Eliezer Lawrence
Rabbi, Judeo-Linguist, Educator and Mohel

Beha’alotecha: Racial Justice for our Community

Miriam and Aaron complain against Moses, engraving from "The Bible and Its Story Taught by One Thousand Picture Lessons, vol. 2", edited by Charles F. Horne and Julius A. Bewer, published by Francis R. Niglutsch, New York, 1908.

With conversations surrounding racial justice and equality taking center stage worldwide, the Jewish community must come to realize that our role not just about “allyship” with those outside of our community; it also involves a collective self-awareness that we also need to turn inward towards the spectrum of color and experience within our own Jewish peoplehood.

In Parashat Beha’alotecha, Miriam and Aaron talk about Moses’ wife, whom they refer to as a “cushite” or Ethiopian. We are told shortly after that they both sinned greatly. For centuries, though, the commentators have asked, “what specifically did they do wrong?”

The commentators are split; Rashi believes that the words are directed against Moses who, according to the Midrash, unjustly divorced his wife Tzipporah who “was beautiful like the blackness of Ethiopians.” Conversely, Ibn Ezra believes the word “Ethiopian” was a slur referring to her appearance. 

Rashbam and Bechor Shor, on the other hand, are more literal. They explain that according to legend, Moses ruled Ethiopia and married the Queen. Miriam and Aaron’s sinful comments, in turn, were those of disparaging disapproval of Moses for having married someone whom they deemed to be “other” and outside of their lineage.

On all accounts, something was said about a woman of color, whether Midianite or Ethiopian, and two of the greatest Prophets in Israel were harshly condemned. Whatever the misdeed, there is a lot we can learn from our Torah and sages about how to begin to engage the conversation of race within our community.

From Rashi’s and Ibn Ezra’s perspectives, the Torah is against stereotypes; they teach us that generalizing and tokenizing Jews of color, whether positively or negatively, is an act of defiance worthy of leprosy!  From Rashbam and Bechor Shor we come to understand something especially relevant for the 21st century Jewish context; we all belong. Jews come in all colors, and we are enriched by the diversity of experience within our community– by those who were born into it and those who entered by choice.

The harsh reality is that many members of our community feel like they belong less than others; we need to face that together and work to shift it.  These essential pieces of Torah teach us that difference is not something to be gawked at or “talked about,” it is something to be engaged with. This truth and consciousness is essential to taking responsibility for and care of each other, and is necessary to move forward as a united Jewish community. 

Real talk: I need your help. 

Ibn Ezra explains that Miriam was the one who said the words, while Aaron remained silent. Aaron was equally to blame for not speaking up against it. When he remained passive to the  injustice, it became “as if he agreed” with it. I really don’t want to remain passive. Sure, I never let casually racist comments go unaddressed, but I am realizing more and more that I need to do a lot better.

Jewish friends of Color: As a Rabbi, I want to take part in building the community we deserve; not just “non-racist,” but as many are correctly calling for, “anti-racist.” I can opine on “what I think needs to happen,” but the truth is, I need to to hear from you. I need to hear what you think needs to happen, and how I can use whatever influence I have to work together to make our community better for all of us.

Please share your experiences or the experiences of others to help me learn and better serve our community. We have the wisdom of the Medieval sages; now it’s your turn. Please reach out to me at PleaseHelpMeDoBetter@gmail.com.  

About the Author
Rabbi Eliezer Lawrence serves on the Judaic Studies Faculty at the Leffell School, an independent Jewish day school in Westchester. An alumnus of YCT Rabbinical School, Yeshivat Ma’ale Gilboa and the Hadar institute, he holds an MA in Bible and semitic languages from the Kekst graduate school, a graduate certificate in Israel education from the Davidson School of Jewish Education and is pursuing an additional graduate degree in Hebrew Language Education at the Middlebury Language Schools.