parashas of Shemot, Va’era, Bo, Beshalach, Yitro, and Mishpatim. Since the initials of these parashas spell “shovavim”, it is thought to be an auspicious time for such repentance. Yet even the Arizal taught that wasting seed is primarily a problem when a person does so on their own, for selfish, lustful reasons. If one is married, and there is genuine loving intimacy between husband and wife, the prohibition is no longer so clear cut. (See, for example, Sha’ar HaMitzvot on Noach).

Indeed, many authorities were lenient with regards to wasting seed in the context of a husband and wife being together—as long as they are not like Er or Onan. If the intention is pure, and the couple has fulfilled the mitzvah of procreation (so they are obviously not trying to avoid having children), then occasionally wasting seed is permissible. Among those that held this opinion include the tosafist Rabbi Isaac ben Shmuel (c. 1115-1184, in his comments to Yevamot 34b) and the Maharsha (Rabbi Shmuel Eidels, 1555-1631, in his comments on Nedarim 20a).

In fact, even the Arizal taught that, in certain special cases, wasted seed can serve a positive purpose. In Sha’ar HaGilgulim (ch. 26), we read how the ten drops of wasted seed that unintentionally emerged out of Joseph (as per the famous Midrash) resulted in levushim, protective “garments” for the soul. The seed wasted indirectly by tzaddikim may similarly produce such protective garments, especially when it happens during proper, loving, holy zivug (union) between husband and wife. Such union, while not fruitful in this world, corresponds to “heavenly unions” that are spiritually fruitful. It is important to repeat that this entails being an actual tzaddik—being righteous, just, observant, modest, humble, selfless—and being intimate in a holy, loving, kosher, monogamous union.

On that note, it is worth mentioning that a couple that is childless, or already pregnant, is absolutely allowed to continue to be intimate, and this is not at all considered “wasting seed”. (The Talmud adds that intimacy during the third trimester is particularly healthy for both mother and baby, see Niddah 31a.) At the very start of Sha’ar HaMitzvot, the Arizal explains that such unions might not produce physical children, but they produce many spiritual children. This is one meaning for the verse in the Torah that says Abraham and Sarah “made souls” in Charan (Genesis 12:5)—although they were physically childless, they had produced many souls in Heaven, and these souls later came down into human form. In fact, there are those who say these souls are given to converts, who receive a Jewish soul upon their successful conversion. The souls that Abraham and Sarah made all those years come down into the bodies of converts, which is the deeper reason why all converts are referred to as “ben Avraham” and “bat Sarah”.

To summarize and conclude, the issue of spilled seed is indeed a serious one, and should not be taken lightly. There is room to be lenient in certain situations, such as a righteous married couple who already has multiple children, or a young, unmarried gentleman, whose frustration might reach a point where he is led to worse sins. The Sages recognized how incredibly difficult the latter case can be, and stated that a young bachelor who lives in the city and can still hold himself back from sexual sins is so praiseworthy that God personally calls out his name in Heaven every day (Pesachim 113a). Rabbi Chiya, meanwhile, said that it is best to stay married no matter what, and to always treat one’s wife exceedingly well—even if she is the worst possible wife—because wives “save us from sin” (Yevamot 63a). It is fitting to end with another famous adage from the Talmud (Sukkah 52b): אבר קטן יש לו לאדם מרעיבו שבע משביעו רעב “There is a small organ in a man’s body—if he starves it, he is satisfied; if he satisfies it, he starves.”

What Was the Forbidden Fruit?

This week we begin a new cycle of Torah readings with Beresheet, undoubtedly the most mysterious parasha of the Torah. We read of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, and how they were forbidden from consuming the fruit of the Etz HaDa’at Tov v’Ra, “Tree of Knowledge of God and Evil”. What was this tree? What was its fruit? And why were Adam and Eve barred from eating of it?

