Parshat Beha’alotcha – Wherein Miriam is Punished with Whiteness

June 11, 2020

From the Rabbi

Parshat Beha’alotcha

Wherein Miriam is Punished with Whiteness

It is our practice to turn the text of Torah over and over, as the Mishna instructs, so that the facet meant to illuminate our particular moment surfaces and inspires. Each year, the parshiyot strike us uniquely, and so it should be.

At another time, I might say that our prophetess Miriam was not speaking against her Black sister-in-law Tzipora, but rather about her, concerned for her. I might bring the midrashim that say Tzipora was no longer wearing jewelry, and Miriam worried about a strain in the marriage between Tzipora and Moses. These midrashim teach that Miriam and Aaron were speaking about how to help their brother and his wife, as Moses became overly absorbed in his work, less attentive to his family.

But this year I don’t want to turn attention away from the suggestion of racism. I read God meting out terrible punishment against Miriam’s whispers about her Cushite sister-in-law, for she was Black. God doesn’t say, “Hey, all lives matter.” God says something more like, “If you denigrate the dignity of a Black life, beware lest you lose your own life.” “If Black life does not matter, no life matters.” And with this sentiment, God whitens Miriam with a paradoxical malady that mocks her racism with a whiteness threatening the very integrity of her skin. As this vital organ begins to fall away, Moses raises his voice in supplication: “Ana, El, na; rafa na la!” – Please, God; please heal her!”

She is removed from community till she heals.

The question for us is: What does the healing entail? What will it take?

We must be careful not to allow our sense of historical victimization as Jews to get in the way of our advocacy. We must be careful not to be complacent in our sense of ourselves as inclusive and unbiased, even with our heightened awareness, even with our attention to social justice. Miriam was, after all, a prophetess, a leader of women, a font of nurturing, deeply spiritual. Still, Torah demonstrates that she was susceptible to whispering about the Other in her family. We must renew our curiosity about the experiences of those Persons of Color with whom we live and with whom we share spheres of community. We must educate ourselves regarding white privilege so that we critically see where and how we contribute to the systemic imbalance. We must be careful not to mistake our sincere sentiments for activism. And we must commit to a long period of unlearning and re-learning so that the social change necessary will be rooted and will prevail.

May these aspirations be a part of our vision as we build the post-pandemic world of our dreams.