How Hashem dealt with Miriam’s racism

By Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

CHULA VISTA, California — The life of a spiritual leader is never easy—especially if you happen to be a man named Moses.  Kvetching comes with the territory of working for a Jewish community. It’s a tradition. I am reminded of the old joke, “How many congregants does it take to screw in a light-bulb? Only one—and nine congregants to reminisce what the old light-bulb used to be like.”

Being a Jewish leader, or a rabbi, is not an easy job when one considers the grief that comes with the job.

In this week’s parsha, Moses discovers he is the victim of a vicious personal attack. Obviously, this is not the first time people kvetch about their spiritual leader. However, this time the complaining came from a most unexpected source: his siblings, Miriam and Aaron.

Here is what the text tells us about the story: While they were in Hazeroth, Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses on the pretext of the marriage he had contracted with a Cushite woman. They complained, “Is it through Moses alone that the LORD speaks? Does he not speak through us also?” And the LORD heard this. Now, Moses himself was by far the meekest man on the face of the earth.

Miriam’s use of the term “Cushite,” suggests that she despised his wife because she was a foreigner. Assuming the “Cushite” is none other than Zipporah, Miriam’s opinion of this woman was definitely not flattering!  One might have wondered, “What happened to Zipporah?” There are many answers that have been proposed:

(1)    Moses’s second wife was of Cushite origin (Nubian, i.e. modern Ethiopian or Sudanese). Perhaps he married her while Zipporah was in Midian with her father Jethro. Like many Bedouin chiefs, Moses probably had more than one wife.

(2)    Zipporah had died and Moses had recently remarried; or

(3)    Zipporah and the Cushite woman are one and the same; “Cushite” is simply another name for the region she had originated from. In other words, Zipporah was a dark-skinned woman.

But was the “Cushite” wife the real problem that bothered Miriam?

Not really.

She said:  “Is it through Moses alone that the LORD speaks? Does He not speak through us also?” (Num 12:2).

Like many gossipers, the complaint about Moses’s Cushite wife is only a pretext. The real issue is about political power. Miriam may have felt jealous that Moses did not include her or Aaron to serve among the nation’s new seventy officers. Miriam covets honor for herself since she is the sister of the prophet. Moses is indifferent to honor; he is a man who is dedicated to his job. Moses’s disdain for ego and recognition are striking. Like a faithful shepherd, he loves his people—even if they make his life difficult at times. Remarkably, Moses doesn’t even pay much attention to his sister’s kvetching.

Yet, God finds Miriam’s and Aaron’s behavior most unbecoming—especially since she does not like the color of the Cushite’s skin.

In what appears to be a classical example of cosmic justice, God transforms Miriam (and possibly Aaron) into a chalk-white leper. The biblical narrator’s sardonic humor cannot be ignored. It’s as if God was telling Miriam, “Since you despise dark-skinned people, and prefer only people who happen to be light-skinned—poof! How do you like being white right now?”

The fact that Miriam once rescued Moses as an infant did not matter here in this case. The fact that Moses did not even care that his sister criticized him—also did not matter. Instead, Moses cares for her, prays for her—and looks to God to heal her.

Racism is unbecoming of anyone who identifies with the people of Israel.

What was true in ancient days is no less true today in Israel, where Haredi  and Hassidic Jews routinely harass and discriminate against Ethiopian Jews, who suffered greatly to come to the land of their ancestors. Like many countries of the world, Israel is not immune to the kind of social problems that afflict most Western societies. It is especially disturbing to see that religious Jews are at the epicenter of this conflict.

Miriam’s bitter lesson taught her a valuable lesson: Don’t mistreat others because their skin coloring is different from yours. Wouldn’t we all be wiser, if we took this lesson to heart? As Jews, we have suffered from centuries of discrimination, pogroms and genocides. Our ancestors did not survive these countless centuries so that their religious descendants could become like the hateful enemies who oppressed them.

Why should we be concerned?

Much of historical memory is rooted in the biblical injunctions, “You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exod. 22:20). “You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the soul of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt” (Exod. 23:9). Think about it. There are thirty-six warnings against exploiting the resident alien, who frequently was at the mercy of the host country.

Sound familiar?

With 36 warnings against unsuitable behavior toward a stranger, no other commandment is referred to as frequently as this particular biblical proscription. Our tradition teaches us over and over again: “You shall love the stranger…The resident stranger that dwells with you shall be unto you as the home-born among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt” (Lev. 19:34).

Henri Nouwen, the distinguished Catholic theologian, wrote about the basic essential qualities of hospitality shortly before he died: “In a world full of strangers, estranged from their own past, culture, and country, from their neighbors, friends, and family, from their deepest self and their God, we witness a painful search for a hospitable place where life can be lived without fear…That is our vocation, to convert the hostis into hospes, the enemy into a guest and to create the free and fearless space where brotherhood and sisterhood can be formed and fully expressed.”

If we wish to honor the ethical values and teachings of our faith, we must purge the evil of racism out of our society and treat all our fellow citizens in Israel with love and respect.

The famous Russian writer Leo Tolstoy once commented on the remarkable nature of the command to welcome the stranger–especially given the nature of ancient society: “‘Love the stranger and the sojourner,’ Moses commands, ‘because you have been strangers in the land of Egypt.’ And this was said in those remote, savage times when the chief ambition of races and nations consisted in crushing and enslaving one another.”

So let us take its moral message to heart and help the indigent members and immigrants of our society find a place they can call “home.”

Rabbi Samuel is spiritual leader of Temple Beth Sholom in Chula Vista.  He may be contacted via [email protected]




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