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'Don't Stare at Me because I am Black, because the Sun has Gazed upon Me...' (Song of Songs 1:5-6) 
Friday 5 June 2020
Dear Members and Friends,

What happened to Moses’ ‘Cushite wife’?  And who was she?  This week’s parashah ends with the complaints of Miriam and Aaron against Moses ‘because of the Cushite woman he had married: ‘He married a Cushite woman!’ (Numbers 12:1)

Who was this Cushite woman whom Moses had married?  We know from Exodus 2, that Moses had married one the seven daughters of a Midianite priest and that her name was Zipporah.  She bears him two sons Gershom and Eliezer (Exodus 2:22 and 18:4).  We encounter Zipporah only twice more in the Torah after her marriage: firstly, when Moses returns to Egypt together with his wife and sons, in order to confront Pharaoh.

In a curious night-time incident on this journey, the Torah states: ‘The Eternal One encountered him and sought to kill him’ (Exodus 4:24).  It is unclear to whom the ‘him’ in this verse refers.  Is it to Moses or to one of the sons of Moses and Zipporah, whose circumcision, according to the commentators, has been delayed because of the journey?  Zipporah, apparently in the absence of her husband, takes a flint and ‘cuts off her son’s foreskin, and touches his legs with it, saying, “You are truly a bridegroom (or perhaps more accurately ‘the one who has undergone circumcision’) of blood to me!” (4:25).  In these three verses, Zipporah, the only one mentioned by name, has saved the life of either her husband or son by performing a ritual normally undertaken by men.

The next reference to Zipporah comes at the beginning of Exodus 18, when her father, Jethro, brings her to Moses at Mount Sinai, together with the two sons.  The implication here is that she had been living with her father in Midian.  But precisely when she left Moses to return to her father’s home isn’t clear.  In this chapter, we are told simply, that she had ‘been sent home’ – achar shilucheha at some previous time.  Why?  Did Moses divorce his wife as the Hebrew verb might imply? If that is the case, why does Jethro refer to Zipporah as Moses’ wife a few verses later?

But the real question is whether the Cushite woman, who is referred to in this week’s Torah portion is Zipporah or not.  She is not mentioned by name, but by her tribal or national label.  What did it mean to be a ‘Cushite’? 

Genesis describes the four rivers flowing out of the Garden of Eden, one of which is Gihon, encircling the land of Cush.  Is this a reference to the Blue Nile that flows through Ethiopia?  Elsewhere in Tanakh, Cush is identified as the son of Ham, one of the sons of Noah.  Each of Noah’s three sons, referred to in the genealogy of Genesis 10, reflects (not always consistently) the divisions of language and geography – Ham associated with Africa and his son, Cush identified with Ethiopia.

And this might suggest, then, that Moses’ Cushite wife was from Ethiopia. But without her name, without her saying anything in this story, we remain in the dark about her identity.  What is it that Miriam and Aaron are complaining about?  If they are complaining about Zipporah, how do we reconcile the fact that she was from Midian, while the wife referred to here is ha-ishah cushit?  Perhaps their complaint is that Moses had taken a second wife, as the 12th century Bible commentator, Rashbam suggests in his commentary to this story.  According to a legend he cites, Moses ruled for forty years over the kingdom of Cush and had taken a Cushite woman as his queen, but had not consummated the marriage.

According to the plain and simple meaning of the verse, says Ha-Emek Davar, the Cushite was a ‘gentile black woman who had converted.’  But Moses had separated himself from her and both Miriam and Aaron disapproved.

But perhaps there is another dimension to this chapter. Perhaps what might be glaring to us today, was not quite as obvious to previous commentators.  For there may well be a racial aspect to this story: Miriam and Aaron speak against the Cushite woman because she is black. She is dark-skinned, different, other and alien.  And if this sounds heavy-handed, then turn to the end of the chapter where God punishes Miriam by afflicting her with tza’ra’at – leprosy.  Her skin turns ‘snow-white’, as if God evens the score against her saying: ‘You dared to criticise this woman on account of her skin-colour.  I will, therefore, turn your skin as white as snow.’

Miriam is shut out of the camp for seven days, holding up the continuation of the Israelites’ march through the desert.

