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When I was six, my mother, a single mother going back to work, hired Margie, an African American woman, to be our housekeeper. Her jobs included being there when my sisters and I got home from school, cleaning the house, doing the laundry and making us dinner, while my mother, who struggled with depression, worked, came home, took her Darvon and Librium, and read late into the night. Margie was wise and comforting and funny and in a lot of ways, more available and present to me than my mother was.
Margie’s son, Willis, who was two years older than I was, would come over to our house after school, do his homework alongside us, and play with us or watch TV. He ate dinner with my sisters and me and went home when Margie finished cleaning up after dinner.
I loved both of them and was crushed when Margie broke her hip and was no longer able to work for us, after four years. Both relationships were severely curtailed (but not ended).
Margie and Willis were close family to me and, as a result, I never understood racism. I mean, I knew it existed and was a powerful force in our country, and I didn’t get it. As we were slaves, and they were slaves, none of us deserved it. I grew up when the partnership between the two former slave communities was strong: between the facts that the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act were written at the Religious Action Center’s offices, and Abraham Joshua Heschel felt that his legs were praying when he joined Martin Luther King in Selma, and so many Jews participated in the Freedom Rides, even as a young person, you could feel that alliance.
And when President Obama was elected, I didn’t expect that racism would end, but I was really disappointed at how much angrier it seemed to get. But the anger was outpaced by the systematic, institutional racism reflected in the past year’s upheavals, in Ferguson and in Baltimore, and so many other places.
The goal was never that we would stop noticing difference, but that these differences would no longer hold people back. And I continue to dream about this, and try to work toward it.
A couple of weeks ago, Reb Irwin, Shari Brenner, Sam and I attended a workshop on Race and Privilege in the Jewish Community at the JCC in San Francisco, where J School and Ner Shalom were Sonoma County’s representatives. We heard eloquent testimony from several Jewish people of color.
One of the most striking things I heard at the workshop was the experience of one African American Jew by choice, converted under the tutelage of R. Alan Lew, who used to travel a lot for work and would visit congregations all over the world. He found that at progressive congregations, Jews tended to look at him a little curiously. “May I help you?” they would ask solicitously, even as they could see his yarmulke on his head and siddur under his arm. It seemed that they could not imagine he really belonged in their building.
Bechol Lashon (in every language, the organization that sponsored the workshop) cited the statistic that apparently as of now, about 20% of American Jews are people of color, whether through adoption, intermarriage, immigration from Sephardi (middle eastern) and Mizrachi (North African) communities or conversion… We at J School are at 11%, which is higher than any school I know. Because of that, and our shared history, and in honor of Margie and Willis, I want to help make sure that we are not a community that questions our kids, or their parents, or their right to be there; that we are not the ones who unconsciously ignore white privilege; that we can embrace our mistakes and our successes.
One story: one day, I was discussing with the oldest class the difference between the two Torah blessings the kids need to learn—the one here talks about “kervanu l’avadato” – You drew us near to You in service, while the one B’nai Israel prays, the traditional one, speaks about “bachar banu mikol ha’amim”—You chose us from among all the peoples. As we discussed the difference between these two ideas, one student said that “bachar banu” meant that God chose us to be the Master Race. After I picked my jaw up from the floor and we discussed why that wasn’t a term we generally use, another student commented that “God chose white people as the master race.” Yes, white people certainly DO appear to have most of the power. So we discussed whether that was a choice of God.
We teachers are also talking about diversity issues. We are all committed to making sure all our kids know their lives matter. Nevertheless, a certain amount of trepidation exists about bringing race to the surface—concerned that that alone could create a problem that did not exist. When I asked them if not talking about sexism made it disappear, they “got it”. Bechol Lashon asks whether not talking about antisemitism makes it disappear. Of course not.
And all this brings us to this week’s torah portion, Be’aholetecha (In Your Tents, the third portion in Numbers, the fourth book of the Torah). We find an incredible sixteen verse story about Miriam and Aaron speaking against Moses and his “Cushite” wife. First they criticize him, and then they complain that they have not received their due as prophets through whom God has spoken.
God hears them and summons the three siblings into the Tent of Meeting and chastises Moses’ big brother and sister, explaining God’s special relationship with their baby brother and challenges them: “Given that relationship, how DARE you speak against him?!?”
Then Miriam, but not Aaron, is stricken with a disease that covers her with white scales. Aaron is horrified, and asks Moses to intercede. Moses then utters the famous words, “El na refa na la”–God, please heal her, please.
God promises she will be healed after a week’s time spent outside the camp (in a time out?), during which time the whole community waits for her to rejoin them before pulling up stakes and moving to the next place.
So many questions arise in this brief story and so many midrash were written in attempts to answer them. Let’s start with this one: what does Cushite mean? And the answer to this is – well, take your choice.
- It could be a descendant of Cush, son of Ham, son of Noah. Ham was the one who uncovered his father’s nakedness, while his two brothers covered Noah after a drunken night. So Cushite might be a slur for an immoral person.
- It COULD mean a person from Cush, or Ethiopia.
