Parashat B’haalot’ha

Friday, June 12, 2020 /20 Sivan, 5780
Parashat B’haalot’ha Numbers 8:1-12:16

Dear Friends,

I have studied this week’s Torah portion, B’haalotecha, on numerous occasions. This year the text struck me differently than in years past. It reads, “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married, “He married a Cushite woman!” (Numbers 12:1) The Rabbis speculate over the substance of their complaint. While, as some Rabbis contend, the sibling’s concern may have been over the strength of Moses’ marriage, I became incredibly disturbed by the other possibility, that the complaint is one of racial bias.

Miriam and Aaron refer to Moses’ wife as a Cushite twice in the first verse. While the word “Cushite” means a person from Cush, in Ethiopia, it refers to someone of dark skin. Some Rabbinic texts insist that a Cushite refers to a person of exceptional beauty, but verses’ context insinuates the opposite. Moses’ wife, Zipporah, was being torn apart solely because of the color of her skin.

I have struggled all week to make sense of this Torah portion. Our tradition teaches that God created every single person in God’s image. The color of one’s skin is not indicative of one’s character or worth. It is, therefore, difficult to understand how two prophets could voice such hatred in our holy text. Perhaps that is the point.

Aaron and Miriam are prophets. Aaron is the high priest, who devotes his life to spiritually uplifting his people and comforting those who are sick. Miriam devotes her life to bringing the community together and sustaining them with music and water. Even these incredible, sensitive leaders are not immune to the racial bias in our world.

God is enraged by their complaint and inflicts Miriam with a disease called Tzaraat, which turned her skin white as snow. As Professor David Daiches teaches, it is as if God is saying, “She’s too dark for you, is she? If you prefer whiteness, I’ll make you whiter than ever!” Miriam is forced to reflect on her bias, as she is separated from her community for an entire week, on account of her illness. During this time, the community also pauses, until Miriam can be readmitted. While there is no indication in the Torah about what happened during that week of pause, I’d like to think that Miriam, Aaron, and the Israelite people used the experience as an opportunity to consider color bias.

In the aftermath of the deaths of far too many people of color, we also can consider our racial bias. Our conversations, however, are not confined to a single week. Instead, they must continue for many weeks, months, and years to come. That is the only way to live up to the more profound teachings within our Torah. Until people of all colors are fully welcomed in Jewish institutions, and until people of all colors are given the same opportunities, the same benefit of the doubt, and do not need to fear for their lives, we have work to do. Some of our greatest prophets had a racial bias. So, too, do we. With hard work and dedication, we can make strides to becoming the anti-racists our Torah compels us to be.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Cassi Kail