Parashat Beha’alot’cha 5781

26 May 2021 – 15 Sivan 5781

Rabbi Dr Margaret Jacobi

As this week we mark the murder a year ago of George Floyd, which sparked protests across the world, this week’s Sidra is timely. It concludes with the story of how Miriam and Aaron spoke out against Moses ‘because of the Cushite woman he had married.’

There has been much debate about what this means. ’Cushite’ is usually translated as Ethiopian. One interpretation is that Moses had taken a second, Ethiopian, wife , the problem being that he took a second wife. Another is that his siblings criticised him because he was so taken up with spiritual matters that he was ignoring his wife. A third interpretation is that they spoke out against her out of racial prejudice, because of her dark skin. Miriam’s punishment is consistent with this: as ‘measure for measure’, her skin was made white as snow through the disease known as m’tzorah.

After the murder of George Floyd in America, there was a realisation that racism was still very much with us and was not only an American problem. It led to soul-searching in this country too. Protests and personal accounts made it clear that 44 years after the Race Relations Act of 1976 which made discrimination on the grounds of race illegal, racism was still widespread in our schools and universities, our places of employment and throughout our society. A placard at the demonstration in London against the murder of George Floyd read, ’The UK is not innocent’. Another read, ‘Justice for Belly Mujinga’ , refers to a railway worker who died with Covid-19 after being spat on in a racist attack whilst at work. Since then, stories have continued to emerge and the Windrush scandal and other injustices have yet to be properly addressed.

There was also a realisation that our Jewish community was far from exempt. Testimony from black members of synagogues made it clear that they were often automatically assumed to be converts, that black and non-Ashkenazi traditions were discounted and there was a lack of awareness and sensitivity to their needs. The Board of Deputies set up a commission to look at racism within the community. It is up to us now to implement its findings.

It is easier to look elsewhere than to acknowledge racism nearer home. For we all have our own prejudices and need to be aware of what they are. We have to ask, too, whether we are bystanders to racism or whether we actively oppose it. How much do we understand the reality for those who face racism? How many conversations have we had to find out?

Our tradition teaches, ‘Have we not one Divine parent; has not one God created us all?’ (Mal. 2:10). Nearly sixty years ago, the great Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched alongside Dr. Martin Luther King. He gave an address which drew on this teaching to proclaim that we were all God’s children, brothers and sisters. It included these strong and heartfelt words:

‘Religion and race. How can the two be uttered together? To act in the spirit of religion is to unite what lies apart, to remember that humanity as a whole is God’s beloved child. To act in the spirit of race is to sunder, to slash, to dismember the flesh of living humanity. Is this the way to honor a father: to torture his child? How can we hear the word “race” and feel no self reproach?’ (The full address can be found here)

Sadly, Heschel’s words continue to ring true and we need to respond to his words as urgently now as when they were written. Let us listen to his call.

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