Parashat Beha’alotecha (Numbers 8:1-12:16) is a study in pairs, a study in contrasts. God guides the people as a cloud by day, and as fire by night, yet within those two manifestations are another set of pairs. A cloud may guide, but it also obscures; fire may guide, but as the portion shows, it may also kill and terrorize. There are those that are ritually pure for Passover, and those who are ritually impure who need a way to observe the mitzvah.
Rabbi Sylvia Rothschild points out the contrast between the black skin of the Cushite woman, and the whitening of Miriam’s skin with tzra’at. Miriam, a woman is powerless to do anything about her punishment the skin disease, which contrasts with Aaron and Moses, who pray for Miriam’s healing. Indeed, there is also a contrast between silence and speech in this passage: Miriam sins with her speech, and the Cushite woman is silent in the text.
Perhaps more than anything, this portion illustrates the inclination of the human mind to divide things into binaries. Rabbi Arthur Gross-Schaefer, in a lecture on ethical decision-making at HUC in Los Angeles, taught me that human beings tend to frame our choices as “this” or “that,” but a good counselor will assist people in seeing as many alternatives as possible. In that way, we can escape the illusion of black-and-white, and see our world in its true colors. It is important to look beyond the yes/no or this-one/that-one binary in order to see the true spectrum of our options.