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D’var Torah for Parshat Beha’alotecha

by Rabbi Emily Kapor-Mater

June 12, 2020 / 20 Sivan 5780

This week’s parashah has a very well-known and controversial, one might even say infamous episode, of Moshe and his siblings. 

Aharon and Miriam denounce Moshe “because he married a Cushite woman”. It’s not clear what this means. Previously established Moshe’s wife is Zipporah, who was stated to be from Midian, which was probably in the Arabian Peninsula, near where modern Jordan and Saudi Arabia come together.

But “Cushite” seems to mean “from Cush”, which is the Biblical name for what we now know as Ethiopia, or more properly Nubia, so whether this woman is the same as Zipporah, or a different wife, is not specified in the Torah’s text.

What was it about Moshe’s Cushite wife that Aaron and Miriam were criticizing? It’s hard to know, since the Torah doesn’t say explicitly, but since “Cushite” is used elsewhere to refer to a person’s skin color as dark, or what we would think of today as black, it seems possible that what Aharon and Miriam were criticizing was Moshe’s wife’s skin color. More than that, they were criticizing Moshe’s choice to marry someone outside of his own race—what we now know as miscegenation.

God, of course, famously strikes Miriam with the illness called tzara’at, usually translated as “leprosy” but referring more precisely to some kind of whitening skin condition. God, in effect, is saying, “You criticize Moshe’s wife for being black? I’ll make your skin sickly pale white.” And it’s not even necessary to look at this as an explicit illness: Miriam was stricken, as my friend Rabbi Sandra Lawson says, with whiteness.

Today is the 53rd anniversary of the Supreme Court decision Loving v. Virginia, which declared that it was against the Constitution to deny two people the right to marry because they were of different races. Loving put an end to anti-miscegenation laws in the United States, but it didn’t end racism, which of course takes many forms other than simple legal discrimination.

I could end this d’var Torah with a plea for tolerance and an end to institutional racism, but that’d be a bit heavy-handed and obvious. Instead, I’d like to cast our attention a few verses later, to the end of the story. Moshe prays the shortest prayer on record—“El na r’fa na la”, please God heal her now—and Miriam is healed. The people then wait seven days for Miriam while she heals from her affliction before journeying onwards, “and the people did not march on until Miriam was readmitted to the camp” (Num. 12:15).

The people couldn’t march on until Miriam was readmitted. Not just because she was ill and important, but there’s another sense in which the people couldn’t continue. The national growth of the people Israel couldn’t continue until a different attitude emerged.

We are at a crucial national moment in this country: one that will define the legacy of this year, and time beyond. The structural problems of racism, inequality, police brutality, are finally becoming too big and noticeable for the normally complacent white population of this country to ignore. Time will tell, of course, whether we are really at a tipping point or not, and much will depends on whether people like me, whose skin color happens to be not dark, choose to make it all about ourselves or to amplify the voices of those who live every day with this oppression and disprivilege.

Like the children of Israel, we cannot all move on until we are cured from our toxic whiteness. All lives will only matter when black lives matter.

Thu, June 8 2023 19 Sivan 5783