Beha-alotkha: Unnatural Skin

June 6, 2011 at 4:11 pm | Posted in Beha-alotkha | 1 Comment

Miriam spoke, and Aaron, against (or with) Moses on account of the Kushite wife that he had taken; for he had taken a Kushite wife.  And they said:  Is it indeed only with Moses God spoke?  Isn’t it also with us He spoke?  And God heard?  (Numbers/ Bemidbar 12:1-2)

Kushiyt = a female from the territory south of Egypt; a female Nubian; a woman with very dark skin

Miriam takes the lead in complaining on account of Moses’ Kushite wife, and Aaron goes along with her.  Medieval Jewish commentators objected to the idea that Moses would take a second wife, and they went to great lengths to argue that the Kushite wife was really Moses’ Midianite wife, Tzipporah.  Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki) even gave three different reasons why Kushite in this context really means “beautiful”, and has nothing to do with the wife’s skin color or country of origin.

I object to the idea that Moses would take a second wife for a different reason: at this point his entire life is devoted to getting instructions from God and translating them for his people; he has no psychic energy for anything else, even a wife.  But whether the wife in these verses is Tzipporah or another woman, she must have very dark skin—and not just a deep suntan.  Jeremiah 36:14 asks, “Can a Kushite change his skin?  Or a leopard his spots?”

Classic commentary agrees that whoever the Kushite wife is, Miriam and Aaron are complaining on her behalf, because Moses is neglecting his marriage bed.  Since Miriam and Aaron point out that God speaks with them, also, the implication (according to Medieval commentaries) is that if they can be both prophets and sexually active spouses, Moses ought to do it, too.

But God disagrees, explains that Moses operates on a higher level of prophecy, and punishes Miriam with a skin disease.  In this Torah story, Moses’ Kushite wife has naturally dark skin, and God imposes unnaturally white skin on Miriam.

And the cloud departed from above the Tent; and hey! Miriam had the skin disease that is like the snow; and Aaron turned to Miriam and hey!  skin disease!  (Numbers 12:10)

What does it mean to compare her skin disease to snow?  There are six other places in the Hebrew Bible where the word for snow, shaleg, is used as a simile, rather than as  a reference to the actual icy precipitation.  Two of them also describe skin disease.  The other four mean either white, or clean and pure.  The skin disease of tzara-at is definitely not clean or pure, but the symptoms given in Leviticus do include a white patch of skin.  So Miriam, after complaining on account of a woman with especially dark skin, is stricken with especially white skin.

Moses himself has another kind of skin, which he acquired in the book of Exodus after seeing God’s “back” on Mount Sinai and bringing down the second set of stone tablets.

When Moses came before God to speak with Him, he would remove the veil until he went out; then he went out and told the children of Israel what had been commanded.  And the children of Israel saw the face of Moses, that the face of Moses shone with rays of light; then Moses put the veil back over his face until he came to speak with Him (again).  (Shemot/ Exodus 34:34-35)

Moses, his Kushite wife, and his sister Miriam all have unnatural skin at the end of the Torah portion Beha-alotkha.  Because they look different from a normal Israelite, or even a normal Egyptian camp follower, all three are outcasts of one sort or another.   The Kushite wife is singled out for her dark skin, which marks her as a non-Israelite.  Miriam has to live outside the camp for seven days while her skin looks like snow.  And Moses has to cover his face whenever he is not speaking with God or passing on God’s instructions, because the radiant light of his skin is too overwhelming to the Israelites when they go about their daily life.

In the Hebrew of the Torah, as in modern English, “light” is also a metaphor for insight (“enlightenment”), and for a good soul.  I’m sure the Torah meant Moses’ radiant skin to be a sign that he was a man of extraordinary insight and goodness.  I’d like to extend this approach to the Kushite wife’s dark skin and Miriam’s white skin.

We know now that a dark surface absorbs light, while a white surface reflects light.  Perhaps Moses’ Kushite wife absorbed Moses’ teachings and goodness, but was unable to share them, to reflect them out to others.  Are you like the Kushite, absorbing enlightenment but not spreading it?

In my Torah monologue “Miriam’s Healing”, I imagine Miriam in this week’s Torah portion as a self-confident leader and prophetess who speaks out against anything she thinks is unfair, including Moses’ sexual separation from his wife.  Only when she is stricken with skin disease and has to spend a week in isolation does she switch from spreading her own enlightenment to considering what life might be like for her brother Moses.  Are you like Miriam, reflecting out enlightenment without replenishing your own store of understanding?

Do you aspire to be like Moses, a clear vessel for enlightenment to shine through?

I suspect I’m more like an ordinary Israelite, who can only manage a brief glance, once in a while, at the frighteningly bright rays of enlightenment.  The rest of the time I need a veil between myself and the divine light.  I can only absorb so much.  But I hope that whatever vessels of divinity I encounter wear a veil that a little gentle light shines through.  Then my mind can keep on learning and my soul can keep on growing.


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  1. […] she leads her brother Aaron in a joint complaint regarding Moses’ wife.  (See my post Beha-alotkha: Unnatural Skin.)  The two siblings point out that they are prophets, […]

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