Beha’alotecha: Embracing Diversity

Copyright 2013 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Beha’alotecha

When they were in Hazeroth, Miriam and Aharon spoke against Moshe because of the Cushite woman he had married: “He married a Cushite woman!” (Bamidbar/ Numbers 12:1)

Greetings from the lovely (but soggy) Hudson Valley!

This week’s Torah portion contains all kinds of interesting stories and laws, from the duties of the Levites to a narrative of truly epic kvetching in chapter 11. After the people almost tear themselves apart complaining and challenging Moshe and Aharon, the story shifts into a much smaller scope. Apparently there is some tension among the siblings who lead the Israelites; Miriam and Aharon speak against their younger brother Moshe, perhaps using his wife as a pretext for their resentment.

Traditional commentators are perplexed about what, exactly, the siblings are saying about Moshe and/ or his wife. While the literal meaning of “Cushite” is “Ethiopian,” some commentators understand it to mean “beautiful” and interpolate a midrash in which Miriam was speaking out on behalf of Moshe’s wife, criticizing Moshe from separating from her in order to be constantly available for prophecy. Some believe this wife was Tzipporah, Moshe’s wife from Midian, but others think perhaps he married another woman at some point after the Exodus.

The conclusion of the story is stark: Miriam is punished by God with an outbreak of skin impurity, and banished from the camp for seven days. Moshe prayed for his sister’s healing, but something about what she did was so inappropriate that it caused her separation from the community. With that in mind, it’s hard to reinterpret the story as one of Miriam’s defense of her sister-in-law. While I’m certainly sympathetic to a reading which puts Miriam in a better light, I think the plain meaning of the text imputes a more serious misdeed than a misguided attempt to fix her brother’s marriage.

Perhaps the most salient reading of this text is not through the creativity of the ancient rabbis but its plainest meaning: e.g., that Miriam and Aharon spoke against their brother because he married somebody they didn’t like and didn’t accept. In this view, “Cushite” means just that, an Ethiopian woman, or in other words, somebody whose external features and cultural background may have been different from that of the Israelites. One modern commentator (and former colleague), rejects this interpretation as unlikely given the ethnically mixed background of the group who left Egypt, but I don’t think we’re talking about the larger social condition of the Israelites. Instead, this story focuses on the elite leadership, which could very easily be more susceptible to the idea that others unlike themselves were unacceptable or unfit to join their family.

Perhaps that’s why Miriam drew such strong rebuke from Heaven (we’ll address another time why Aharon didn’t merit the same rebuke): rejecting Jews based on appearances or family background indicates a profound misunderstanding of what defines us as Jews. We are emphatically not a race, nor an ethnic group, but rather a people defined by our religious culture and commitments (understood broadly) and a shared global destiny. We are a people with a mission, not only because of a common history but more importantly because of a shared commitment to live a joyful, ethical Judaism (though there’s more than one way to do that) which binds us in obligations of caring and responsibility.

“That’s funny, you don’t look Jewish” is the punchline of jokes, but it’s a phrase without meaning in a world where Jews by choice and Jews by parentage are of every skin color, cultural background, native language and citizenry. Diversity is our strength and blessing, and embracing every Jew and their family within our communities is a sacred task.

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