In Western artwork, the Forbidden Fruit is usually depicted as an apple. This has no origin in Jewish thought, and instead comes from the interplay of the nearly identical Latin words mălum¸“evil” (as in the English “malevolent”), and mālum, “apple” (also the root of English “melon”). Having said that, Jewish texts do describe the Garden of Eden as having the smell of an apple orchard (see Rashi on Genesis 27:27). Maybe this is why the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil was associated with an apple tree—and why the Latin words for “evil” and “apple” are so similar!

In the Talmud, the Sages give three possibilities for the identity of the Forbidden Fruit (Sanhedrin 70a, Berakhot 40a). The first is that it was grapes. Apparently, Adam and Eve became drunk from wine, and this led to their sin. The Sages here admonish Noah for having planted a vineyard after the Flood (Genesis 9:20), for he should’ve known from Adam and Eve that this was a bad idea! The second opinion is that the Tree of Knowledge was a variety of wheat. This is based on the relatedness of the words chitah (חטה), “wheat”, and chet (חטא), “sin”. The third opinion is that it was a fig tree, since we read how Adam and Eve covered themselves up with fig leaves right after consuming the fruit (Genesis 3:7). Rabbi Nehemiah holds that, in poetic fashion, just as they sinned with the fig, they were covered up with the fig.

Of course, all three of these possibilities are problematic. Neither grape nor wheat is a “tree” in the traditional sense. And it is hard to imagine that the common fig would have once been the Forbidden Fruit. Conversely, the fig is generally portrayed in very positive terms in the Tanakh (see, for example, Deuteronomy 8:7 and Micah 4:4).

The simplest explanation is that the Tree of Knowledge was a completely unique tree, unlike any other in the world. Perhaps the Sages were trying to describe some of the qualities of the Fruit, and that it had elements of wheat, grape, and fig. Wheat can be turned into flour and made into bread, whose ability to rise is seen as a metaphor for an inflated ego (hence the deeper reason of removing chametz during Pesach). Grape can be turned into wine, the most common way for people to go under the influence and be drawn to sin. Figs are often associated with sexuality in mythology. Maybe the Forbidden Fruit symbolized pride, debauchery, lust—wheat, grape, fig. Interestingly, the initials of these three species in Hebrew can spell da’at (דעת), the Tree of “Knowledge”: Another name for wheat, or grain, in the Tanakh is dagan (דגן); grapes are ‘anavim (ענבים); and fig is te’enah (תאנה).

Blessing Bread and Returning to Eden

The Midrash expands on the Talmudic passage above (Beresheet Rabbah 15:7). It gives a further reason for why the Forbidden Fruit might be wheat. On the surface, the Midrash brings an old figure of speech that a person who lacks knowledge would be described as having never eaten bread. The deeper implication of this Midrash is that, unlike everything else, bread is a quintessentially human food. Animals also eat fruits, vegetables, meat, and milk, but only humans eat bread. Processing hard wheat into edible bread requires divine knowledge. This is symbolic of the divine knowledge found within the Tree of Knowledge.

Bread represents something very powerful: man’s ability to manipulate his environment for his own benefit. Animals do not have this ability; they are victims of whatever nature throws at them. Man alone is able to change nature. This could be as simple as baking bread, or as complex as seeding the clouds to make rain and manipulate the weather. The Tree of Knowledge represents this divine ability, and maybe this is why the Torah says that once man consumes of it, they will be like gods (Genesis 3:22).

Intriguingly, the Midrash goes on to a discussion of the hamotzi blessing recited on bread. Reading between the lines, the Midrash reveals that reciting hamotzi might very well be, from a Kabbalistic perspective, fulfilling a cosmic tikkun for the sin of Eden. God cursed the land following Adam and Eve’s sin, and when we recite birkat hamazon after eating a meal, we bless the good land that God gave us. This serves to “sweeten” (or reverse, or temper) that curse of Eden.

