Parshat B’ Ha’Alotekha: Numbers 8:1-12:16

B’ Ha’Alotekha: Numbers 8:1-12:16

El Na R’fanalah

O God, please heal her, please!

By Rabbi Corinne Copnick

 

For several years now, I have been receiving daily email content from a website (chofetzchaimusa.org) that faithfully delivers nuggets of Judaic wisdom about how to cope with Lashon Hora in its many forms. Lashon Hora? Hebrew for the “evil tongue.” Malicious gossip, slander, spreading rumor or falsehood – these were issues even in biblical times, as illustrated by God’s punishment of Moses’ sister, Miriam, in Be-ha’alotekha (Numbers 12), our Torah portion for this week. Here Miriam speaks spitefully about her brother’s’ wife (and her brother as well). This passage seems especially relevant today when evil speech – the coarsening or evil intent of the words that come out of our mouths – is poisoning contemporary American society to the extent that this topic now constitutes “breaking news.” As I watched Brian Williams’ thoughtful “11th Hour” the other evening, brilliant historian Doris Kearns Goodman eloquently condemned the coarsening of our national political dialogue.

What we are experiencing today is the normalization of coarse behavior, and through the advent of social media, the liberty to lash out at people under the cloak of anonymity. Yes, there is the growing menace of the ugly speech in our society. The evil tongue, however, goes back a long time. It is part of the drama that occurs in Be-ha’alotekha: “When they were in Hazeroth [in the desert], Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married: ‘He married a Cushite woman!” (Numbers 12:1). God was furious and punished Miriam with a skin ailment that changed the color of her skin: she was “stricken with snow-white scales.”

Image credit: http://images.fineartamerica.com/images-medium-large/ethiopian-woman-j-w-kelly.jpg

There has been much commentary (see editor Michael Carasik’s extensive discussion in The Commentators Bible: The Rubin JPs Miquraot Gedolot on Numbers 12) over the years about the “why” of this punishment. In fact, some of the illustrious medieval commentators Carasik quotes get downright gossipy themselves (pp. 84-85). Did “the Cushite woman” refer to Zipporah, Moses’ wife? Although Zipporah was a Midianite, the priest Jethro’s daughter, the dark-complected Midianites were sometimes confused with Cushites, who were ebony black. Had Moses discarded Zipporah? the rabbis ask. There is speculation that his sexual interest had declined once he had come so close to God’s presence; now he was more concerned with spiritual matters, Some of the rabbis thought not, however; rather the Cushi woman was a new wife.

Rashi, the famed Jewish scholar who lived in France in medieval times, adds even more interest to this discussion with his declaration that the Hebrew letters of the word “Cushite” have the same numerical equivalent as y’fah mar’eh, the word for “beautiful.” Therefore Cushite means both “black” and “beautiful.”

My own observation is that, in contemporary times, people from Ethiopia (home of the biblical Queen Sheba, with whom Solomon fell in love) are generally considered to have beautiful features. Or more simply, in today’s parlance, black is beautiful.

In his Commentary of the Torah, Richard Elliott Friedman’s plain talk explanation of this biblical quandary clarifies all this juicy speculation:

“Cush is generally understood to be Ethiopia. Its people are identified as descendants of Noah’s son Ham (Gen. 10: 6-7). On this understanding, Moses has taken an Ethiopian wife in addition to his first wife, Zipporah. This has been confused somewhat by the fact that the prophet Habbakuk refers to a place called Cushan in parallel with Midian (Hab. 3:7). Some scholars, therefore, have concluded that the Cushite wife is Zipporah herself (so Ibn Ezra). But this latter view does not explain why the text should suddenly refer to her as a Cushite. Also, the words ‘because he had taken a Cushite wife’ certainly appear to be here in the verse in order to inform us of an essential new fact, but we already knew that he was married to Zipporah (so Rashbam). This story, therefore, is about a second, probably Ethiopian wife” [italics mine] (Friedman, Harper Collins, 2003, p. 465).

It has been a popular theory for many years that all human beings derive from a common African ancestor (this idea fits in well with the biblical Adam story), and that about 100,000 years ago, skin color began to vary as people began to migrate to different latitudes. Apparently we basically began with the same skin color, but we developed different amounts of melanin (which gives our skin its pigmentation) in accordance with the angle of the sun (and how much ultra-violet radiation we received) in the places where we lived and how long we lived there. The amount of melanin is further controlled by at least six identified genes and by Darwinian natural sexual selection and reproduction. So each of us has a skin color that is influenced by all these things. That’s what we call our genetic makeup! (See http://sciabc.us/C.WFr and many other websites.) And the genetic makeup of Ethiopians was dark.

What was Miriam’s genetic makeup, we wonder, if her skin could be instantly rendered as leprous as snow? Surely she had to be a woman of some color in order for the Torah to portray such a dramatic contrast? As a woman of what we now call the Middle East (actually located in Western Asia) who had lived her early life in Egypt (located in North Africa), where did Miriam rank on the ascending/descending color chart? Coffee complexion? Olive?

However, when Miriam’s leprous skin appears white as snow, she is actually devoid of pigmentation, Friedman suggests. “If we understand correctly that the Cushite wife is Ethiopian,” he claims, “this is a provocative case of punishment to suit the crime and a powerful biblical statement regarding racism. It is as if God says to Miriam: ‘You don’t like a woman with dark pigmentation? Then you don’t have to have any pigmentation!’ Or: ‘You don’t like a woman who is black? Try being completely white!’ “ (Friedman, Ibid., p. 468).

A little plain talk to combat the evil tongue, one might say. O God, please heal us, please.

Here’s some talk that is a little more complex:  In celebrated Japanese physicist Michio Kaku’s jaw-dropping book, The Future of Humanity: Terraforming Mars, Interstellar Travel, Immortality, and Our Destiny Beyond Earth (Kindle edition, 2018), he predicts that by the end of this century or the next one, we may be able to project a human being’s consciousness, already mapped on a super-computer, and project it on laser beams the speed of light in a few seconds to another planet or the Moon. Furthermore, we will be able to connect that consciousness to a robotic body already on that planet —  part of the effort to terraform it so that people in human (not robotic) bodies can eventually live there to develop resources for Planet Earth. Will the color of our bodies change when we live in such a radically different environment? Our current preoccupation with skin color may become laughable, a relic from a simplistic past.

Jon Meacham is more sympathetic to our human condition in his wonderful, recent book, The Soul of America:The Battle for our Better Angels (Kindle edition, 2018). “One point of this book,” he begins, “is to remind us that imperfection is the rule, not the exception” (p.5). And then he concludes his argument with this reminder: “For all the dreams denied and deferred, the experiment begun so long ago, carried out so imperfectly, is worth the fight. There is, in fact, no struggle more important, and none nobler, than the one we wage in the service of those better angels, who, however besieged, are always ready for battle” (p. 272)

 

©️Corinne Copnick. Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.