Chukkat: Obituary for Miriam the Prophetess and one of the leadership triumvirate

We have learned this week of the death of Miriam bat Amram v’Yocheved of the tribe of Levi. Born in Egypt, the oldest child in the family with two younger brothers Aaron and Moses, Miriam kept faith with the religious tradition of her ancestors in the darkest times, even prophesying the birth of her youngest brother Moses and predicting that he would be the one who would deliver their people to freedom (BT Sotah11- 12b). Along with her brothers she was part of the leadership that brought the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt and into the desert. Sadly she has not lived to see the end of the journey, but her leadership – particularly of the women – was critical to its success.

Miriam had a particular affinity with water. Even her name reminds us of it, variously translated as ‘bitter seas’ (Mar Yam) or even “doubled water” (depending on whether one sees the letters mem reish as deriving from bitterness or of water. We first meet her at the water’s edge, saving her little brother Moses adrift in the Nile reeds. (Exodus 2:4-9) She is a powerful figure at the Sea of Reads and her song of praise became the basis for the rather more famous (and more fully recorded in bible) song of her brother, Shirat haYam. (Exodus 15) Luckily the Dead Sea Scrolls have recorded more of her verses than the biblical editor thought fit to include.(4Q365).  And of course we must not forget Miriam’s well which followed her in the wilderness and which provided much needed refreshment for the Children of Israel, was a miracle provided because of her merit. (Ta’anit 9a).

Bible called her a prophet and indeed Miriam was a great prophet of Israel, though sadly she has no book named for her prophesies, an oversight to be much deplored.

Her name might also allude to the idea of rebellion – a role model for all Jews, Miriam thought for herself and did not acquiesce to the ideas of others without challenge. It was this characteristic that gave her the will to challenge her parent’s decision (and that of the other Jewish adults) to no longer have relations in order that no children would be born – some say that they all divorced so as to prevent a new generation being born into slavery. But Miriam’s refusal to be party to this pessimistic arrangement meant that not only did she and her brother Aaron dance and sing at the remarriage of their parents, but that other families followed suit. Her rebellious spirit was vital in keeping the people alive and hopeful. (BT Sotah 12a; Mekhilta de-Rabbi Simeon bar Yohai 6). Indeed such was her role in preserving the last generation to be born in Egypt, there are some who say that the midwife Puah was in fact Miriam herself.  In part this connects to her rebellious nature. There are those who say that she was insolent (hofi’ah panim – lifted her face) toward Pharaoh when she heard his edict to kill all baby boys born to the Hebrew women, and looked down her nose at him. She told him: “Woe to you on the Day of Judgment, when God will come to demand punishment of you.” Pharaoh was so enraged at her behaviour that he wanted to kill her. She was saved only because Yocheved intervened, saying “Do you take notice of her? She is a baby, and knows nothing” (Ex. Rabbah, 1:13).  Miriam found it hard to keep her mouth shut at that, but luckily she did so.

While it is not clear who Miriam married – indeed if she married at all – there are some who say she married Caleb and other who say she married her uncle Uzziel. Clearly these marriages were unimportant in the public sphere in which she worked, but it is said that her children were sages and kings because she had stood up to the evil decree of Pharaoh and also persuaded the Hebrews to continue to procreate. Bezalel is said to have descended from her, as is King David.

While this writer does not see the need to describe family for Miriam – either to explore whether she married or had children – it is gratifying that the midrashic tradition felt, in its own terms, that she deserved to be rewarded for her integrity and willingness to speak truth to power. We note that the sons of Moses walk out of history and that two of Aaron’s sons offer strange fire to God, with only the younger two continuing into priesthood, with its ultimately difficult and chequered history.

Miriam was musical, a great timbrel player, and a wonderful song leader and dancer who lifted the spirits of all who saw her. Her liveliness and optimism, coupled with a strong character and a willingness to speak out, make her a superlative role model for Jews everywhere. Her association with water, the living waters from which everything can draw its sustenance, is no accident. Water flows where it will, as did Miriam.

Even when Miriam criticised the fact that her brother Moses had married a Cushite woman and apparently put away Zipporah, the wife of his youth and mother of his two sons, she did so from a position of integrity, challenging her younger brother’s autocratic behaviour and as a result of her good and close relationship with Zipporah, a Midianite woman married into the Israelite leadership family (Sifrei on Numbers 12). She was concerned that Moses was no longer visiting Zipporah who was thus condemned to having no marital comfort and would not be able to bear more children.(Avot de R.Natan ch 9; Sifrei Zuta 12:1; sifra Metzorah 5).

