A Backstory for Moses
For all the grit and grandeur of his character, Moses could never be the biographical subject of a commercially successful book. We don’t know enough about his private life. New books on Franklin Delano Roosevelt or John F. Kennedy or Martin Luther King sell because they slake our thirst for the salacious. By illuminating their private lives, their authors presume to deepen our understanding of their noteworthy public careers. But by now the quest has become an unedifying end in itself.
The Torah deigns to tell us almost nothing about Moses off–stage. How we yearn to catch a glimpse of him as a child of privilege growing up in Pharaoh’s court. Only the bare facts of his own domestic life are shared with us. In flight from Pharaoh’s wrath, Moses marries Zipporah, the daughter of a Midianite priest, who bears him two sons, Gershom and Eliezer (Exodus 2:21–22, 18:2–4).
It is a striking fact that we never hear of Moses’s sons again. Unlike the sons of Aaron, who inherit his priestly leadership, the sons of Moses do not figure as the natural heirs to the office of their father. Nor are we given a clue as to why. In truth, we know as little about the fate of his sons as we do about the location of his grave. Political leadership in Moses’s Israel was to be a function of charisma and not birth.
Part of the reason for this self–denial may have been the utter unworthiness of Gershom and Eliezer to succeed their father. A tantalizing detail points to a tragic pattern not uncommon in the household of biblical leaders. The book of Judges records a campaign by the tribe of Dan for territory in Israel. The time, not long after the death of Samson when “there was no king in Israel; every man did as he pleased (Judges 17:6).” The Danites conquered the peaceful Phoenician town of Laish in the Upper Galilee, renamed it Dan and installed a cult with a sculptured image to be run by one “Jonathan son of Gershom son of Menasseh and his descendants (Judges 18:30).”
In Hebrew but one letter, a nun, separates the name of Menasseh (Menasheh) from that of Moses (Mosheh), and in our text the nun is elevated, as if it doesn’t belong, suggesting an older reading of Moses. The Rabbis acknowledge as much: the grandson of Moses presided over a sanctuary that violated the faith of his grandfather. Out of respect for Moses they tried to obscure the identity slightly by inserting a suspended nun, a letter that hangs there with all the ambivalence of a child of a prominent parent. While the Bible fails to reveal the domestic price of Moses’s leadership, it is not quite so sparing with the offspring of other public figures like Aaron, Eli, Samuel or David.
These thoughts are brought to mind by this week’s parasha where, in addition to the recurring complaints of his ungrateful and impatient nation (including some 600,000 young men of military age), Moses is confronted with criticism from within by his own family. Miriam and Aaron attack him on the conduct of his domestic affairs: “He married a Cushite woman!” they declare either to themselves, or to him, or worse still, in public. They add, “Has the Lord spoken only through Moses? Has he not spoken through us as well? (Numbers 12:1–2)” That is all we are told about the substance of their grievance. The very cryptic quality begs for elaboration by the midrashic imagination.
The Rabbis tend to identify Zipporah as the dark–skinned Cushite women (despite the fact that the word means Ethiopian), turning an apparent ethnic slur into an issue of celibacy. Interestingly, they take the term black to mean beautiful in body and deeds. Nevertheless, Moses’s marriage was marked by separation, even when husband and wife lived together. At some point in his struggle with Pharaoh, Moses must have sent his family back to Midian, to be reunited only shortly before the appearance of God at Sinai, when they were returned to Moses by Jethro, his father–in–law. Yet on his own, after the experience of revelation, Moses decided to forgo any further intimacy with his wife, believing he could not be intimate with both God and Zipporah. He reasoned as follows: if Israelite spouses were to be separated for a period of three days prior to revelation (Exodus 19:10–11, 15) in order to meet God in a state of purity, then he who speaks with God constantly, and often on a moment’s notice, should surely remain in a perpetual state of readiness. According to the Talmud, God acquiesced to Moses’s logic.
But not Miriam. She noticed that Zipporah no longer bedecked herself with jewelry, and when she asked why, her sister–in–law answered that Moses had grown indifferent to her looks. Miriam immediately understood what had happened, reported the fact to Aaron and together they upbraided Moses for regarding marriage and prophecy as incompatible. This was the point of their testimony that God also spoke with them, and yet they felt no need to leave their mates. Moses’s asceticism betrayed an overcharged religious sensibility.
This remarkable midrashic reading may not recapture the original intent of the text. If we read it in context without any external props, the remark by Miriam and Aaron could well be an ethnic slur, prompted by the previous rebellious episode in which the discontent against Moses was fomented by “the riffraff (Numbers 11:4),” that is the foreigners in Israel’s midst. Yet Moses himself is married to a non–Israelite!
However, I prefer the midrashic reading because faith is not a matter of ethnicity. Israel had its share of skeptics. Rather, the Rabbis reread our elliptic story in light of the widespread ascetic trends of their own day, especially among the early Christians. They imputed to Moses an embrace of celibacy, of a singleminded devotion to God and of a disdain for the body which was inimical to the centrality and sanctity of the family. Service to God did not release one from the supreme commandment to “be fruitful and multiply.” Marriage was not inferior to celibacy but part of creation’s order. If necessary a Sefer Torah, the holiest artifact in Judaism, could be sold to raise funds to marry. Spiritual intensity was not to be sought at the expense of our bodily needs and social responsibilities, but through them and alongside them. That this rejection of the monastic ideal was put into the mouth of a woman makes it all the more piquant.
At the same time, the midrash hints darkly at the other victims of Moses’s absence, namely his sons. The product of a non–Israelite mother and remote father, they were destined to grow up blind, abandoned to the beliefs and practices their father’s monotheism struggled to transcend. Moses would not escape the price for ignoring his private life.
Shabbat shalom u–mevorach,