Racial Sensitivity in the Torah

The murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer is on every morally conscious person’s mind. It has led to a myriad of discussions concerning racial issues that need to be addressed. God Himself sends us a poignant message regarding how mankind should conduct themselves with minorities by specifically addressing insensitivity to a black woman who, as the Bible accounts, originated from Kush (Ethiopia).

At the end of this week’s portion, Parsha Behaálotecha, is the accounting of the incident when Miriam and Aharon spoke lashon harah, evil speech, about Moshe.

The verse states:

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

Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses regarding the Kushite woman he had married, for he had married a Kushite woman.

What they said is not conveyed in the verse. It only indicates that they said something about the Kushite woman that Moshe married and then it repeats that he married a Kushite woman. This becomes more perplexing when one delves into the commentaries only to find that the fact that she was from Kush, Ethiopia, is of no relevance to the evil speech. The commentaries explain that Miriam and Aharon’s contention was that Moshe separated from his wife which they believed to be wrong, which is why they say,

הֲרַ֤ק אַךְ־בְּמשֶׁה֙ דִּבֶּ֣ר יְהֹוָ֔ה הֲלֹ֖א גַּם־בָּ֣נוּ דִבֵּ֑ר

Has the Lord spoken only to Moses? Hasn’t He spoken to us too?

This is interpreted to mean that they are contending that God speaks to us too and we don’t separate from our spouses so why is Moshe doing so?

It would seem from this that the fact that Moshe’s wife was from Kush was irrelevant, but as we know the Torah is only descriptive as a means for extrapolation. In order to understand what message God is trying to relay it helps to analyze the next passages which informs the reader that Moshe was the most humble man on earth. Immediately following, God summons them out of the tent and proceeds to chastise Aharon and Miriam. He informs them that Moshe is unlike all other prophets who receive their prophecy in the form of a vision or a dream. God speaks to Moshe “mouth to mouth” which is on a higher level than any other prophet and they should have feared to speak out against him. God then punishes Miriam with tzara’at, an affliction which turned her skin “white as snow” and she was forced to be isolated from the camp for seven days until she healed.

The fact that the verse twice states that Moshe’s wife was from Kush would seem to be conveying an important message. Moshe’s wife who was from Ethiopia must have felt conspicuously different from the Jewish nation she had joined. Whether it be cultural, ethnic or difference in appearance she was a minority within the Israelite camp. Either way she was an outsider trying to fit in and must have harbored insecurities that were undoubtedly painful.

Aharon and Miriam, who were two of the most morally refined people, likely had no thought of racial discrimination when they spoke disparagingly about Moshe’s situation with his wife. It most likely had zero relevance in their minds to what they were saying but yet they were held accountable as if it did because we must be painstakingly sensitive to the insecurities of others. Miriam’s intentions are irrelevant when it results in possibly inflicting additional anguish to someone who already feels discriminated against. We must have a heightened awareness that when a person is distinguishably different from the greater community they might attribute any critique or commentary of their behavior as a result of that difference. The pain of feeling discriminated against because of race, nationality, appearance or any other reason can be devastating. It leaves one feeling hopeless and in despair. Perhaps Moshe who was more humble than any other man would not reply to a personal attack despite the hurt he felt and who knows how lonely and dejected all this made his wife feel.

Miriam’s punishment was fitting because she turned snow white and as a result was now the woman who was alone and isolated feeling spurned and insecure wondering what people were thinking or saying about her due to her skin color. Her experience taught her what it means to feel rejected, isolated and filled with self doubt due to something she could not change.

This lesson is so vital to communities and nations that we are commanded to recall this incident every day as one of the six remembrances. If we are sensitive to others and make sure to nurture people in a way they feel respected, valued and included we can live peacefully and productively and that is of prime importance.

About the Author
Aliza Lipkin fufilled her biggest dream by making Aliya in 2003 from the US. She resides happily in a wonderful community in Maaleh Adumim with her family. She is a firm lover and believer in her country, her people and her G-d. Her mission is to try and live a moral and ethical life while spreading insights based on Torah values to bring people closer together and help build a stronger nation.
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