In the Torah portion this week, Be-halot’chah, there is a reminder that racism infected the early Israelites. At the beginning of Chapter 12, Miriam and Aaron complain that Moses was getting all of the credit: “‘Is it but through Moses alone that the Lord has spoken? Has He not spoken through us as well?'” Their complaint that they have been diminished, however, derives from their criticism of Moses’ wife.
“And Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses concerning the Cushite wife he had taken, for he had taken a Cushite wife.” Putting aside the scholarly debate whether the “Cushite wife” was Zipporah or another woman, there is a reference in Jeremiah (13:23) to Cushites being black (or at least, brown): “can the Cushite change his skin . . . ?” Three of the medieval commentators, Rashi, Rabbi Shmuel ben Meir (known by Rashbam; he was Rashi’s grandson), and Rabbi Hezekiah ben Menoah (known by Hizkuni) refer to the Cushite wife (whether it was Zipporah or not) as black or descended from Ham, traditionally thought to the progenitor of black Africans.
Giving Miriam and Aaron the benefit of the doubt, they might have intended to criticize Moses for marrying another woman, thus diminishing Zipporah’s status. If they were talking about Zipporah, they might have meant that Moses married an outsider, in which case they might have meant that Moses was unworthy to be prophetic leader and would not deserve to be God’s favorite. In either case, whether they were describing Zipporah as a Cushite or whether they were describing Moses’ other wife as a Cushite, they thought the Cushite-ness of the woman was a bad thing.
The Torah records the prejudice of Miriam and Aaron, but the Torah also records the answer of God. God chastised Miriam and Aaron, and God afflicted Miriam with a skin disease (from which she recovered). The important thing is that Moses married a Cushite woman and he didn’t care. Moses was God’s instrument, and God didn’t care whom Moses married.
The Torah teaches a lesson for today. You can dislike a person because of his attitude or his characteristics or his behavior. You can not dislike a person because of the color of his skin.