Parashat Bhaalotcha 5780

3 June 2020 – 11 Sivan 5780

Rabbi Alexandra Wright – 3rd June 2020


What happened to Moses’ ‘Cushite wife’? And who was she? This week’s parashah ends with the complaints of Miriam and Aaron against Moses ‘because of the Cushite woman he had married: ‘He married a Cushite woman!’ (Numbers 12:1)

Who was this Cushite woman whom Moses had married? We know from Exodus 2, that Moses had married one the seven daughters of a Midianite priest and that her name was Zipporah. She bears him two sons Gershom and Eliezer (Exodus 2:22 and 18:4). We encounter Zipporah only twice more in the Torah after her marriage: firstly, when Moses returns to Egypt with his wife and sons, in order to confront Pharaoh.

In a curious night-time incident on this journey, the Torah states: ‘The Eternal One encountered him and sought to kill him’ (Exodus 4:24). It is unclear to whom the ‘him’ in this verse refers. Is it to Moses or to one of the sons of Moses and Zipporah, whose circumcision, according to the commentators, has been delayed because of the journey? Zipporah, apparently in the absence of her husband, takes a flint and ‘cuts off her son’s foreskin, and touches his legs with it, saying, “You are truly a bridegroom (or perhaps more accurately ‘the one who has undergone circumcision’) of blood to me!” (4:25). In these three verses, Zipporah, the only one mentioned by name, has saved the life of either her husband or son by performing a ritual normally undertaken by men.

The second reference to Zipporah comes at the beginning of Exodus 18, when her father, Jethro, brings her to Moses at Mount Sinai, together with the two sons. The implication here is that she has been living with her father in Midian. But precisely when she left Moses to return to her father’s home isn’t clear. In this chapter, we are told simply, that she had ‘been sent home’ – achar shilucheha – at some previous time. Why? Did Moses divorce his wife as the Hebrew verb might imply? If that is the case, why does Jethro refer to Zipporah as Moses’ wife a few verses later?

But the real question is whether the Cushite woman, who is referred to in this week’s Torah portion is Zipporah or not. She is not mentioned by name, but by her tribal or national label. What did it mean to be a ‘Cushite’? One of the four rivers that flows out of the Garden of Eden is Gihon, encircling the land of Cush. Is this a reference to the Blue Nile that flows through Ethiopia? Elsewhere in Tanakh, Cush is identified as the son of Ham, one of the sons of Noah. Each of Noah’s three sons, referred to in the genealogy of Genesis 10, reflects (not always consistently) the divisions of language and geography – Shem, representing Asia, Japheth, Europe and Ham, Africa. Cush, therefore, was associated with Ethiopia.

And this might suggest, then, that Moses’ Cushite wife was from Ethiopia. But without her name, without her saying anything in this story, we remain in the dark about her identity. What is it that Miriam and Aaron are complaining about? If they are complaining about Zipporah, how do we reconcile the fact that she was from Midian, while the wife referred to here is ha-ishah cushit? Perhaps their complaint is that Moses had taken a second wife, as the 12th century Bible commentator, Rashbam suggests in his commentary to this story. According to a legend he cites, Moses rule for 40 years over the kingdom of Cush and had taken a Cushite woman as his queen, but had not consummated the marriage.

According to the plain and simple meaning of the verse, says Ha-Emek Davar, the Cushite was a ‘gentile black woman who had converted.’ But Moses had separated himself from her and both Miriam and Aaron disapproved, not of her origins or conversion, but the fact that he was not living with her.

But perhaps there is another dimension to this chapter. Perhaps what might be glaring to us today, was not quite as obvious to previous commentators. For there may well be a racial aspect to this story: Miriam and Aaron speak against the Cushite woman because she is black. She is dark-skinned, different, other and alien. And if this sounds heavy-handed, then turn to the end of the verse where God punishes Miriam by afflicting her with tza’ra’at – leprosy. Her skin turns ‘snow-white’, as though God retaliates against her by saying, ‘As you criticised this woman on account of her skin-colour, I will turn your skin as white as snow and this will be your punishment.’

Miriam is shut out of the camp for seven days, holding up the continuation of the Israelites’ march through the desert.
But what happens to the Cushite woman? Does she remain with Moses, perhaps one of several wives that the great lawgiver took for himself? Who were her children?

Perhaps one of her descendants is the Cushite messenger sent by Joab, David’s commander of the army, to bring news of Absalom’s death to his father, stirring these words of lament from the king: ‘My son Absalom! O my son, my son Absalom! If only I had died instead of you! O Absalom, my son, my son!’ (2 Sam. 19:1)

Or were her children the exiles of Cush, led away stripped and barefoot by Assyrian captors in Isaiah (20:4)? Or perhaps they were the people, foretold by the prophet who would, in time to come, be fettered by chains, to become Israel’s followers – bowing low, reverently addressing them with the words, ‘Only among you is God, there is no other god at all’ (Isaiah 45:14).
We must discover the Cushite wife through these other characters of Tanakh, because there is so little text about her – men such as Eved-Melech, the Cushite, a eunuch who appeals to King Zedekiah during the siege of Jerusalem, to rescue Jeremiah from a pit into which he had been thrown to die of hunger. Eved-Melech, himself, is sent by the king to pull Jeremiah out of the pit by a rope.

Today, her voice is the voice of the black woman or man, George Floyd, killed last week when a police office pressed his knee into his neck. Her voice represents the voices raised now in protest against grotesque racist injustices in the United States, in our own country and other parts of the world. She is the voice of a people humiliated, oppressed, made to feel alien and other, against whom there has been generations of untold cruelty and whose very presence reveals the bleakest elements of inequality in our societies.

Are we not afraid, not of the protests we see throughout cities of the United States, but of such deeply embedded racism? ‘Few of us seem to realize how insidious, how radical, how universal an evil racism is,’ wrote Abraham Joshua Heschel in a piece about religion and race in 1963. ‘Few of us realise that racism is man’s gravest threat to man, the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason, the maximum of cruelty for a minimum of thinking.’

There can be no more powerful testimony both to the diversity of humanity and our oneness, our equality and equivalence than the verses in Amos: ‘To me, O Israelites, you are just like the Ethiopians – declares the Eternal One’ (Amos 9:7). There is no difference between you and your fellow human beings, says God. I brought you up from the land of Egypt, but also the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir.’ No one is granted special privilege either because of history, religion or race. You are the same to me, says God.

‘He married a Cushite woman!’ Moses, the leader of the Jewish people, the protagonist of the Torah, marries a woman from a different country, whose colour is different, whose past and traditions are different, but he unites himself with her as one. She may be black, but she is beautiful, ‘like the tents of Kedar, like the pavilions of Solomon.’ And she says to those who stare: ‘Don’t stare at me because I am black, because the sun has gazed upon me…’ (Song of Songs 1:5-6)

God and Moses set the Cushite woman as an equal, the object of love and beauty, casting aside the slander of Miriam and Aaron and delivering a harsh lesson against the devastation wreaked by inequality, humiliation and oppression.

To end with the prescient words of Abraham Joshua Heschel: ‘God is every man’s [sic] pedigree. He is either the Father of all men or of no man. The image of God is either in every man or in no man.’

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