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The words of our mouths

06/07/2017 12:00:00 AM


Rabbi Kathy Cohen

In this week's Torah portion Miriam is struck with a skin disease after making derogatory remarks about Moses Cushite wife. "Cushite" is generally thought to refer to Ethiopia or the surrounding area and thus it is believed that Moses' wife was Black. This part of the parasha has always interested me because it is not clear to me what the message is. The Torah states that it was both Aaron and Miriam who spoke against Moses' wife. So, why is Miriam the only one punished? Did they speak out because she was Black? Or was it because she was a non-Israelite? Perhaps it was neither and they just did not like her personality?  There are so many contemporary issues in these few lines!

First let's think about the theology present. Do we believe that God strikes people with illnesses? Are we willing to accept the notion of God as being so involved in each person's life and so punitively oriented that at the first inappropriate word we are struck with illness? Could it be that God did not do this at all and Miriam was simply exposed to an illness that happened at that time? Is this why Aaron escaped "punishment"? Or is this an inherently misogynistic text that punishes a woman when a man deserves equal punishment? A full sermon could be written on each of these questions but for now let's just give the possibilities some thought.

If indeed Miriam and Aaron made racial slurs against Moses' wife this passage may serve as a warning about xenophobia. It seems that in this scenario Aaron and Miriam have forgotten that all people are created in God's image and the color of their skin is immaterial. Perhaps it is for this reason that Miriam came down with a skin disease. Karma - or some Jewish equivalent? It is a sad commentary that until this very day racism remains a societal illness. Can we learn from this story that all people are to treat each other with the inherent respect due to one of God's creations?

Certainly this Cushite woman was a non-Israelite. Were Aaron and Miriam upset that she was not a member of the tribe? Though intermarriage has become much more accepted in today's world, there are still Jews who look down upon those who are "not a member of the tribe" and married to a Jew. We cannot have it both ways - we cannot be accepting of intermarried couples but unaccepting of the Gentile partner. Some people claim that intermarriage lowers our chance of survival. I appreciate their deep love for Judaism and their concern for the Jewish future. However, if interfaith couples are welcomed, supported and completely accepted, they will be more likely to raise their children as Jews. This may, in some ways, strengthen the Jewish people, not lead to our demise. We cannot really influence who our children fall in love with; we can only be supportive and loving. Hopefully that will be enough to have them embrace Judaism.

There is always the possibility that the unkind comments made by Aaron and Miriam simply had to do with a personal dislike of Moses' wife. This is the type of family dysfunction that we see so often. Adult siblings distance themselves because they do not like a particular spouse. It is strange that we hold on to the idea that we must like everyone in our families. Family is about personal community and deep connection. Even when we do not like individuals we are still obligated to treat them with respect and kindness. Miriam's punishment caused her to have to leave city gates and to leave her family. Maybe a taste of her own medicine? By saying words that made Moses' wife feel like an outcast, Miriam literally became an outcast.

Miriam is generally remembered as the righteous woman who was favored by God. A midrash tells us that because of Miriam's kindness God ensured that a well would always be present wherever Miriam stopped in the desert. On Passover we dedicate a special cup of pure water to her. Like all of our heroes, she was human and had very human flaws. Rather than repeat her mistakes we can strive to learn from them and treat all people with the knowledge that they are created in God's image.

Fri, September 18 2020 29 Elul 5780