While she was smitten with a skin disease as punishment for the harshness of her words, it must be noted that the whole camp waited for her to heal before moving on. For seven days even the Shechinah, as well as the priests and the Israelites stayed in camp while her tzara’at took its course (Mishnah Sotah 1:9) and it is well understood that this exceptional treatment was a reward for her work supporting Moses as a baby and enabling him to be reunited safely with is mother as his wet nurse, as well as helping in the leadership of the people in the many desert years.

While Miriam died on tenth of Nisan in Kadesh in the wilderness of Tzin, (Sifrei on Devarim 305) her death is recorded here in Chukkat along with that of Aaron. All three of the siblings are buried on the heights of Avarim close to the land of Israel, and Miriam, like her brothers  would later, died by the kiss of God as her soul was gently drawn back from her body (BT baba batra 17a), an ending known as the death of the righteous.

She will not be forgotten. In modern times she is remembered at the Pesach seder with a Cup of Miriam filled with water, and a special prayer; while others add a piece of fish to the seder plate to reference her particular affinity with water.

Sadly however the characteristics of Miriam are sometimes hidden from view or even actively ignored – her prophecy and the determination she had to make her voice heard by people more senior than her are a fundamental part of her character. She spoke out, her voice was heard and followed – in both her capacity to advise and in her song leading, even if her brother then took credit for some of her best works. She was not quiescent in the face of a community that didn’t want change, or that was prepared to put up with injustice and oppression. She was active in both the birth and the rearing of Moses, keeping faith with her idea that here was a child who could be a leader and redeemer of the people. She was an equal partner in leadership, she had her own ideas and her own way of going about things. She was nobody’s ‘yes woman’. Her integrity, her strength of character, her fluidity, her determination to keep life happening, all meant that Miriam’s was a voice that shaped the people, she was heard in the public space, she was respected even when she sometimes said things in a less than careful way, she was warm and caring and people knew it. Moses could be distant, his shyness and insecurities causing him to hide away sometimes. Aaron could be arrogant in his priestly garments and status. But Miriam was accessible to the people and they loved her for it, as she spoke out on their behalf and fought for their rights.

Both the editors of the received text and the creators of midrash have not always dealt kindly with her. There is a rabbinic propensity to see her as bitter or as rebellious to the established order, her voice (already edited at the song of the sea) is not heard again in bible after the episode of the tzara’at; her death is reported without ceremony or sadness.  There are some notable exceptions to the blurring of Miriam in history. The prophet Micah tells us of God’s comment “I sent before you Moses, Aaron and Miriam” (6:4). I cannot help but think that her gender was a problem to later commentators and redactors, something that sadly continues to this day. Yet Miriam is described in bible as a prophet, she sings her own song, she leads the people and she keeps her brothers safe and in relationship with the people.  She is patently a popular leader. When we lose Miriam we lose a righteous and able leader. When we lose the stories of her we risk losing the participation of modern women in the public sphere, rebellious, sassy, open, fluid, willing to speak truth to power and to challenge both adversaries and relatives who would rather we were quiet.

Some women have suggested fasting on the tenth of Nisan as her yahrzeit. That is fine should women want to do this, but I would suggest that we would do her greater honour by speaking out, by rebelling against injustice and against the desire to push women into the private and domestic sphere where they might more easily be controlled, and by bringing the swirling waters of justice and of challenge into the society in which we live.

Parashat Korach : The women behind the men emerge. Take a bow Ms On ben Pelet

The rebellion of Korach is a powerful and pivotal moment in Torah, as the leadership of Moses and Aaron is challenged by their cousin who proclaims that they have taken too much of the power for themselves, that all the people were holy, and Moses and Aaron are raising themselves up above the ‘kehal adonai’ the community of God.

With Datan and Abiram the sons of Eliav, and On the son of Pelet, all of them grandchildren of Reuben the oldest son of Jacob, Korach the great grandson of Levi, third son of Jacob and ancestor of Moses and Aaron, musters 250 men of stature – this is emphasised in the text: “n’si’ei eidah, k’ri’ei mo’ed, anshei shem – princes of the congregation, elect men of the community, men of renown”.

The testosterone level is so high in this story we can practically smell it. The clashing of antlers of the big beasts jousting for power and control. There might be a pretence about the need for all the people to be recognised as holy, but the reality is clear that this is a palace coup, and Moses doesn’t know what to do.

A great deal has been written about this, but I want to focus today on one of the more minor characters, On ben Pelet. Because while he is there at the beginning of the revolution he is missing from its denouement. And he doesn’t appear again.  The other rebels go down into the yawning pit as the earth opens, On ben Pelet however simply disappears from history.  Why?