But what happens to the Cushite woman?  Does she remain with Moses, perhaps one of several wives that the great lawgiver took for himself?  Who were her children?

What if one of her descendants is the Cushite messenger sent by Joab, David’s commander of the army, to bring news of Absalom’s death to his father, stirring these words of lament from the king: ‘My son Absalom! O my son, my son Abslaom! If only I had died instead of you! O Absalom, my son, my son!’ (2 Sam. 19:1)

What if her children are the exiles of Cush, led away stripped and barefoot by Assyrian captors in Isaiah (20:4)?  Black slaves of the future, ‘fettered by chains’ (45.14).

We must discover the Cushite wife through these other figures of Tanakh, because there is so little text about her – men such as Eved-Melech, the Cushite, a eunuch who appeals to King Zedekiah during the siege of Jerusalem, to rescue Jeremiah from a pit where he had been thrown to die there of hunger.  Eved-Melech, himself, is sent by the king to pull Jeremiah out of the pit by a rope.

Today, her voice is the voice of the black woman or man, protesting against the grotesque racist injustices against her compatriots in the United States, in our own country and other parts of the world.  She is the voice of a people silenced, humiliated, oppressed, made to feel alien and other, against whom there have been generations of untold cruelty and whose very presence reveals the bleakest elements of inequality in our societies.

Are we not afraid, not of the protests we see throughout cities of the United States, but of such deeply embedded racism?  ‘Few of us seem to realize how insidious, how radical, how universal an evil racism is,’ wrote Abraham Joshua Heschel in a piece about religion and race in 1963.  ‘Few of us realise that racism is man’s gravest threat to man, the maximum of hatred for a minimum of reason, the maximum of cruelty for a minimum of thinking.’

There can be no more powerful testimony both to Judaism’s acknowledgement of the diversity of humanity and our oneness, our equality and equivalence than the verses in Amos: ‘To me, O Israelites, you are just like the Ethiopians – declares the Eternal One’ (Amos 9:7).  There is no difference between you and your fellow human beings, says God. I brought you up from the land of Egypt, but also the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir.’  No one is granted a special privilege either because of history, religion or race.  You are one humanity; you are My children, says God.

‘He married a Cushite woman!’ Moses, the leader of the Jewish people, the protagonist of the Torah, marries a woman from a different country, whose colour is different from his, whose past and traditions are different, but he unites himself with her as one.  She is black, and she is beautiful, ‘like the tents of Kedar, like the pavilions of Solomon.’ And she says to those who stare: ‘Don’t stare at me because I am black, because the sun has gazed upon me…’ (Song of Songs 1:5-6)

God and Moses set the Cushite woman as an equal, the object of love and beauty, casting aside the slander of Miriam and Aaron and delivering a harsh lesson against the devastation wreaked by inequality and oppression.

To end with the prescient words of Abraham Joshua Heschel: ‘God is every man’s pedigree. He is either the Father of all men or of no man. The image of God is either in every man or in no man.’

Shabbat shalom,

Alexandra Wright

The Ethical Call to Amplify Black Voices

12 June 2020

Dear Members and Friends

There is much in our sacred texts and liturgy about the power of breath. In our creation story we read about God breathing life into humankind. In our morning prayers we thank God for breathing life into us and sustaining our souls. In Psalm 150 we read the words 'Let every soul that has breath praise God.' In fact the Hebrew word for breath, neshema, is also the word for soul, neshama. Our breath is our life, it is what sustains us, what allows us to live and love and create. 

These last few weeks we have all been reminded of what happens when someone is forcibly denied their breath.

‘I can’t breathe.’

‘I can’t breathe.’

These words, which have now become an anthem of protest, were spoken over and over again by George Floyd. The breath of life that we all share was taken from him.

In Judaism to take a life is to take a world.

The death of George Floyd has shaken the world, a world that already was on fragile footing as we struggle together through this pandemic. Voices and tears are being shared throughout America and around the world demanding that Black Lives Matter.

As Jews, we have our own story of history and oppression, of systems of power taking our liberties and at times our lives, our breath. It is our obligation now not to assume we understand the oppression and lived experiences of our black brothers and sisters and the black members of our own community but instead to hear their voices, to listen to their concerns, to act and to amplify their voices.

