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Arlene Fickler’s JCRC D’var Torah: Moses Married a Cushite Woman

June 10, 2020

Editor’s note: An adaptation of this D’var Torah was published an an opinion article in the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent on May 12, 2020

When I was asked, as the Chair of the Jewish Community Relations Council (“JCRC”) of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia,  to deliver the D’var Torah at the meeting of the Jewish Federation’s Planning & Resourcing Committee on Monday, June 8, 2020, I wondered how I would ground in the week’s parsha – Beha’alotcha —  comments about how the JCRC planned to respond to the events over the weeks since the killing of George Floyd.  Would the week’s portion provide me with any basis for discussing how our Federation and our JCRC would live up to the commitment in the Jewish Federation’s statement in response to those events that “we see and hear our Black fellow Philadelphians, that we are ready to raise our voices in peaceful protest and to partner in fighting racism and bigotry in all of its forms …”?  Does the Torah speak to racism?

I am not sure what our Rabbis will say this coming Shabbat about that issue, but I think that it does.

Near the end of this week’s portion, we read a dramatic story of sibling tension as Aaron and Miriam speak out against their brother Moses’s wife.  “He married a Cushite woman!” they exclaimed. Then Miriam is struck with leprosy as a punishment.

There are some startling and troubling things about this passage.  To begin, both Aaron and Miriam speak out against Moses, but only Miriam, his sister, is harshly punished for it.  Aaron gets off leprosy-free. But that is a topic for another D’var Torah.

And the Torah says that Aaron and Miriam’s criticism of Moses related to his marrying a Cushite woman.  But I remember that Moses married Zipporah, the daughter of Jethro, a Midianite priest.  Does Moses have two wives? Or did he divorce Zipporah and marry this Cushite woman? Or is “Cushite” just a way to describe Zipporah? In preparing to deliver this D’var Torah, I learned that all these alternatives are among the explanations the rabbis give to justify the discrepancy. But I don’t want to focus on that either.

I want to talk about the simple fact that Moses is married to a Cushite woman.  Cush is a region south of Ethiopia, also known as Nubia. or present day Sudan. I want you to take a moment and picture the prophet Moses and his long white beard.  Now, instead of holding the Ten Commandments in his hands, think of him standing with his arm around his dark skinned African wife.  Does that image surprise you?

Aaron and Miriam are speaking out against this Cushite woman.  The Torah doesn’t tell us the words that Miriam and Aaron said against this woman of color in their midst.  But the Torah clearly explains that God admonished them for doing so.  The story of Miriam’s being punished by her skin becoming whiter for her words is one of the six things that we are instructed to remember from the Torah – together with the Exodus from Egypt, the revelation at Sinai, the attack of Amalek, the Golden Calf, and the Sabbath.

To me, the few simple sentences in this week’s parsha and the obligation to remember them teach us that we are obligated to remember that all people were created in the image of God; that all humans, no matter the color of their skin, are all descendants of Adam imbued with God’s breadth, with neshama; that racism justifies exclusion from the community.

So how do I propose that we as a Jewish community live up to that obligation?  That is a question that is not easily answered and with which we will need to grapple in coming weeks, months, and perhaps years.  But I do have few initial thoughts.

We need to recognize that we have much work to do.  The work can come in the form of nonviolent protest, contacting elected officials, and educating ourselves about the racism that exists and has existed within our country and our institutions for hundreds of years.

JCRC intends to meet with our Black elected officials to discuss what legislation they intend to introduce in response to recent events.  We will be presenting an educational webinar on Monday evening June 22, during which those representatives can explain their proposals and how our Jewish community can help support them.  We have seen the disproportionate impact of numerous institutions on the Black community – not just in the criminal justice system, whether through the police, the courts, or the prisons, but also in health care, education, housing, and food insecurity.  We must evaluate how to prioritize the competing demands for reforms in all of those areas.

JCRC intends to work with local Black clergy to support their efforts.  We have developed relationships with Black clergy through Philadelphia’s Religious Leaders Council, as well as through JCRC’s interfaith clergy missions to Israel.  Just as our Jewish community gets to determine how we understand anti-Semitism and how we want our partners to respond, so too those who are most impacted by these policies must have our support in defining the response.

We must educate ourselves, acknowledge our prejudices and do the work to be anti-racist.  We started that work through JCRC’s Civil Rights Mission to Georgia and Alabama in January, in cooperation with ADL, AJC and the Kaiserman JCC.  We continued that work though the series of discussions about racism that JCRC’s director Rabbi Batya Glazer led over the last four weeks in collaboration with Temple Beth Zion Beth Israel as a follow-up to the Mission. We must continue those efforts through book groups and other discussion groups in our synagogues and in JCCs and in the other organizations in which we come together. We will work with Board of Rabbis as they hold educational trainings for local rabbis and the wider Jewish community. We will work with our community partners, especially ADL and AJC, to expand their activities with our Black fellow Philadelphians.

We will encourage the members of our community to vote.  While JCRC must remain non-partisan in our efforts, we will provide forums in which our community members can learn the positions of the candidates.  We will continue to provide opportunities for the leaders of our Federation and its constituent agencies to meet with the candidates to discuss our community’s concern and we will include the issue of responding to racism on that agenda.

Finally, we have learned through the Jewish Federation’s population study that Jews of Color comprise 10% of Philadelphia’s Jewish community.  In the statement of Philadelphia’s Board of Rabbis in response to the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent protests, they “confess[ed] our own complicity, whether conscious or unwitting, in perpetuating the racist structures of our society by closing our eyes to the suffering of people of color, both within the Jewish community and in our larger society. [They] acknowledge[d] that we have failed to address the racism in our Jewish institutions and in our Jewish communities.  [They expressed their shame about] how that racism has prevented Black Jews and all Jews of Color from participating fully in Jewish life.”  As a JCRC, we must work with our Rabbis to make every effort to ensure that our communal institutions are themselves not racist and that Jews of Color feel welcome and a part of our communities.

In sum, there is much work to be done.  We all know the teaching from Rabbi Tarfon in Pirkei Avot: “It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.”  Let us commit to begin the work. In that way, hopefully our children and our grandchildren will live in a country in which the American dream of equal opportunity for all will finally be realized.