Beha-alotkha: Facing It

One face is dark brown.  One face is white with disease.  One face radiates bright light.


circa 400 BCE, Greek

The dark face belongs to Moses’ wife in this week’s Torah portion, Beha-alotkha (“when you are drawing up”).

Miriam spoke, and Aaron, be-Moses on account of the Kushite wife that he had taken; for he had taken a Kushite wife.  (Numbers/Bemidbar 12:1)

be- (בְּ) = a prepositional prefix.  Like most prepositions, be- has many meanings.  In this context, be- = with, against.  (In the word beha-alotkha, be- = when.)

The ambiguity of the preposition be- has led to two interpretations of Miriam and Aaron’s complaint:

1) Miriam and Aaron speak privately with Moses on behalf of his wife, because he is not treating her properly.  What is he doing wrong?  Withholding sex from her, according to the Midrash Rabbah and later commentary.1  This interpretation provides one explanation of the next verse:

And they said: “Is it indeed only be-Moses God spoke?  Isn’t it also banu He spoke?”  (Numbers 12:2)

be- (בְּ) = In this context, the preposition be- = with, through.

banu (בָּנוּ) = with us, through us. Banu = be-(בְּ) + -anu (נוּT) = a suffix indicating a first personal plural pronoun as an object.

According to the commentary, Miriam and Aaron are saying that God speaks with them (or through them, when they serve as prophets), but they still have sex with their spouses.  Even if God speaks more often with and through Moses, that is no excuse for him to deprive his wife.

Moses and His Ethiopian Wife, by Jacob Jordaen, 1650

2) Miriam and Aaron speak publicly against Moses, complaining about his mixed marriage.

In Exodus/Shemot Moses’ wife was Tziporah, the daughter of a Midianite priest.  But this week, in the book of Numbers/Bemidbar, she is only called “the Kushite”.  Kush is the land south of Egypt, noted in the bible for people with very dark skin.2

Some commentators have argued that Tziporah is “the Kushite wife”, so-called either because she had darker skin than usual for a woman in the ancient Near East, or because “kush” also means beautiful, or because there was also a land of Kushites in Arabia.3

But others wrote that Moses had two wives, Tziporah and an Ethiopian.  Josephus told one version of an extrabiblical adventure for Moses in Ethiopia, where he supposedly served as an Egyptian general in his youth, won a war, and married the defeated king’s daughter.4

Whether the wife in this week’s Torah portion is a Midianite or a Kushite, the complaint about Moses’ marriage implies racism.  Yet the first five books of the bible are only concerned about marrying outside one’s religion.5  The Torah repeatedly tells us not to cheat or oppress foreign immigrants (see my post Mishpatim: The Immigrant).  Even the book of Ezra, which requires Israelite men to separate from non-Israelite wives, describes these foreign women in terms of their religious practices.6  And the book of Ruth is an example of a virtuous mixed marriage between an Israelite and a Moabite.

Moses’ wife, Midianite or Kushite, presumably converted, like Ruth.  So Miriam and Aaron may well find her acceptable, regardless of the color of her face.


When I see people who look markedly different from me and my family, I try to catch their eye, and then smile at them.  If they smile back, we might exchange a greeting.  Then as I walk on I feel brighter—and safer.  The stranger is not a threat after all, but someone like me.

Why do so many of my fellow citizens hate the stranger, the man with “black” skin, the immigrant who speaks a different language, the woman who dresses like a Muslim?  I know the answer: because they are afraid, and it feels better to turn fear into anger.

At least it does for many people.  One advantage of being scared of everyone as a child, even of girls who looked like me, is that now timidity is an old friend.  When I grew up I made a habit of smiling at people who do look like me, as well as those who don’t, and exchanging a greetings with them, too.  Then as I walk on I feel brighter—and safer.


by Ernest Christophe, 1876

The white face belongs to Moses’ sister, Miriam.

After Miriam and Aaron speak with or against Moses, God orders the three siblings to report to the Tent of Meeting.  According to God, the problem is that Miriam and Aaron are claiming to be prophets equal to Moses.  God declares that nobody is equal to Moses, and adds:

“Why were you not afraid to speak against my servant, against Moses?”  (Numbers 12:8)

Miriam is the instigator of the complaint against Moses. and God is angry.

And the cloud moved away from over the tent, and hey!  Miriam had a skin disease like snow!  Aaron vayifein Miriam, and hey!  Skin disease!  (Numbers 12:10)

vayifein (וַיִּפֵן) = turned to face.  (From the same root as paneh, פָּנֶה = face.)


Miriam’s skin disease is tzara-at, which make skin look dead-white and depressed compared to the surrounding skin.  (See my post Tzaria & 2 Kings: A Sign of Arrogance.)  The book of Exodus decrees that anyone with that skin disease must live outside the camp until it has healed.

Aaron begs Moses to intercede with God, saying:

“Please don’t let her be like one who is dead going out from the womb of his mother, and half his flesh looks eaten!”  (Numbers 12:12)

Moses prays, and God promises that Miriam’s skin disease will last for only seven days, but she must live outside the camp in shame for those seven days.

