Mixed Feelings Aside, We Pray: Black Lives Matter / My Take on Beha’alotecha
Parashat Beha’alotecha describes a complex situation for Moses. At the end of the Torah Portion we read that the Israelites start to complain about food, being bored with the repetition, and they yearn for the variety of food flavors they had in Egypt, they miss Mitzrayim! Moses cries out to God saying – why should I deal with this?? Am I their mother that I need to nurse them, and carry them and feed them? Moses is literally fed up. And God says that He will feed them and He will give them meat until meat “comes out of their nostrils”! And indeed this is what happens…
Now, looking at this situation from a broader perspective this is the moment when Moses finally intenalizes what Jethro had said to him, that he wasn’t going to be able to do it all alone. And here is Moses saying that this is too heavy for him to carry alone. God responds by asking Moses to appoint 70 individuals that will be given the divine spirit so they will be able to help him as they continue in their journey. However just a few verses later in our Parsha, Aaron and Miriam, Moses’ two senior partners, start to complain to God as well.. They say – how can it be that Moses has married a woman who is not even from our tribes? And why does he get to talk to you directly while we experience You in such a different way?
God summons Aharon, Miriam and Moses and explains that Moses is a different case; That when He speaks to Moses He speaks “Pe El Pe” – mouth to mouth, whereas with all the rest of the prophets, including Aaron and Miriam, He communicates through dreams. When God concludes His appearance and leaves, the cloud withdraws from the tent and all of a sudden Miriam becomes terribly ill with Tzara’at, a horrifying disease. Aharon, who just minutes ago was upset with Moses’ status of supposed superiority, appeals to Moses’ privilege in the eyes of God and says – you must pray for her, don’t let her die this way!
Now, the reason Miriam became so ill so suddenly was because she was gossiping and so was Aharon. They were being punished by God on account of that. But now there is no time to keep discussing and Aaron begs Moses to intervene.
Most of the commentaries say that Moses immediately cries out, screams to God and prays for his sister. Rabbi Shai Held in his commentary to this Torah Portion brings the opinion of Rabbi Jacob Milgrom, who says that Moses is conflicted. He explains that Moses is quite exhausted.. He still remembers the fact that Aharon allowed for the Golden Calf event to happen and never took much responsibility, that the two were just gossiping against him, and that this happened a moment after he himself reached the bottom! Milgrom explains that the words Moses uses “El Na Refa Na La!”, “Please God, please heal her!” without even mentioning Miriam’s name, are not concise because of the urgency of the situation, as most commentators think, but rather due to his conflicted feelings.
An interesting parallel to this situation that Moses might be experiencing can be found in the book of Job. Job not only had to go through the most difficult challenges orchestrated by God, but also experienced the harsh misjudgement of his friends, his neighbors. Toward the end of the book (chapter 48), God commands the neighbors to bring everything needed to make an offering so they can pray for forgiveness but then He declares that He will forgive them if Job prays for them. Job’s ultimate redemption comes when despite his difficult feelings and internal conflicts he gathers the ability to pray for his neighbors, who have misjudged him.
Just like Job, with his wounds still open Moshe prayed for his sister.
Many conversations have been going on in the Jewish community over the last couple of weeks around the “Black Lives Matter” movement.
While I don’t think I know a Jew who isn’t opposed to racism and who doesn’t feel a deep connection and moral obligation toward the injustice that African Americans experience, many of us feel deeply conflicted with the movement “Black Lives Matter”. Many of us, myself included, felt deeply hurt by the statements in the political platform of this movement against Israel. There is an article that was published in The Atlantic in 2016 that summarizes several of the responses that the Jewish community then offered. During the last couple of weeks in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder many Rabbis and thinkers have written about their position regarding how to navigate this tension.
I have had the opportunity to speak with several Jews across political and religious denominations that feel that because of this statement supporting this organization would be almost as betraying their own love and support for the state of Israel.
But here is where I think that Moses’ leadership, just like Job’s decision, should be an inspiration for all of us.
Moses is very likely heart-broken, he is certainly hurt ,and he is probably angry about what his sister said; yet there is no doubt in his words. WE might be angry about the statements that were made about Israel. But when the urgency of NOW is happening, Moses doesn’t say – first I want to have a conversation with Miriam to see if she can get past her accusation, past what she has said about me…
Moses understands that his identity can not be defined by his reaction to his sister but rather by his actions. And so he says “El Na Refa Na La!”, the Torah tells us that he screams! Moses is loud and clear. And in the same way our prayer should be clear; yes, we have difficulties, yes we were hurt, yes there is space to talk about this; but there is no doubt in Moses or Job’s actions that when the right thing needs to be done the right thing needs to be done! And when this comes about, it doesn’t matter if your wounds are still open. The definition of “principle” is “a fundamental truth that serves as the foundation for a system of belief”. We have many fundamental truths that serve as the foundation of our identity: that all humans were created in the image of God, that “justice justice you shall pursue”, that we should remember that we were strangers in the land of Egypt, that we should care for the oppressed in our society.And yes the love for the state of Israel is a principle and the baseless claims don’t change that for us! These are our fundamental truths, these are our principles. Staying true to them is the meaning of being loyal to our tradition. And so without denying our challenges or conversations that we would like to have, or even the fact that we have been misjudged we will have time to deal with all those later. Right now our voices and our prayer should be very clear. We don’t need to sugar-coat that prayer by saying that all lives matter. Right now it is “El Na Refa Na La!” it is Miriam’s life that is at stake, right now in our society black lives are at stake. Black people are experiencing oppression and therefore our voice and prayer should be loud and clear as we say that BLACK LIVES MATTER.
Interesting approach, Rabbi. Thank you for the different perspective.