Unlearning racism is a matter of recovery. It’s apparent in our torah.
There is an incident of explicit racism in this week’s parsha, Beha’alotcha. We don’t like to talk about racism in the torah, but it’s there. It’s there because in Judaism, our teachers and prophets are imperfect and remain that way. It’s their imperfections and errors that help us relate to them, and that show us how to grow, how to change, how to do t’shuvah.
The incident comes when Miriam, with Aaron by her side, both Moses’s siblings and leaders of the Israelites, “speaks against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married” (Numbers 12:1). By all historians and commentaries, a Cushite person refers to someone who is dark-skinned. So despite the ways in which we often want to read torah – as a document of heroes – here are two great leaders of the Israelites, people in positions of power, people we sing songs about, claiming they are better than Moses’s unnamed wife because of the darkness of her skin.
“They [Miriam and Aaron] said, ‘Has Adonai spoken only through Moses? Has God not spoken through us as well?’” (Numbers 12:2). Miriam likens Moses to a race traitor, and both Miriam and Aaron conspire against Moses for a bid on his power. What would compel these siblings to turn on their brother and his wife? Maybe they think they are prophets like or better than Moses. Maybe they think they are saving their brother from himself. The truth beneath these justifications is that they want to feel better than someone else – better than Moses in his leadership, and more worthy than the unnamed, dark-skinned Cushite woman. This is the great impulse, the lie, that fuels racism: a desire to feel better, more powerful, more worthy than someone else because of the color of their skin. This is why the phrase Black Lives Matter matters.
The torah goes on and says: “Adonai heard it” (Numbers 12:2). God hears Miriam’s and Aaron’s conspiring, and calls them and Moses to the Tent of Meeting. There God strikes Miriam with a skin disease: “snow-white scales” (Numbers 12:10). Miriam’s racism is no longer a conspiracy, no longer a secret. It shows up on her body.
Those of us who are dark-skinned know intimately the effects of racism on their bodies. But those of us who are light-skinned forget. We accept that racism hurts and that racism is bad, but we deny or disregard the caverns of pain-anger-fear it creates. We think it affects them, and not us. So we tell ourselves: It’s not so bad. How arrogant! And now that the pain-anger-fear is in the streets and on our devices day after day, we can’t ignore its depth. As a light-skinned person, I can say that I’m feeling the pain of racism in a new way – a more visceral and personal way. Anti-racism is no longer an emotionally distant and intellectually contained fight for liberation; it’s a personal and embodied experience – even if I know my experience is only a sliver of what dark-skinned folks experience. God is showing Miriam that her racist words and actions hurt her in her own body, just as these protests are showing all of us light-skinned folks that our systemic racism hurts us, too.
This is the nature of tzora’at, the skin disease that sickens Miriam. It is not only a physical disease. It is spiritual. It brings to the surface what was once hidden. It is there for everyone to see. It compels a confrontation with who she really is: not only the song leader who leads the celebration after escaping the Egyptians at the Red Sea, but someone with hate in her heart. It is a moment of exposure and truth. It is painful.
In recovery, we know this exposure, this truth. To come out of hiding our addictions, to come out of secrets into honesty, is often excruciating. Those of us who stick with it, who move through that pain, know that it is the first step. It is the beginning of t’shuvah.
As anyone who has filled out a t’shuvah sheet in a t’shuvah group knows, t’shuvah has essentially three parts: honesty, regret, and responsibility. The honesty of seeing your mistake, the regret for that mistake, and the responsibility to take right action. We know Miriam faced her mistake, but we don’t know if she felt regret or if she did better next time. The text doesn’t tell us. But it does tell us that now, as we are confronted with the anguish and pain and shame and rage of racism – in our very bodies – this is our moment for t’shuvah.
Just as God gives Miriam an opportunity to do better, this movement for Black lives is giving all Americans and American systems a chance to do better.
How do I do better?
To do better, I need to be vulnerable, to unlearn what needs to be unlearned. I need to use the tools I’ve learned in recovery and at Beit T’Shuvah. So I’m turning to the t’shuvah sheet for the anti-Black racism that still lives in my own heart, not for the sake of self-flagellation or virtue signaling but to open my heart. And then to act accordingly.
How did I miss the mark?
I didn’t really empathize with the pain/anguish of Black folks, especially Black mothers. I got stuck in the morality and intellectualization of racism.
What was my justification in the moment?
I told myself I was powerless to change anything really (even while I would show up at protests and actions, and go to anti-racism workshops).
Who did this impact?
Friends, Family, Community
How did it impact them?
Me: by keeping myself distant from others, emotionally isolating
Friends, Family, Community: by keeping me emotionally distant from Black, Indigenous, and POC friends and by holding me back from emotional motivations that would cause me to challenge White friends and family about their racism
What did I learn?
I learned that my activism is stronger, wiser, and more connective when it comes from my heart.
I learned that my mom-love cannot protect my daughter, and as gut-punch a realization as that is, it is dwarfed by the pain and fear that stalks parents of Black children.
What’s the plan?
To let the pain in and let it motivate me to act more courageously.
To help others – including my daughter – find the empathy to act courageously.
Now, it’s your turn. I encourage you to use these questions to understand how you can do better. What do you need to be honest about? What do you regret? What is the next responsible and right action?
Your sheet won’t look like mine, and my sheet today won’t look like my sheet next week. There is always more to unlearn, more to shake away to reveal the soul beneath the muck of hatefulness that we have all internalized in a society dependent on the roles of race into which we’ve been cast.
In this historical moment, all of us are invited – compelled – into t’shuvah for the racism we have internalized. God is showing us the ugliness inside us. And God, the Universe, some Higher Power, is giving us a chance to do better.