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Climate Change, Racism, and Judaism

06/12/2020 05:24:41 PM


            Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat B’ha’alot’cha, which opens with the mounting of the menorah in the Mishkan. As it goes on, we hear about the whining of the people who were bored of their matzah and wanted meat. The Torah tells us:

The riffraff in their midst felt a gluttonous craving; and then the Israelites wept and said, “If only we had meat to eat! We remember the fish that we used to eat free in Egypt, the cucumbers, the melons, the leeks, the onions, and the garlic. Now our gullets are shriveled. There is nothing at all! Nothing but this manna to look to!” Now the manna was like coriander seed, and in color it was like bdellium. The people would go about and gather it, grind it between millstones or pound it in a mortar, boil it in a pot, and make it into cakes. It tasted like rich cream. (Numbers 11:4-8)

This delicious creamy goodness falls from the sky in abundance, but it is never enough! They ask for meat – “basar”, which has a Jewish meaning of flesh from a land animal and that they are asking for something above and beyond the fish in Egypt they are extolling at the same time. So quails fall from the sky in abundance as well, and even though the people are told they will have plenty for a whole month, they start gathering and hoarding the meat, more than what is needed to feed themselves in that moment. And “while the meat was still yet in their teeth” (11:33) God sends a plague that kills them all. This piece of Biblical narrative concludes with the statement: “That place was named Kibroth-hattaavah, because the people who had the craving were buried there” (11:34).

            When I read the name Kibrot Hattaavah - “The Grave of Cravings” – I was reminded of one of the myths from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. I’ve not studied the ancient works in detail, but in college I was in a stage performance of selected scenes from the collection of myths. I thought I was being asked to join a performance of Kafka’s Metamorphosis and wanted to play the cockroach. Anyway, one of the stories was about Erysichthon and his insatiable hunger. I played Hunger. As the scene starts out, I crept along the back edge of the stage, like a shadow. As the narrator goes on to tell of Erysichthon’s increasing desperation for more food, I got closer to the actress playing Erysichthon, clawiing at her leg and grabbing at her shirt. By the end of the scene, I had full-on climbed onto her back until the weight of her own gluttony (all 100 pounds of me) cause her to collapse.

            It sounds cliché – excess greed, insatiable hunger will be the death of us. When told in short stories with God or a god interfering, it sounds so far off from our lived reality; a parable. But parables are meant to serve as lessons for our real life as well, and we would do well to heed the warning in the stories of Kibrot Hattaavah and the death of Erysichthon.

            While our attention at the moment may rightfully still be focused on the pandemics of COVID-19 and institutional racism, another pandemic continues to rage in the background and we are all inching closer to irreversible disaster if we, as in the whole world, don’t slow our roll. That pandemic is the climate crisis. The concentration of CO2 currently in the atmosphere is the highest its ever been, causing the global temperatures to rise every higher, melting glaciers and ice caps, and causing floods, exacerbated affects of regular natural disasters, and potentially making some areas of the globe simply too hot to continue to live in. There are so many ways that changes in our means of consumption could drastically decrease our carbon emissions and slow down or possibly even stop climate change, while also creating new jobs and saving nations money in the long run. But to get there, we would need dramatic shifts in how we demand to be “fed” in the meantime, including but not limited to, America’s riffraff demanding more meat.

            This Shabbat, let us enjoy the fine things in our life, but let us also remember the cost the environment has paid to provide us those things, and after Shabbat, let us commit to finding ways of going green. May we leave our next generation a world of abundance and beauty, not graves of craving.

            The parasha then closes with Miriam’s tzaraat. The Torah tells: “Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married: ‘He married a Cushite woman!’” (Numbers 12:1). They also complain that they feel their prophetic powers are ignored while Moses gets all the glory. Moses is humble and doesn’t seem to respond to either charge, but God is angry and strikes Miriam (and confusingly not Aaron) with “snow-white scales” (12:10).

            There have been those who, puzzled at this reference to the “Cushite woman,” have posited that Moses married a second woman, because Tzipporah is from Midian not Cush. This explanation would also fit with the times we hear about Moses’s “father-in-law, Ruel”, when we had been previously told about Tzipporah’s father, Yitro.

          On the other hand, there are those who have pointed out that the term “Cushite” might have been in play as a racial epithet for anyone of darker skin, regardless of their actual country of origin. The term is sometimes still used in Israel today as a less-than-polite-but-not-quite-a-slur term for Black people. For some of those with this viewpoint, the white scales then are a punishment befitting the crime (although, again, if “Miriam and Aaron spoke out against Moses,” why is only Miriam stricken with this punishment?). Remember that Miriam also would not have been white as those of us of European descent, though it is natural to imagine our ancestors as looking like us. The white scales would be stark against her Middle Eastern skin tones, and the scaliness of it readily apparent and gross.

         Earlier in this parasha, we read the line, “There shall be one law among you, whether for stranger or citizen of your country.” In this case, the Torah is talking specifically about the law regarding the Pesach sacrifice, but it is a line that comes up many times before, often more generally. There shall be one law, applied evenly for all people regardless of where they were born, how they came to join Am Yisrael, what their skin color or citizenship status, etc. The halakha around LaShon HaRa, gossip and hateful speech, is not developed until the rabbinic age. The Torah commandments don’t really come right out and say it. But in this parasha we see that even speaking poorly against someone due to their nationality and skin color (both issues are at play here in separate ways), is deserving of fairly serious consequences. Words can lead to actions, and if Miriam and Aaron say rude things about Moses and his relationship because of Tzipporah’s “race” (which is a bit of an anachronistic word here), it isn’t far jump to be concerned that they would not enforce or enact laws fairly toward Tzipporah or other dark skinned members of the mixed multitudes traveling among them.

        Let us commit this Shabbat to watch our words, which become actions, which become habits. Let us truly work to create a world that does enforce and enact laws that apply equally to all people and allow for all people to be treated with dignity and respect. May we see this world reborn with equity and justice for all. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.


Fri, October 23 2020 5 Cheshvan 5781