The Torah Text
Seemingly out of nowhere, Miriam and Aaron gossip critically about Moses. They say, “He married a Cushite woman!” (Numbers 12:1). But what does that even mean? All we’ve heard in the Torah is that Moses married Zipporah, who is Midianite, not Cushite (which many understand to be Ethiopian). Content warning: This comment from Ibn Ezra displays color bias around female beauty. I do not endorse this painful strand of tradition, but feel it is important to acknowledge that it is present (and impossible to ignore in this particular Torah story).
Ibn Ezra’s Teaching
ותדבר מרים. היא דברה גם אהרן הסכים או החריש על כן נענש
יש אומרים כי משה מלך על כוש ולקח כושית והמתרגם אמר שפירתא וטעמו לשון כבוד כאשר יקראו הישמעאלים לזפת הלבן גם אנחנו נקרא העור סגי נהור. והנה לא יתכן שנקרא שם שהוא לשבח להפכו לגנאי
והישר בעיני שזו הכושית היא צפורה כי היא מדינית ומדינים הם ישמעאלים והם דרים באהלים וכן כתוב ירגזון יריעות ארץ מדין ובעבור חום השמש אין להם לבן כלל וצפורה היתה שחורה ודומה לכושית
וטעם כי אשה כשית לקח. זה הדבור שדברה מרים ומה נכבד דברי קדמונינו שאמרו על הזקנים אשריהם ואוי לנשיהם והנה חשדו משה כי לא נמנע לשכב עם צפורה רק בעבור שאיננה יפה
Numbers 12:1 AND MIRIAM…SPOKE. Miriam spoke. Aaron agreed or was silent. Hence he was also punished.
… Some say that Moses was king of Cush and took a Cushite woman (Yalkut Shimoni on Shemot, 168; 247). Onkelos renders Cushite, beautiful. According to Onkelos, Cushite is an honorific term. The Arabs similarly call pitch white. We too refer to a blind person by the term sege nahor (rich of light) (Talmud Bavli, Berachot 58a). But it is illogical to turn a positive name into a negative one.
… I believe that the Cushite woman is to be identified with Zipporah, for Zipporah was a Midianite. The Midianites are Ishmaelites and they live in tents. Scripture similarly writes: The curtains of the land of Midian do tremble (Habakkuk 3:7). Because of the sun they do not have any whiteness at all. Zipporah was black and was like a Cushite.
[FOR HE HAD MARRIED A CUSHITE WOMAN.] These are the words that Miriam spoke. How precious are the words of the ancients who said with regard to the elders, “Happy are they, but woe to their wives.” They suspected that Moses refrained from sleeping with Zipporah only because she was not beautiful.
Reflections for the Path
Rashi suggests that Cushite was used as a false pejorative to protect from the evil eye, the way we might downplay a positive trait or experience so as not to “jinx” ourselves. Ibn Ezra appears not to believe in the evil eye, so calling something less desirable than it is makes no sense to him. Onkelos understands Cushite (read: black) means beautiful.
Talmud Bavli, Moed Katan 17b, among other places, teaches that Miriam and Aaron’s complaint was that Moses stopped having sex with Zipporah since he was chosen to receive divine revelation. Miriam thought since she was a prophetess yet still had sex, it should be ok. However, God reveals that Moses is an entirely different order of prophet. His constant intimacy with God means he has no opportunity for undistracted intimacy with another human.