rabbinic writing
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rabbinic writing

Time to Get Uncomfortable

Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin, 6.12.20
Parashat B’ha’alotcha
Congregation Beth Israel, Scottsdale, Arizona

This morning, my spin instructor yelled at me through the tablet on my exercise bike.

“Now crank that resistance up,” she said, barely breaking a sweat.

I didn’t want to. I decided I wouldn’t.
This workout was already hard enough. But then she kept yelling at me.

“I know it’s hard,” she yelled.“I know it’s uncomfortable. Peddle through the discomfort.” I rolled my eyes, then turned the resistance knob.

“This is how we get stronger,” she said. “I know it hurts. I know. It hurts. But this is how we grow. First, it hurts. And then, we change.”[1]

These times we are living in… as we’ve been saying, week after week: they are uncertain, and uncharted, and unprecedented. And then, since the murder of George Floyd on May 25th, we’ve become aware of a new descriptor: These times aren’t just uncertain, they are uncomfortable.

What I have to say is uncomfortable. And I acknowledge that it’s also unfair — I get to write now about an uncomfortable subject and we can’t even look into each other’s eyes.

And now that you have a hint of what’s coming, you might already be unhappy. Perhaps you are looking for comfort, or a reprieve from the unpleasant realities of our world. If you’d like to stop reading, you can. I won’t know the difference. But before you hit that button — I ask you, gently, to try sitting in the discomfort just a little bit longer. See how long you can tolerate it. Perhaps, if we sit here, uncomfortable together, then together we can grow.

I am going to share with you a story of which I am ashamed.

It was a small, forgettable moment. But I have not forgotten it.

Instead, I have held this story in my gut for over twenty years. I have never spoken about it before. Sharing it with you now is uncomfortable. But I want to grow. I want to do better. I want to change.

I was a teenager, visiting my aunt in downtown Chicago. She had a big window in her high-rise apartment that looked down on the street below.

My dad and I stood there watching the people and the cars. There was a Black man standing in a parking lot. He walked to the corner. He waited to cross at a light.

“Where do you think he’s headed?” My dad asked lightly, initiating a time-passing game of imagination.

“He’s meeting his drug dealer,” I said. “He’s gotta get his fix.” My dad turned from the window to look at me.

“That’s racist,” he said.

“I was just kidding.” I said, in a typical teenage huff. Then he changed the subject, or I did. But the game was over. And inside, my mind was churning with guilt.

“I know I’m not racist.” I thought. I went to a diverse school, had a sort-of diverse group of friends and acquaintances. I was a good kid. I got decent grades. I did tikkun olam projects with the youth group, I wanted to heal the world.

I’ve wondered now, for years. Why did I think that? Why did I say that?

Would I have made that comment if the man crossing the street was White?
I’m not racist… am I?

Sharing this is so uncomfortable.
But I want to grow.
I want to do better.
I want to change.

It is easy to say that officer who kneeled on George Floyd’s neck was wrong. His wrong was egregious, and obvious to anyone who heard him gasping for air.

But what about smaller, less obvious wrongs? What about those of us who are White, who unconsciously lock the car doors when we drive through a neighborhood populated by people of color? What about those of us who are White, who have mistaken a community member of color for a serviceworker?What about those of us who are White who have laughed at dig towards another racial or ethnic group and then dismissed it as ‘just a joke?’

Each of these moments is fleeting, at the time. Small. Easy to shrug off. But as we hold up each instance one by one, the weight of our own small wrongs grows heavier and heavier. The weight becomes uncomfortable. It would be so much easier to let it drop, to shake out our arms, to walk away from what hurts. But we need to grow. We need to change. We need to be uncomfortable.

In this week’s parasha, Beha’alotcha, Miriam and Aaron are caught slandering Moses’ wife.

Va’t’daber Miryam v’Aharon b’Moshe al o’dot ha’ishah ha-kushit asher lakach,
ki-ishah kushit lakach.
Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman he had married: “He married a Cushite woman!” (Numbers 12:1)

The rabbis chime in. Tur HaAroch, a medieval commentary explains that kushit is a sarcastic term for physical beauty, referring, most likely to the dark pigmentation of her skin. Furthermore, the text goes on to say that “Miriam and Aaron criticized Moses for not marrying a woman of ‘better lineage.’”[2] This is like the biblical equivalent of Miriam and Aaron assuming this woman would be more fitting as their server than their sister. Rabbeynu Bahya, another medieval rabbi and scholar says it quite plainly: “The reason Miriam spoke out was because Moses married “a black skinned woman.” Ha’ta’am ki ishah kushit lakach hu.[3] While racism as we understand it is a modern construct, judgement and disdain of those who appear to be ‘other’ is nothing new.

Immediately after Miriam and Aaron’s conversation, God, the creator of all human life, comes down upon the siblings in a pillar of cloud. God admonishes them for speaking against their brother Moses, and then leaves. When the cloud lifts, Miriam has been stricken with tza’ra’at, described as ‘snow-white scales’ upon her skin.[4]

She is suffering an affliction.
We are suffering an affliction.

Like a virus that passes from person to person, from generation to generation, those of us with snow white skin are stricken with perceptions and assumptions that we don’t even realize lie dormant within us. We may be asymptomatic, most of the time. But these symptoms are subtle, and they are sneaky. This virus is so nuanced that we may not even notice that we are spreading it to our children. But they catch it when they see that we mostly socialize with people who look like us. We spread it in the workplace, when promotions or benefits are given to those who look like us. But worst of all, this virus spreads when we see the horrific symptoms manifest in full force — like graphic images on the news, of a nonchalant officer stealing a man’s last breath — and we do nothing.[5]

It is so tremendously uncomfortable to acknowledge that we too carry the hateful virus that killed George Floyd. It hurts so much because are good apples! We don’t want to hurt anyone. We don’t want to cause anyone any pain. We want to be a light to the nations, pursuers of justice, repairers of the world…

But if I’m honest with myself, I know that I have been a part of the problem. And I think that if most of us who are white skinned here in America are deeply and truly honest with ourselves, we have all had a thought or a laugh or a moment when we were part of the problem, too.

Moses cried out to God, El na rfa na lah… please God, please heal her. [6]
Heal Miriam. Heal her from this affliction.

El na rfa na lanu… please God, heal us too.

Help us to admit our shame.
Help us even when it hurts.
Help us acknowledge that our pain is nothing, nothing compared to the generations of pain that those with white skin have inflicted upon people of color.

I beg us to see that our healing must begin right now.
I pray that each one of us with white skin begins to peel away the scales of this affliction and stand humbly before our friends and family of color ready to listen, and ready to learn.

Usually, a drash like this ends with a nechemta, or a consoling word. Every class I took on homiletics teaches us to dissipate the discomfort. To bring hope. To make it all better. But I’m not going to do that tonight.
I am going to acknowledge, instead, that this moment is still raw.

We are exposed, now. We are vulnerable, now, as we admit to ourselves that we, too, are a part of the problem.

It is time to get uncomfortable.

It is time to grow.
It is time to do better.
It is time for us to change.

[1] Inspired by Emma Lovewell, Peloton instructor

[2] Tur HaAroch, Numbers 12:1

[3] Rabbeinu Bahya, BaMidbar 12:1:2

[4] Numbers 12:2–10

[5] Inspired by the poem “Vaccinate Us” by Rabbi Jennifer Gubitz, Temple Israel of Boston

[6] (Numbers 12:13)

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Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin

Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin

Rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Scottsdale, AZ.