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Dvar Torah B’haalotcha 5780

When anyone asks me what my Bat Mitzvah parsha was about, I quickly answer - the Menorah. At twelve years old, I learned very little about the Torah portion itself, being only allowed to chant the Haftarah. Since the verses from Zechariah were about the menorah, I studied its connection to the Torah portion and left it at that. For years I associated this parsha with בְּהַֽעֲלֹֽתְךָ֙ אֶת־הַנֵּרֹ֔ת - when you light the lamps - and that was that.

When I gave the dvar torah at PSJC five years ago on the twentieth anniversary of my Bat Mitzvah, it turns out I started the dvar in a similar way, naming that I had always associated the text with the menorah, and while the other stories were familiar to me, I had never put them in the context of Parshat B’haalotcha.

What could it mean to have this same realization twice? Once we have decided that something is the way it is, it takes time and effort and a commitment to see it in a different way. We have to be prepared to change our way of thinking and be open to something new.

The text of the parsha shares a similar lesson; members of the community who were ritually impure at the time of the Passover sacrifice have a second opportunity to make an offering to God one month later - Pesach Sheini. When we are not prepared the first time, we have another chance.

Near the end of the parsha we read in Bamidbar Chapter 12 verse 1:

וַתְּדַבֵּ֨ר מִרְיָ֤ם וְאַֽהֲרֹן֙ בְּמשֶׁ֔ה עַל־אֹד֛וֹת הָֽאִשָּׁ֥ה הַכֻּשִׁ֖ית אֲשֶׁ֣ר לָקָ֑ח כִּֽי־אִשָּׁ֥ה כֻשִׁ֖ית לָקָֽח:

Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses regarding the Cushite woman he had married, for he had married a Cushite woman. Cushite likely refers to someone from the land of Kush - or Nubia - in the southern Nile valley. When the Torah says something twice - especially within the same verse - it is for emphasis. Why is the phrase “Cushite woman” included twice? Who is this woman? Why are his siblings using her Cushite identity to speak against Moses?

This story is often used as an example for the importance of la-shon ha-rah- the guarding of one’s tongue and the prohibition of gossip. Rabbis have used this story as a source text on intermarriage. The rabbis also seem to focus on the inclusion of this double description as a debate between whether Moses was married twice successively or if he was a polygamist. We know from Exodus Chapter 2 that Tzipporah, Moses’ first wife, is from the land of Midian, so the description here of a Cushite woman could mean an entirely different person or a different way of identifying Tzipporah. The commentary goes as far as to say that a dark-skinned woman is so rare in the Torah that really this is not an adjective to describe her skin color, but rather uniqueness in character. Why were the rabbis so afraid to talk about race?

In response to the gossiping and displayed jealousy, Miriam is afflicted with tza-raat - her skin turns white as snow. We will ignore that Aaron does not seem to be punished at all for the same act. Moses, upon seeing his sister suffering, prays to God, ““Ana El Na Refana-la,” - please God, heal her.”

Rabbi Sandra Lawson of Elon University, the first openly gay, black, female rabbi in the world, spoke this week at a rally in North Carolina, saying that this was a prayer to cure Miriam of the affliction of whiteness. It is a play on the skin affliction - tza-ra-at - white as snow, but also a commentary on Miriam’s need for healing in the way she saw Tzipporah, and perhaps by extension, the way we read the text. I’ll add here that the reality is that no one in the Torah was actually white, both due to ethnicity and geography, and the notion that race is a social construct which developed much later. It is then all the more interesting that Tzipporah’s racial identity is noted twice in the text and that traditional commentary seems to focus on ethnicity rather than race. Only once in my years of Torah study can I remember hearing about this story as an example of talking about race, and it was much later in my studies and not a focus of the conversation. The rabbis seem to come up with every possible understanding for repetition of the word Cushite, other than that Miriam and Aaron are speaking directly about her skin color.

We never truly learn why Miriam and Aaron mention that Tzipporah is a Cushite woman. They are actually speaking “against Moses,” saying, “Has Adonai only spoken through Moses? Has he not spoken through us as well.” They are defensive of their relationship with God and questioning his sole authority, and then in turn refer to his relationship with Tzipporah.

Is this the first example of White Fragility? Robin DeAngelo, author of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism, says that, “White Fragility is a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves. These moves include the outward display of emotions such as anger, fear, and guilt, and behaviors such as argumentation, silence, and leaving the stress-inducing situation.”

I briefly hesitated to make this the topic of this morning’s dvar Torah, both because I was originally drawn to the idea of Pesach Sheni in the time of Covid, and also, because who am I to talk about race? If you have seen the Scaffolded Anti-Racist Resources document that has been circulating on social media created by Anna Stamborski, Nikki Zimmermann, Bailie Gregory (and if you have not, it is on the Hebrew School website, so go check it out after Shabbat), my stage of white identity development is all over the place, maybe somewhere around pseudo-independence and moving towards immersion, which basically means I have done some of the work, but have a lot left to do. It can be overwhelming to realize that so many of us had it so wrong for so long and so we seek sources for answers to our questions. This week’s New York Times Bestseller list says I am not alone in thinking that way as people try to find guidance in reframing the way we think and talk about race.

For a long time it was thought by white parents that the best way to raise non-racist children was to teach them that race does not matter. They interpreted the words of Martin Luther King Jr, that children will “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” as a wish for a world that does not see color. But that was not MLK’s mission or vision. He believed in a complete redistribution of wealth and power and true equality and that seeking justice meant acknowledging a system that not only saw color, but one was built on differences in the ways that people of color were treated. Being inclusive means thinking that skin color should not matter and everyone is created equally. Being anti-racist means addressing that of course skin color matters and has mattered for generations and that to create a just world we have to recognize that system to tear it down and build a new one. It is challenging to make a paradigm shift and realize that not only are we allowed to talk about race, but that we must.

Earlier in the parsha we read “וּתְקַעְתֶּ֖ם תְּרוּעָ֑ה וְנָֽסְעוּ֙ הַמַּֽחֲנ֔וֹת” - and when you sound a t’ruah the camps of Israelites will travel. The sound of the Shofar is a call to movement - a call to action. Over the past months in New York City we have heard stories of people blowing shofar during the 7 o’clock clapping and over the years rabbis have taken shofar blowing to the streets as a sound of protest. It is a uniquely Jewish sound, one that is both primitive in the way that it shakes us to our core, and progressive in the diverse ways our bodies respond to its call. Rabbi Jill Jacobs of T’ruah - The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, has said, ““The three sounds of the shofar contrast the brokenness of the world with the possibility of a world made whole.”

As many of us move forward on a journey towards becoming more anti-Racist in our actions, we have to be willing to take the time to move past our initial ways of interpreting events and texts and to see them through a new lens. The rabbis seemed afraid to talk about race. They did not have the language or tools to see the text through a lens of anti-Racism. We do. It matters that Tzipporah is called “the Cushite woman.” It matters that Miriam and Aaron were talking about her skin color. Black lives matter.

Shabbat Shalom.

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