This parasha contains a number of threads that seemingly do not connect – we begin with the instruction to Aaron about how to light the 7 branched menorah in the tent of meeting, and then Moses sprinkles the Levites with the water of purification, making them shave their bodies and wash their clothes in preparation for their ordination by Aaron in the sight of the people.
The Levites were now ready to do service in the Tent of Meeting. The text then changes its focus to the observance of Pesach on the 14th day of the first month of the second year after the Exodus. Should someone be ritually unclean and unable to offer the Pesach sacrifice then, they could offer it also on the 14th day of the second month.
From the day the Tabernacle was established, the presence of God hovered over it as a cloud by day and as fire by night. And whenever the cloud lifted the Israelites would follow and make camp once the cloud settled. God instructed Moses to have two silver trumpets made to summon the people and to signal the time to break camp. The trumpets were also to be blown at times of war, and also on joyous occasions, festivals, new moons, as a reminder of God’s acts of deliverance.
The people set out from Sinai on a three day journey. They complain before God and God causes a fire to break out and destroy the outskirts of the camp. Moses prays to God and the fire dies down. They complain again, contrasting the food they ate in Egypt, in particular the meat, with the blandness of the manna. Moses is upset and cries to God that he cannot cope with such a people by himself. God tells him to gather 70 elders to help him lead the people. The appointed leaders are told to advise the people that God will give them meat to eat for a whole month until it becomes loathsome to them. When Moses asks how there could be enough animals for this, God answers “Is there a limit to God’s power?”
Two of the 70, Eldad and Medad begin to prophesy in the camp, and when this is reported to Moses he replies “Would that all God’s people were prophets, that God put the divine spirit upon them”. A wind then sweeps quail around the camp and the people gather it and eat it. While the meat was still between their teeth, God strikes them with plague and many Israelites died.
At Hatzayrot, Miriam and Aaron speak against Moses, complaining that he married a Cushite woman, and that they too are prophets of equal stature to Moses. God rebukes them saying that Moses is special “he is trusted in My household. With him I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles, and he beholds the likeness of God”. The presence of God lifts and Miriam’s skin is snow white and scaly. Aaron pleads with God to intercede for her and Moses does so, praying “El na, r’fa na la – God please, heal her please”. God agrees Miriam must be out of the camp for only seven days, and the people wait for her to be readmitted until they leave for the wilderness of Paran.
Miriam and Aaron complain about the Cushite wife Moses has taken. Miriam is struck with an illness that causes her skin to become snow white. Cush is commonly understood to be Ethiopia, so one reading of this text is that Miriam and Aaron show themselves to be racially prejudiced against a black woman, and God’s response is to make Miriam so white that she is to be isolated from the community. It is a sort of a joke, a tit for tat - the blackness of the Cushite woman is defended by God with the bestowing of a skin disease of glaring whiteness. A comic story, a reminder that the colour of one’s skin is of no real import as against the humanity of the person. A quick response by God to unacceptable behaviour by Miriam and Aaron, and, once Moses prays for Miriam to be restored to her normal skin type, and she has learned the consequences of her action, an event that is over.
Or so we would hope. Yet this last week shows that racism can continue to taint us. In Tel Aviv, in a poor area of town called “HaTikvah” – the Hope- there were riots by Israeli Jews against the South Sudanese and Eritrean refugees living there. They were spurred on by comments from the Shas Interior Minister Eli Yishai calling them “infiltrators”, by Likud MK Miri Regev allegedly describing the presence of these people as “a cancer in our body”, and Likud MK Danny Danon calling for the immediate expulsion of African migrants, saying “the infiltrators are a national plague… the Sudanese can go back to Sudan, and the rest deported to other countries in Africa..”. The riots have shocked many ordinary Israelis and many Diaspora Jews. The language of the Members of Knesset even more so. How could Israel, the Jewish State based on Jewish ethics and values, allow a pogrom to take place within its borders? How could she not care for those who are seeking refuge from war and terror? How could Jews look at the colour of another person’s skin – let alone someone fleeing war and its attendant horrors - and see someone to be described as “plague” or “cancer”?
In this sidra God asks Moses “is there a limit to God’s power?” Here too Moses says to Joshua “Would that all the people were prophets with God’s spirit resting upon them” . And in this sidra Moses prays for Miriam to be healed “El na, r’fa na la”.
As I look at the news coming out from Israel I wonder about the limits of God’s power. Jewish teaching tells us that God acts through human hands, that there is indeed a limitation imposed on God’s power and that limitation is connected with our willingness to act according to God’s moral and ethical guidance. When Moses responds to Joshua the statement is often read as ironic– “would that all the people were prophets, with God’s spirit resting upon them”, but I do not see it here as in any way not a straight statement. I pray long and hard that God’s spirit will come to rest on these people who have allowed themselves to whipped up into a frenzy of resentment and hatred, as they see the migrants who are unable to work to support themselves apparently get what they themselves do not have. And I find myself praying for Israel – El na, r’fa na la – God, please, heal her please. For this is a country that is becoming very sick, and this time there is no humour to be found, only a darkness that the light of the seven branched candlestick would find hard to penetrate.
Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild 2012