These past 14 weeks have been hard. First we were totally focused on controlling the spread of a global pandemic, while somehow trying to keep our economy from imploding. And then just when we thought things were starting to slow down to the point where we could see glimpses of normal through the thick fog of COVID-19, we found ourselves in the throws of a different disease, one with a much longer and more insidious history.
Throughout time human beings have been constantly trying to contain outbreaks of infection and disease, not just epidemiological but also ideological. Of course the Torah has rules for dealing with leprosy and other contagious diseases. In fact, in Leviticus we learn about quarantine and cleaning, never more useful than now.
But the Torah also deals with other issues that plague society, just as we still do today. Racism, bias, hate, and homophobia – these are all woven in at various points in our ancient text. And this week is one of those key moments that brings them together.
Last week we read Parshat Beha’alotcha. It begins with instructions for the purification of the Levites as they do their holy work in the Tabernacle. Makes you wonder what their hand-washing song was, right? We read about the first Passover sacrifice in the wilderness and how to celebrate Passover if we miss it the first time around.
Then the text turns to the Tabernacle, the Mishkan, and teaches us that God’s presence hovers over it in a cloud. Finally, Moshe’s family – his father-in-law, wife, and children – return to join him and the rest of the Israelite nation on their journey through the wilderness.
It’s a time of desperation. The Israelites are confused and lonely, beyond ready to leave the uncertainty of the wilderness behind. Hmmm – a feeling of desperation due to uncertain times? I wonder what that’s like. Yet they rally, again and again. Moses, their leader, is himself confused and upset. He doesn’t know where to turn, so he turns to God. And God sends him right back to the people to help them move forward together. There’s a lesson within a lesson: leadership mean not running from our problems or blaming someone else, it is returning and working together.
However, even Moshe’s siblings Aaron and Miriam have had it with their baby brother as the leader, so they try to cut him down. In chapter 12, Miriam and Aaron are having a private sibling meeting, and Miriam says, “He married a Cushite woman!”
Let’s be clear. This isn’t like my dad, who went to University of Michigan, marrying my mom, who went to Michigan State. Miriam is pointing out that Tzipora likely came from Ethiopia or Nubia. Later commentators suggest that Miriam was chastising her brother for marrying someone with a darker skin tone. It’s not just a comment on skin color that’s the issue here; it’s that Miriam is judging Tzipora based on her skin color. But whatever Miriam’s intentions are, God isn’t pleased with the bias Miriam and Aaron show toward to their sister-in-law, especially in calling her out as “other” based on appearance and nothing else.
As punishment for this prejudice, God afflicts Miriam with leprosy. A contagious physical disease as a consequence for a contagious societal disease. Prejudice spreads like a disease – quickly and deeply. And like leprosy or COVID-19, it takes systems and study, research and action, to contain, to change, to eradicate. It is not something that simply disappears after time.
Sometimes it even takes rising up. Look no further than Pride Shabbat. Lest you think riots are not the answer, the first Gay Pride marches were scheduled to mark the anniversary of the Stonewall riots. Sadly when peaceful protests are no longer enough, what’s left?
Imagine Miriam and Aaron, standing before God, being called out on their privilege for being a part of the leading family of a chosen people, being called out for their racism. Miriam and Aaron must have been terrified, hurt, maybe ashamed, and they had no choice except to own it. Miriam is a prophet; she’s a leader among her people, and she’s forced to confront her bias – albeit in a very physical way – in order to continue to lead. She had to own it, and so do we.
How does Moses react to his sister’s affliction? With thoughts and prayer. Apparently Moses was all over Facebook back then. After he sees her looking sick and ashen, he prays “Please God, pray, heal her.” But as we all know, thoughts and prayers alone don’t cut it. The prayer isn’t what heals her. God comes back at Moses and says “No!” She must be contained, she must be shut out, seven days in quarantine, a place to regroup, to confront her ills and make a commitment to change. That’s what God prescribes.
I don’t know if you’re aware, but there are six specific events in the Torah that we are commanded to remember every single day of our lives, and this is one of them. Each and every day we are commanded to remember that good people, righteous people like Miriam even, are susceptible to the disease that is racism. If it can happen to a prophet of God, it can happen to anyone, and maybe not in the form of racial prejudice, but sexism, agism, homophobia, just to name a few. Who among us is immune? Who among us can say they’ve been vaccinated against any prejudice at all? No one is completely without bias, but we can challenge ourselves to find those biases we may harbor and at least acknowledge their existence so we can work to be better. We can try really hard at this because it’s that important.
In this time of unrest, in this time where we face our own uncertain wilderness, we must hold onto this story. The reminder from God – FROM GOD – that thoughts and prayers alone won’t heal our world, but actions will. Calling out injustice will. Confronting our own biases will. This is how we heal the disease. This is how we return from isolation and quarantine to a community that is healed.