The Etrog as Forbidden Fruit

The same Midrash above also speaks at length about the possibility that the Fruit was a grape or fig. It adds that it could have been a fruit called berat sheva or a different variety called berat ali, the identities of which are no longer clear. Some comment that these are types of figs. Interestingly, Rabbi Abba of Acco says the Fruit was an etrog, the special citron we use on the holiday of Sukkot. He proves it by pointing out how the Torah states Eve saw the Tree of Knowledge was “good for food” (Genesis 3:6), as if the tree itself, and not just its fruit, was edible. Rabbi Abba says that, apparently, no wood is edible except for that of the etrog tree, so the Tree of Knowledge must have been an etrog!

The mitzvah of taking an etrog comes from the Torah’s statement that we should take a pri etz hadar, the fruit of a “precious”, “unique”, or “enduring” tree (Leviticus 23:40). For the Sages, only the etrog fit that description. The same description works for the Tree of Knowledge—certainly a one-of-a-kind and “enduring” species. We can take another mystical plunge into the Midrash and extract that the mitzvah of acquiring an etrog and performing netilat lulav on Sukkot is a spiritual rectification, or tikkun, for the primordial sin of Eden. It has been pointed out that we shake the lulav and etrog a total of 18 times (three times in each of the six directions), with 18 being the gematria of chai (חי), “life”. When Adam and Eve consumed the Forbidden Fruit, they brought death into the world. In turn, we take the etrog and bring life into the world. Fittingly, at no point in the holiday do we actually consume the etrog!

A Tree of Unification

The Midrash cited above concludes by saying all of the opinions are inaccurate, and that the Tree of Knowledge was, of course, its very own species. God “did not, and will not, reveal to man” the identity of this tree. Others hold that it wasn’t a tree at all, and the whole narrative is an allegory. The Tree of Knowledge is symbolic for something else.

The most popular explanation is that the Tree is symbolic of sexual union. The Arizal explains that da’at means sexual intimacy, which is why the Torah describes the union of husband and wife as “knowledge” (as in Genesis 4:1, 4:17, or 4:25). He states that sexual arousal begins in the mind, as does the process of generating seed, hence the relationship to “knowledge” (see Sha’ar HaPesukim on Beresheet). Indeed, today we know from a scientific perspective that the hormones governing the reproductive system and the production of sex cells emerge from the hypothalamus and pituitary in the brain.

From this perspective, Adam and Eve’s “fruitful” encounter is a metaphor for sexual intimacy. This seems to be the plain meaning of the text, which says how Adam and Eve recognized that they were naked, and goes on to state how they produced children. In his Creation Legends of the Ancient Near East (pg. 134), S.G.F Brandon (1907-1971) suggests that this is precisely why the central “punishment” of consuming the Forbidden Fruit was bringing death into the world. Until then, Adam and Eve were alone on a finite planet. Once they learned to procreate, Earth would get more and more populated until there would be no resources left. Death is, therefore, the most natural and fitting consequence. People must die to make way for new people, or else the world would quickly be at its limits. At the same time, when God says consuming the Fruit would make man godly, it means that it would give man the divine ability to create more humans!

Why Must Evil Exist?

If we read the Torah literally, what does it mean that Fruit was of a Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil? The simplest explanation is that Adam and Eve did not originally have a concept of good or bad. While Eden was entirely good, and full of every possible delight and pleasure, Adam and Eve had no way of appreciating it, for they had never known any suffering. All of us today appreciate pleasure because we have experienced pain. For Adam and Eve, the Garden of Eden was just bland.

In a strange kind of way, the world needs evil to exist, at least for a temporary period of time. God wanted a world that was entirely good and pleasurable, but paradoxically, such a world first needs to go through a period of evil and pain. Only afterwards can we truly appreciate the good, and fully revel in the delights of Eden. This is why God tells us that “I form light and create darkness, make peace and create evil, I am Hashem, who makes all these things.” (Isaiah 45:7) We therefore find ourselves in this temporary phase of (unfortunately) very great aches and challenges. In the grand scheme of things, these millennia are just a blip in the cosmic passage of time. Soon enough, this difficult—though necessary—phase will be over, and we shall return to a true Garden of Eden.

Future Utopia (Credit: Kitbash3d.com)

 

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!