By Rabbi John Franken
While encamped at Hazeroth, an unexpected family quarrel erupts among the children of Amram. Two of them (Miriam and Aaron) denounce the third (Moses) “because of the Cushite woman he had married.” As if to emphasize their objection, the Torah repeats: “He married a Cushite woman!” (Numbers 12:1-2)
Exactly what is going on here has been the subject of much debate over the centuries. One explanation is that the marriage being criticized is Moses’ marriage to Zipporah since one of the tribes in Zipporah’s native land of Midian was called Cushan. Another explanation is that Miriam and Aaron are faulting Moses for leaving Zipporah behind and taking a replacement wife. In this reading, the “Cushite woman” would have been a dark-skinned person from Nubia, another word for modern-day Ethiopia.
Either way, Miriam and Aaron seem to be finding fault with the “Cushi-ness” of Moses’ wife. Whether this had to do with her being non-Israelite, dark-skinned, beautiful (a quality some associated with dark skin) or a combination of these attributes, the Torah does not indicate. What is clear, however, is that they are bothered by her being something other than the norm. Like most of us, they are guilty of bias.
That Miriam is punished for this is a reminder of the dangers not only of slander and gossip, but also of using identity to marginalize and disparage others. Among the more painful episodes in the most recent Israeli-Palestinian conflict were mob attacks by Jews and Arabs against one another based solely on ethnicity. Here in the United States, some of the most painful events of the last year or so have been the racially charged deaths of people like George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. Not for nothing has Black Lives Matter become a movement as much as a mantra. Not for nothing are some institutions, including some synagogues, dedicating themselves to being “anti-racist” and following their words with action.
The hard work of anti-racism is no less important in the American Jewish community than elsewhere. We are no longer the white, “Ashkenormative” community that we once were. The recent Pew poll of 4,718 Jews found that 15% of those under 30 identify as Hispanic, Black, Asian, other non-white or multiracial. Adding Sephardim, Mizrachim, immigrants and children of immigrants, the number rises to 28%.
In other words, more of us today than a generation ago may fit into the category of the Cushite wife. We will all be strengthened by embracing this new reality.
John Franken is rabbi of Temple Adas Shalom in Havre de Grace and president of the Baltimore Board of Rabbis.