The midrash provides a wonderful explanation. His wife gets involved. In this testosterone soaked challenge the men have essentially lost the plot. Where there are reasonable grounds for saying that Moses and Aaron have taken on too much of the leadership, there is no accountability and there is no transparency, the plotters went too far themselves, scenting regime change. It takes, in the view of the midrash, the calm and thoughtful intervention of the women we never really see (except as witnesses to the divine destruction of the hard line conspirators).

Talmud tells us this: (BT Sanhedrin 109b-110a)

“Rav said: On, the son of Pelet was saved by his wife. Said she to him, ‘What matters it to you? Whether the one [Moses] remains master or the other [Korach] becomes master, you will be nothing but a disciple.’ He replied, ‘But what can I do? I have taken part in their counsel, and they have sworn me [to be] with them.’ She said, ‘I know that they are all a holy community, as it is written, “seeing all the congregation are holy, every one of them. [So,]’ she proceeded, ‘Sit here, and I will save you.’ She gave him wine to drink, intoxicated him and laid him down inside [the tent]. Then she sat down at the entrance and loosened her hair. Whoever came [to summon him] saw her and retreated. Meanwhile, Korach’s wife joined them [the rebels] and said to him [Korach], ‘See what Moses has done. He himself has become king; his brother he appointed High Priest; his brother’s sons he made vice High Priests. If Terumah is brought, he decrees, Let it be for the priest; if the tithe is brought, which belongs to you [i.e., to the Levite], he orders, Give a tenth part of it to the priest. Moreover, he has had your hair cut off, and makes sport of you as though you were dirt; for he was jealous of your hair.’ Said he to her, ‘But he has done likewise!’ She replied, ‘Since all the greatness was his, he said also, Let me die with the Philistines. Moreover, he has commanded you, Set [fringes] of blue wool [in the corners of your garments]; but if there is virtue in blue wool, then bring forth blue wool, and clothe your entire academy with it.  And so it is written, Every wise woman builds her house — this refers to the wife of On, the son of Pelet; but the foolish plucks it down with her hands — to Korach’s wife.”

The Talmudic midrash sees the minor figure of On ben Pelet, notices his disappearance by the end of the story, and pins this on the even more minor figures of “the wives”.

The unnamed wife of On ben Pelet is a politician to her fingertips. She can see that her husband is of lowly status and is never likely to amount to much. Whoever wins in the rebellion, he will never be an important part of the hierarchy. He isn’t much of a catch, one gets the feeling, but he is hers and she would rather he were alive than dead. Whether this is love or not is irrelevant, his fate would have repercussions on her status, she does not want to be the widow of a dissident – that would make her even more vulnerable than she is now.

So, in time honoured fashion, she gets him drunk. We think of Boaz and Ruth, of Noah and his daughters, of Yael and Sisera – when a woman wants to get a man pliant and to do her bidding it seems, the answer is to ply him with intoxicants. The drunken On ben Pelet is ushered into the tent to sleep it off. But this is still not enough to ensure he doesn’t rouse and put himself – and her – into danger. So she sits at the entrance with loosened hair – immodest, sexually charged, a terror to the scouts who may come to demand his presence. Like Rachel she uses her body to prevent anyone coming to search. And her husband slumbers on all unknowing.

On ben Pelet is, in the story, a nudnik, a schlemiel, scion of a great family maybe, but incompetent and easily led. He needs all the skills of his competent wife to survive. And it would be lovely if the midrash ended there. But no, the Talmud having decided on a verse in Proverbs (14:1) feels the need to explicate the other half of it.

“Every wise woman builds her house; but the foolish plucks it down with her hands.”

The wise woman here is clearly aligned with the wife of On ben Pelet, but who is the foolish wife? After all, 250 men joined Korach, Datan and Abiram in the failed rebellion.

It is interesting to me that the midrash decides that the parallel is with the wife of Korach – the main protagonist in this affair. And more than that, they give her great knowledge and legalistic reasoning – this is an educated woman able to debate and hold her point.

She begins first with the nepotism: Moses has made himself king. He has made his brother the High Priest, he has made his brother’s sons vice High Priests – something that is new to this text. Then when the Terumah offering is brought, it is immediately taken up by his own close family. This food (or oil or wine) can only be eaten by the Cohanim. Korach being only a Levite, is not permitted to have use of it.

Then she points out the tithing which would go to the Levites – Moses had set a limit of a tenth to go to the priests.