- And from that (an Ethiopian), it could mean “black like a Cushite” as in noticeable or conspicuous.
- Rashi, on the other hand, noted that it could mean beautiful and striking in appearance.
Are they simply describing, is it a disparaging comment, or is it an admiring comment? Are they distinguishing between Zipporah, the Midianite wife, and some other wife from Cush, who never appears in the Tanakh before or after? Or are they calling Zipporah a Cushite, and does that mean she’s beautiful, or striking, or very black?? And is this a good thing, or a bad thing, or just a thing?
A midrash tells of Moses escaping to Cush after killing the slave taskmaster and marrying a Cushite woman, before going on to Midian. On the other hand, the Talmud (Moed Katan 16b) notes that “as a Cushite woman is distinguishable by her skin so also was Zipporah distinguished by her deeds.” In this case, being called a Cushite might simply mean “distinguishable.” I tend to believe the Cushite wife is Zipporah, but who knows?
The plot thickens in midrash that try to explain why Miriam was speaking at all. My favorite has to do with her sticking up for Zipporah, and, rather than calling out the Cushite wife, she was calling out Moses. The midrash harkens to an earlier part of the portion, when Eldad and Medad, two of the elders, start prophesying in the camp. Joshua, at this point Moses’ aide-de-camp, gets bent out of shape on Moses’ account, until Moses exclaims, “Would that we were all prophets!”
The story now spotlights Zipporah and Miriam standing together as they hear this exchange. Zipporah tells her sister-in-law Miriam that she feels sorry for Mrs. Eldad and Mrs. Medad, because now their husbands will abandon them, as Moses did her, when he started his close relationship with God. So, according to this midrash, Miriam was taking her brother to task for abandoning his wife.
So the next question for me is whether Miriam and Aaron were gossiping, as we have been taught, or were they staging an intervention to urge Moses to care of his wife? The text doesn’t say they were doing this in public. I wonder how much of this has to do with Moses being both so humble and God’s favorite, that God zapped Miriam with the white scales because God was protecting Moses.
And then there is the matter of Aaron not getting the same punishment. Remember, he is the same person who built the Golden Calf and received no punishment then either. Really, what’s up with that? One reason offered by the commentators is that the way our text is written, Miriam is the one taking the lead and Aaron is only supporting her (the Hebrew for “speak against” is in the third person feminine singular – which indicates she did the talking). And she is named first, and for the woman to be named first has to imply that she was doing the talking. Another reason seems to be that if Aaron was struck by the white scales, he would be unfit to serve as high priest for some period time, and couldn’t carry out his responsibilities, so he got off the hook. The things you can get away with according to your office, which only a man could hold!
I wonder how much of this is about a woman chastising a man, especially a man of considerable power – even if he were wrong. Of course sexism permeates the Torah, given the time in which it was written…
And so it means this is something we have to talk about—not as the main thing, or the only thing, but part of what is, just as we must discuss racism as it happens. Just as we must still recognize that Miriam might indeed have been talking about Zipporah being black as a bad thing and acknowledge that that is not okay.
I continue to marvel that our ancient texts continue to challenge us to explore what our world means today. Just as we are encouraged to turn this text over and over to explore its implications, so must we explore the conditions of our lives and their implications.
A long long time ago, our sages created a series of blessings for when we encounter different experiences—for seeing a rainbow, experiencing an earthquake, eating the first fruits, seeing royalty or a large gathering of Jews, hearing bad news—for everything. [There is even a blessing for seeing a beautiful person, which I think of as the blessing for seeing George Clooney.] The act of blessing demands that we take notice, be mindful of the world around us within the connection to holiness. Blessings can also offer us a window on a different perspective on how to perceive what we observe and experience. This is especially true in relation to the blessings for seeing someone or something different from ourselves.
My favorite blessing is this one: Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha’olam, m’shaneh habriyot—Blessed is the One Who creates diversity in creation.
According to our sages, it was to be used when we see an Ethiopian, or an albino or someone red-spotted or white-spotted in the face, or with an abnormal limb, in other words, someone whose appearance—their color ranging from black to white to spotted, or someone with an obvious disability might be “distinguishable”.
The blessing is a reminder that when we see someone who is different, we should consecrate the moment with a blessing. It is a way to help promote the civil society the torah has been trying to create over the millennia. For many of us, the first reaction might be to express the fear of the Other. This blessing gently guides us to see the Other, no matter how different, as part of the wondrous tapestry of creation. That it connects to the torah portion, in which we see the Cushite, or Ethiopian, and reminds us to experience it as a blessing, is, to me, the perfect antidote to racism, sexism, able-ism, homophobia. Indeed, one of my teachers, Rabbi Nate Ezray, of Congregation Beth Jacob in Redwood City, uses these blessings as part of the opening of his congregation’s preschool and afterschool teacher orientation, reminding every teacher to see each of their students as a blessing of the diversity of creation.
This is a practice that I will incorporate into J School, as a reminder that each of our children is both a blessing in their own unique way, and an essential thread in our own tapestry. May we all use it when we need it and reinforce our own sense of the beauty and holiness of each of us.