We are still living in the midst of a pandemic and thus are limited in what we can do, but we must heed the call of our Torah ‘Tzedek, tzedek, tirdof,’ justice justice shall you pursue. The command to pursue justice implies that we will never reach full justice; however much we advocate for the needs of others there is more that we could be doing. As a start we can educate ourselves on what it means to be anti-racist and we can be self-reflective and honest in our own contributions to systems of power and privilege. I highly recommend reading this article from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, reflections from Jews of colour HERE

While we continue to take care of ourselves and our loved ones as we move, day by day, through this pandemic, we must also stay aware of systems of oppression and violence throughout our world and continue to do God’s work in acting for change.

Poet and Rabbi Karyn Kedar recently wrote this piece that I want to share with you:

Holy One of Blessing,
grant us the will to stand firm
in the face of evil and hostility,
not to be silent or afraid.
To work diligently and faithfully
to banish wickedness from the earth.
Holy One of Blessing,
grant us the courage and resolve
to speak when there is hatred,
to act when there is confusion,
to join with others in building a world of safety,
understanding, and acceptance.
Because there is hate, dear God,
help us heal our fractured and broken world.
Because there is fear, dear God,
grant courage and faith to those in need.
Because there is pain, dear God,
bring healing to the shattered and wounded.
Because there is hope, dear God,
teach us to be a force for justice and kindness.
Because there is love, dear God,
help us to be a beacon of light and compassion.
As it is written:
Be strong and let your heart have courage. (Joshua 1:6)
Depart from evil, do good, seek peace and pursue it. (Psalm 34:15)

Shabbat shalom,

Elana Dellal

Diversity is Holiness

19 June 2020

Dear Members and Friends

What does it mean to be a good leader? What is the best response for leaders when they are challenged by people around them?

In this week’s parashah we read the story of Korach’s rebellion against Moses and Aaron.  Korach, along with Dathan and Abiram, declares that all the Israelites, and not just Moses and Aaron, are holy. (Numbers 16:1–35).

The Rabbinic tradition interprets Korach and his followers as ill-intentioned and malicious. I remember reading this Torah portion for the first time and having a question ‘What is wrong in making everybody equal?’ Korach wanted to see all people holly, sacred and the same. Today we wish everybody to be treated in an equal and just way, today we preach that all people should be treated with dignity and respect, not just our leaders. What is wrong with Korach’s philosophy?

Emmanuel Levinas, a Jewish existential philosopher, explored the theme of ‘The Other’ in his works. He challenged the idea that every person should be treated and understood as fundamentally 'The Same'. In his 1962 work ‘Transcendence and Height’ he wrote: 
The epiphany of the Absolutely Other is a face by which the Other challenges and commands me through his nakedness, through his destitution. He challenges me from his humility and from his height.… The absolutely Other is the human Other (autrui). And the putting into question of the Same by the Other is a summons to respond.… Hence, to be I signifies not being able to escape responsibility.

In his philosophy, Levinas argues that the idea that all people are the same leads to a violent force to make everybody the same. Levinas is a Holocaust survivor and he believed that the philosophy which put the Sameness of all people on a pedestal made the horrors of the twentieth century possible. The only way to see other people, according to Levinas, is to recognise their difference, to see the radical otherness in every creature. Every single person is utterly different; therefore, I have the responsibility to understand and respect them. Radical difference, colourfulness and diversity is the foundation of an equal, just and holy world, according to Levinas.

At the end of the parashah we read that God instructs Moses to tell the people to take a staff from each tribe, as well as one from the Levites, and place the staffs inside the ark. The staff of the tribe that is to be chosen by God will sprout. And the one that sprouts turns out to be the staff of Aaron. (Numbers 17:17–28)

In the world when the Torah was written the tribe of Levi was different from other tribes and had its unique function. We also know that each tribe had its own unique role in the world and each person – their place in society. It is important to recognise difference and to build a world in which we celebrate diversity. Let us make this week a time of pride, acceptance, and celebration of diversity in our community, society, and humanity.

This week is the week of the Annual General Meeting (AGM) of the LJS. This is a chance for all of us to reflect on the past year and to plan for the future of our community. Please do not forget to register for the online gathering. There is so much for the LJS to be proud of and there is so much work to be done to make our community and our society a better place. Let us do it together – each of us in our unique and different way. See you there!