Moses is separated from his wife indefinitely, because his whole being is engaged in being God’s prophet.  Miriam is separated from the community for seven days, because she was too self-absorbed to see that Moses is a different kind of prophet.


Like Miriam, I can become so absorbed in my own desires and my own calling that I forget other people have different desires and different callings.  I write about the Torah, but I do not embrace every aspect of Jewish tradition.  Some Jews are meticulous about halakhah, the rules for behavior in every aspect of life.  Some are absorbed in the mysticism of kabbalah.  (I have encountered the same two types among Christians.)

I do not understand these people, any more than Miriam understood her brother Moses.  Nevertheless I have been guilty of speaking against them, declaring that both approaches are irrational.  They are irrational to me.  But my mind works differently from the mind of a strictly observant Jew or the mind of a mystic, even if our faces are similar.

When I express my own truth too loudly, I am like Miriam declaring that she is a prophet, too, so she knows Moses is wrong to be celibate.

Miriam blanches when God reveals her error.  She knows she must isolate herself until she has healed.  When I realize I have forgotten that individuals are different behind their faces, I feel ashamed and I retreat for a while.


The burning face belongs to Moses himself.  He acquires radiant skin in the book of Exodus, after seeing God’s “back” on Mount Sinai.

Moses, by James Tissot

When Moses went in before God to speak with [God], he would remove the veil until after he went out; and he went out and spoke to the children of Israel what had been commanded.  And the Israelites saw the penei Moses, that the penei Moses radiated light.  Then Moses put the veil back over panav until he came to speak with [God again].  (Exodus/Shemot 34:34-35)

penei (פְּנֵי) = face of.  (From paneh, פָּנֶה = face.)

panav (פָּנָו) = his face.  (Also from paneh, פָּנֶה = face.)

When Moses passes on God’s commands, he leaves his face exposed.  His glowing skin demonstrates that he is not an ordinary prophet like Miriam or Aaron.

But when he is not speaking with God or passing on God’s instructions, Moses veils his face.  The radiance of his skin is too overwhelming for the Israelites to see as they go about their daily tasks.

I imagine that if the skin all over his body also glows, marital relations would be difficult.  Even if Moses’ wife kept her eyes shut, could they touch one another the way they used to?  This physical explanation for Moses’ celibacy does not occur to Miriam or Aaron.

Nor does it occur to them that Moses never gets time off from listening for God.  God has conversations with Moses all the time, but Miriam and Aaron are summoned when God wants to speak with them.  In this week’s Torah portion,

Suddenly God said to Moses and to Aaron and to Miriam: “Go, the three of you, to the Tent of Meeting.”  So the three of them went.  And God came down in a pillar of cloud, and stood at the entrance of the tent, and called out: “Aaron and Miriam!”  (Numbers 12:4-5)

Then God reminds them that they are ordinary prophets, not comparable with Moses.


Several friendly Muslim women in our apartment complex wear a hijab whenever they leave their apartments.  Their hair and necks are covered, but their faces are exposed, so when I meet them in the laundry room we can easily exchange smiles and greetings.

But once I passed a woman in the grocery story wearing a burka, so her face was completely covered.  She could see through the mesh panel in front of her eyes, but I could not see her eyes, and therefore I could not meet them.  I smiled in her direction, but I could discern no response.  I felt as if I were smiling at a rock draped in cloth.

The woman in the burka was more isolated than Miriam during the seven days she lived outside the camp because of her skin disease.  And her isolation was deliberate.

Is Moses that isolated when he wears his veil around the camp?  What would it be like to give up all ordinary human contact?  What would you get in exchange for losing your face?

  1. Midrash Tanchuma (a 6th to 9th-century collection of allegories and homilies) assumes in Tzav 13 that Moses stopped having sexual relations with his wife. So do Exodus Rabbah 46:13 and Deuteronomy Rabbah 11:10 (10th to 12th century collections of imaginative commentary, part of the Midrash Rabbah), and Rashi (11th-century rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki).
  2. Being a Kushite indicates a genetic skin color in Jeremiah 36:14: “Can a Kushite change his skin?  Or a leopard his spots?”  It is a derogatory term in Amos 9:7, where God says challengingly: “Aren’t you like the Kushites to me, children of Israel?”
  3. E.g. Sifrei Badmidbar (a 3rd-century CE commentary on Numbers), 12:99; Midrash Tanchuma, Tzav 13; and Rashi.  Tziporah might be unusually dark-skinned because she spends her days out in the sun, like the female narrator in Song of Songs 1:5-6.
  4. Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, in Antiquities 2:252-253 (circa 93 CE), told one version of the Ethiopian marriage story invented by an unknown Judean sometimes between the 6th and 3rd centuries BCE.
  5. However, Deuteronomy 23:4-7 prohibits a Moabite or Edomite from converting.
  6. Ezra 9:1-2.


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