Drash submitted by Mona Williams, Temple Sinai (Wellington Board Member)
Note: I am indebted to Steven Kushner and to the Chabad Women of Crown Heights, NY, for comments in preparing this Drasha.
This week’s Parsha, Beha'alotcha, was tremendously challenging. It is richly dense with profound truths, delectable insights, soul-satisfying realities and immense intellectual range.
The Parsha begins with the commandment to light the sacred candelabra of gold; an excellent source of wonder. The difference between light and darkness is so obvious that it serves as a sharp metaphor: “Wisdom excels folly as far as light excels darkness” (Ecclesiastes 2:13).
Light as a positive symbol is so prevalent in Biblical Hebrew that redemption, truth, justice, peace and even life itself “shine,” and their revelation is expressed in terms of light.
The Temple menorah, which shone through the walls and curtains, was conceived by the Jewish people as the symbol par excellence of Jewish existence. The same goes for the Sabbath and Festival candles. Ahhhh! Light! But the Parsha next speaks of the setting apart of the Levites and the commandment to keep the Passover. That exposition, guided by volumes of learned commentators was almost irresistible.
However, the Parsha extends to Miriam and Aaron’s challenge of Moses’ leadership, that is, sibling rivalry. Seductive topic that was. Imagine! It was comparable to a fireworks illumination, in Numbers 12: 1-10, chancing upon Miriam’s objection to Moses’s wife, an Ethiopian, on the basis of her black skin colour! Miriam is punished in swift and emphatic fashion by Hashem; her flesh is turned white; as white as a leper’s. She was unclean, therefore quarantined, and the whole Israel nation waited encamped for days until her flesh healed, before moving on. Thus everyone was made aware of the penalty of objecting to anyone because their skin is black.
Four thousand years ago or so, when racism reared its ugly head, G-d acted unequivocally; He said “NO!” Today, lights illumine this very problem of racism; one pivotal light shining on it is the cell phone.
The video of a policeman crushing the life out of George Floyd, and videos of other shootings and brutalization of Black males have led to protest marches with placards proclaiming “Black Lives Matter”, articulating their experiences of discrimination in cities across America, Britain, France and Germany. Photographs expose Belgium’s "red rubber" policy of cutting off the hands of African villagers who failed to meet their rubber harvesting quotas; and of hostage villages in the Congo held, to guarantee the amount of rubber was finally delivered. There is weary awareness in Brazil of the hatred of Blacks. Portugal’s former colony, which had the largest shipments of slaves from Africa, today records staggering numbers of Black Brazilians in favelas dying from Covid 19.
Light from research is also thrown over centuries of slavery and colonial rule; the selling of family members from each other as if they were pieces of furniture, the breeding of strong Black men to strong Black women exactly as one bred cattle; the inability of men and women to marry since slaves did not own themselves or their offspring; selling their children away once they were three years old; floggings, rape of anyone of any age, mindless killings to instil fear, and indifference to Black people’s deaths after short brutish sugar-plantation life.
But cell phones now live stream the brutalisation of Black people in policing, in sport and in housing; in health care, employment, education, wages, land ownership, the Courts, the Jails, Schools, Banks (not granting loans), the slanting of stories in the Media and in Films, and eliminating from school textbooks Black contributions to the scientific world.
Few know that traffic lights were invented by Black Garett Morgan, or that Black Dr Charles Drew’s invention made blood banks possible and complex operations no longer a death sentence because of blood transfusions.
Blacks are Noble Prize winners, Man Booker Prize winners, Congress persons and Mayors in the USA; gold winning tennis players, athletes, singers, a golfer, ballet dancers, exceptional writers of Russian (Pushkin) and of French (Dumas) literature, an astronaut who died in the Challenger rocket explosion, scientists, mathematicians, surgeons, billionaires like Oprah, and even a pyramid architect and builder like Imhotep, a Nubian, credited with the stepped pyramid at Sakkara constructed over 4,000 years ago.
We ride elevators without knowing who OTIS is or what he did. We visit Washington DC unaware that its layout is owed to Benjamin Banneker.
Thankfully Whites stepped in at the inception of today’s protests to call for reform and for the cessation of the Death Squad’s practices, scornfully referred to as "policing". Great praise be unto them - the Chabad women of Crown Heights, Brooklyn. "Once we all decided to do it we just committed to showing up on Sunday at 3:00." Miriam Levy-Haim, an organiser, said. "We made a poster with ‘Black Lives Matter’ and sent it out to all our friends and family and networks with the hopes they would come out too." Mrs Levy-Haim added, "It was really powerful that a group of mostly working mothers pulled this off."
Another member, Ilana Spencer, said she hoped the rally would "normalise being a social-justice activist and being a visibly frum person."
Our Temple Sinai community is committed to social justice. To this, our actions attest. Mind you, there is no denying great injustices in Aotearoa still cry out for restitution; the confiscation of land 15 kilometres wide in Kaikoura "to put in a road"; the refusal to return land to Maori which had been donated for schools or a hospital which no longer exist; the confiscation of Maori owned farms for rates-arrears, from soldiers who were fighting overseas at the time in World War 2; the confiscation of uncultivated "waste land" which differs in no way from today’s "National Parks"; the heavy Court sentences of Maori for drug and theft offences compared with judgements handed down to Pakeha criminals for the same crimes.
The Holy one, blessed be He, punished colour discrimination absolutely eons ago. May we all work daily to oppose racism in New Zealand. May there be justice, truth, peace, Light and Life in our Nation. Shalom.