Colorblind: Shabbat Message by Rabbi Dan Levin

Shabbat Message by Rabbi Dan Levin graphic for Temple Beth El of Boca Raton

On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation: “I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves … are, and henceforward shall be free, and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.”

Some two and a half years later, on June 19, 1865, Union General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas and declared: “The people of Texas are informed that in accordance with a Proclamation from the Executive of the United States, all slaves are free.”

This week America observed Juneteenth, the celebration of the fulfillment of the Emancipation Proclamation.  Historians debate whether June 19, 1865 was really the date when slavery was finally expunged from the American landscape.  It certainly did not end the persistent, systemic dehumanization, oppression, and persecution of former slaves based on racial categories.

Obsession with race is not new or unique to the American experience.

In this week’s Torah portion, Miriam and Aaron call out their brother Moses because he married a “Kushite woman” – a woman from Ethiopia.  In response, God reminds them of God’s absolute faith and trust in Moses: “With him I speak mouth to mouth, plainly and not in riddles, and he beholds the image of God. How then did you not shrink from speaking against My servant Moses!” (Numbers 12:8)

Miriam is then afflicted with a leprosy-like skin disease called Tzora’at – which turns her skin completely white.

Why would the punishment for Miriam be a disease that afflicts the skin?

Clearly it is a rebuke for their condemnation of Moses’ Ethiopian wife, and her very dark skin.  It’s as if the Holy One is saying to Miriam, “You like light skin?  I’ll give you light skin!”

But God’s message runs even deeper in the text.  Why does God scold Miriam and Aaron by reminding them that their brother Moses is someone who “beholds the image of God”?

Throughout the Torah we are taught that God is a force that cannot be seen.  Recovering from the debacle of the Golden Calf, Moses beseeches God: “Oh, let me behold your presence!” (Exodus 33:18).  But that’s impossible, for as God says, “you cannot see My face, for a human being may not see Me and live.” (Exodus 33:20)

So how is it that Moses “beholds the image of God”? Unlike his sister and brother, who are infatuated with outer appearances, Moses sees only the purest essence of who that person is.

“Of all the things you could list about somebody,” Coleman Hughes said in his famous TED Talk, A Case For Colorblindness, “their race is just about the least interesting you can name, right down there with height and hair color.”

Instead, he suggests that we strive to be colorblind.

But one cannot avoid seeing color or race.  Can anyone be truly colorblind?

“… to advocate for color blindness is not to pretend you don’t notice race,” says Hughes. “It’s to support a principle that we should try our best to treat people without regard to race, both in our personal lives and in our public policy.”

But Nikole Hannah-Jones argues that pretending to be colorblind actually reinforces racial oppression. “Colorblindness was the goal, color-consciousness the remedy.”

In 1965, newly elected president Lyndon Johnson gave the commencement address at Howard University: “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘You are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair,” Johnson said.

Justice Thurgood Marshall, in a speech to a group of federal judges in 1987, said: “Obviously, I too believe in a colorblind society; but it has been and remains an aspiration. It is a goal toward which our society has progressed uncertainly, bearing as it does the enormous burden of incalculable injuries inflicted by race prejudice and other bigotry, which the law once sanctioned, and even encouraged.”

This week where we celebrate Juneteenth, the Torah calls us to reach toward that aspiration – to fashion a society that is truly liberated and emancipated, where equality is realized, and where we learn to see only the colorblind holy essence of our individual and holy souls.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Dan Levin
Temple Beth El of Boca Raton

“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem…”


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