Shabbat shalom,

Igor Zinkov

Rabbi Alexandra Wright's AGM message to the community

26 June 2020

Dear Members and Friends

It has been three months since the LJS building was closed – three months during which a number of us have lost family members, dear friends and fellow members of this congregation; three months of isolation, of not being able to see family and friends; three months since this country, Europe and the rest of the world, was plunged into a chaotic period of uncertainty, trauma and loss. We have tried to seek comfort in Zoom prayers, by staying in contact with each other by phone or other means, but the truth is that we need each other, we need to feel the touch and human breath of each other and we cannot fully do that, even as the lockdown restrictions ease.  

Every day, I take myself on a little cycle ride near where I live. In the beginning, for several weeks, the roads were empty. The air was clear, there was a silence that was both surprising and pure, as though the earth could finally breathe again, as though the world was returning to its untreated, unspoilt beginnings.  

The cycle rides continue, but the roads, once again, are clogged with traffic.  There is noise and hot polluted air breathes into your face to be absorbed by the pores as cars and lorries speed by.

All of us want to see our country back on its feet.  At the same time, we are fearful of what the future means – for ourselves, our health, our emotional well-being, our work, our economic future, the future of our planet which has seen new waste to our coasts and seas in the form of used masks and plastic gloves and everything else that we throw away.

On the cusp of our country re-awakening, what it will mean for us as the LJS?  Will the life of our community be the same?  Or will it be different?  In the short to medium term, we don’t know what it will look like.  We are still living with the uncertainty of knowing the level of risk there might be if we allow ourselves to reassemble for the activities that once took place on a daily basis.  Whether we can be together at a distance of one metre or two metres is immaterial.  We need to know that all our members are safe and protected from the danger of the coronavirus.  And even if we do re-open and ensure a level of safety, how do we make coming back into the synagogue fair for all our members?  This synagogue has 570 members over the age of 70.  Are we going to discriminate against the very people who have had to shield more strictly than others?  I leave these as questions, because we are still learning, waiting to see how we can begin to re-enter the Sanctuary.  Yes, it will be different, but please God, we will adapt and find ways to be with each other once again.

But in another respect, I hope things will be the same.  I hope that this new reality will not mean that we need to ‘rebrand’ ourselves, to borrow a marketing term.  We don’t need to rename ourselves, to turn ourselves into something else, something for this so-called new age.  Because what we have – the spiritual and moral values that guide us as Liberal Jews, as members of the LJS – are timeless and eternal.  They help us on our own interior journeys of spiritual yearning after a God who is present and yet at the same time absent. Present in the sense that I know there is something within and beyond me, absent in the sense that God cannot prevent tragedy and trauma, cannot easily mend the ills of the world.  If there has been any little change during this period, we have been able to nurture our souls, to be reflective and in touch with something that is intangible. Perhaps for all the difficulties, we will emerge more attuned to the spiritual dimension of human life.

For we are not all-material; we are spiritual beings, that is the essence of our humanity. We long for wholeness and beauty and peace and stillness and for a few moments early on in the lockdown, even in the midst of our bewilderment and losses, we found it in some curious way.  

And I hope we will not change in another respect.  Liberal Judaism emerged from the need to provide greater spiritual fulfilment for the individual, but also service to others.  In addition to the real danger of Covid-19, there has been another danger: that it has eclipsed our awareness of the acute needs of people in poverty, asylum seekers, the homeless, those caught up in civil conflict and war, those about to see part of their land annexed.  And the needs of our planet.  It would be easy to regress and forget about others, because we have been so caught up fighting our own war against the coronavirus.

The global and the intimate – both are deeply linked.  If there is a sense of consonance in our souls, in the deepest part of ourselves, then surely how we are with each other, will call us to a sense of doing what is right not only for ourselves but for others.   For that is our mission as Jews, as members of this congregation: to seek to deepen our faith and confidence in our Creator, to seek justice for those who are wronged, to love righteousness, to watch over the stranger, and to guard against the despoilation of God’s creation.  

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

This week’s Thought for the  Week was part of Rabbi Alexandra Wright’s message to the congregation at the AGM on Wednesday 24 June, 2020

Tue, 28 November 2023 15 Kislev 5784