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Hurtful words of Race

Parshat Beha’alotcha

Numbers 8:1-12:16

This past week U.S. Senate Candidate Rand Paul from Kentucky made headlines because he criticized the Civil Rights Act of 1964.  Paul, the son of libertarian darling, Ron Paul, said that the government should not enforce civil rights.  Backed by the Tea Party, he won a primary race for a Kentucky Senate seat and immediately came under fire.  He hastened to state that if he had been there at the time he would have voted for it. But his contradictions hung out in the media like a shooting flare.  He spent the weekend trying to distance himself from the tinge of racism. In his libertarian glee and enjoying the spotlight Rand Paul doesn’t understand the symbolic nature of his words and the damage he inflicts with his words.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 helped to build a basis for equality in this country and began to smash the blatant and overt second class status of blacks in this country.  Racism still exists as is evident in so many corners but without the Civil Rights Act of 1964 it would have been impossible to imagine an African American President less than 50 years later!

I cite this most recent headline because this week’s Torah contains a story where the words of a leader create hurt and pain.   Miriam one of the leaders of the people makes an accusatory comment about the color of the skin of Moses’ wife.  She spoke against Moses because of the “Cushite woman he had married” (12:1).  Cush was the name of then Ethiopia.  She was joined by Aaron in this moment, in part challenging Moses’ leadership of the people but doing so through hurtful and hateful remarks.  Moses’ wife (Tzipporah) skin color was dark. But she was faithful to the covenant at Sinai and made sure the sons of Moses’ were circumcised.  Moses our portion tells us was a very humble man. 

And so God calls Moses and Aaron and Miriam to the Tent of Meeting and speaks to the three of them.  God praises Moses. “I make Myself known to him in a vision; I speak with him in a dream. (Num. 12:6).  God affirms Moses’ leadership and that Moses is the chosen of God.  This is a rebuke of Miriam and Aaron. But God doesn’t stop there-as God’s Divine Presence withdraws from them in a cloud, Miriam turns scaly white.  Her words, dripping with racism has turned upon her as God sends a message loud and clear that this kind of slander and hatred is not permitted. 

Aaron seeing what happened pleads on behalf of himself and his sister.  And Moses intercedes.  He acts above their jealousy and hurtfulness and prays to God, “El na rafah na la” Please God, heal her.” The healing is not just for physical healing but healing her from the hurtful language that she used. 

God agrees to heal but wants Miriam and everyone to learn a lesson.  And so Miriam turned white is shut out of the camp for seven days before the people are able to march onward.

Healing of body is important but in this case –the lesson of the damage of hurtful words matter.  This is what must be healed.  Rand Paul has learned the hard way that words matter.  Especially around the issue of race. It is a lesson we all should learn and re-learn. 

If you grew up using derogatory language about race—even if it was in Yiddish, it must stop.  We create an environment of pain, an environment of hurtfulness and we set back equality each time we speak it.  So let us learn by Miriam’s example and watch our words.  And pay attention to how we speak about one another.

1 thought on “Hurtful words of Race”

  1. I know you are younger than I, Rabbi Eger, but you and I both grew up in cities where integration was a major issue in the ’50s and ’60s. I was fifteen before I ever saw an African-American in a restaurant,a bowling alley, or an amusement park. Segregation was ugly, and hard for me, as a child, to understand. For a serious candidate for national office to revisit that battle is mind-boggling.

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