Then she moves on to the cut hair done as part of the purification rites. Before her husband can object she layers meaning over it – Moses was jealous of Korach’s lovely hair. He now laughs at him once the hair is cut off and Korach is, presumably, less attractive. No matter that Moses also had his hair cut according to Korach, his wife clearly believes that the impact on Moses was much less than that on her husband. Moses comes out the winner.

Now she moves onto ritual grievances. Moses had told them to wear blue threads on the fringes of their garments, but this is simply tokenistic in her eyes – if blue is to be worn as a mark of honour, then the whole garment should be blue. Otherwise, her reasoning seems to be, there is no real honour, just pretence, a token and perfunctory nod to the status of her husband; Korach is damned by faint praise and his wife notices.

She is painted as an intelligent and ambitious woman. Curiously she too seems to have the upper hand in the relationship – and she gives Korach the intellectual underpinnings for his challenge.

But her ambition for her husband is too much. He is not a strategist, not really a leader. Having made his alliances his own thirst for power comes through – why else would On ben Pelet feel uneasy having agreed to join the alliance? Korach cannot deviate from the path he is on. He doesn’t seem to realise that the atmosphere is changing, that his leadership is doomed.

His wife too is given no more voice. Who knows whether she had she would have been able to persuade her husband to reverse his challenge. Instead we see from the text that Datan and Abiram, their wives and children, stand at the doorways of their tents; And we see the earth opening and everything that pertained to Korach was swallowed up alive into the pit. The 250 men who were offering their own incense were destroyed by divine fire. Yet curiously Korach and his wife are not mentioned in the text as explicitly as Datan and Abiram were. Did Mrs Korach have one last trick up her sleeve? Did they melt away from the scene of destruction they had caused, in the hope of living to fight another day?

Elisheva: challenging the patriarchal structure with her mixed feelings. Parashat Va’era

Early in the sidra is a partial genealogy, which leads us rapidly to the Levitical line. A genealogy of the Levites takes us from Levi through Kohat to Amram father of Aaron and Moses. Unusually, three women are named in this genealogy:

Amram married Yocheved the sister of his father, and she gave birth to Aaron and Moses (Miriam is not mentioned here).

Aaron married Elisheva, the daughter of Amminadav, the sister of Nachshon; and she bore him Nadav and Avihu, Eleazar and Itamar.

Eleazar Aaron’s son took him one of the daughters of Putiel to wife; and she bore him Pinchas.

It is unusual for the wives to be named in these genealogies and so we must explore this further to see what Torah is trying to tell us.   Amram and Yocheved are nephew and aunt –both descendants of Levi, so Aaron and Moses are, so to speak, doubly Levitical.

It is not clear who Putiel is – he appears only here. Nor do we know how many daughters he had, or the names of any of them.

But Elisheva is given a much fuller ‘yichus’ – she is the daughter of Amminadav, the sister of Nachshon and we know from later in bible that her tribe therefore is that of Judah.  Not much is known of Amminadav, but Nachshon features further in text and tradition.  We learn in the book of Numbers that under God’s instruction, Nachshon ben Amminadav was appointed by Moses as ‘Nasi’, leader/prince of the Tribe of Judah (Num. 1:7), to stand with Moses and to help him lead the people.  We can also see that through Boaz he will be a direct ancestor to King David; and curiously he sits exactly half way in the biblical genealogy that leads directly from Judah to David.

Because of his descent from Judah and his many regal descendants, Nachshon is praised in the rabbinic literature. Most famously – even though the biblical text does not mention him there – he is said to have shown real faith at the Reed Sea. The Israelites having left Egypt after the final plague, found themselves trapped. In front of them was the water and behind them the furious pursuing army. They complained bitterly to Moses asking why he had brought them there only to die in the wilderness.  And while they were standing there, each one angrily refusing to go further, and while Moses was praying to God for help, Nachshon ben Amminadav jumped into the water and when it reached his nostrils, the waters parted. (BT Sotah 36a; Mechilta Beshalach)

This is the brother of Elisheva, a man apparently of great qualities – and as Elisheva is introduced to us as his sister – an unnecessary addition in the generational genealogy- it is assumed that something else is being alluded to here beyond the blood relationship. Elisheva brings into the Priestly line that will descend from her and Aaron the qualities of leadership embodied by her own family which will provide the Royal line.

Elisheva will give birth to the four sons of Aaron, two of whom, Nadav and Avihu, will suffer a terrible and violent death shortly after being inducted into the priesthood. The other two will continue the hereditary line of the Cohanim – the Jewish priests.   She is, with Aaron, the root of the priestly tradition. And she also brings together the two formal leadership roles within the biblical tradition – she brings the royal line of Judah which is already generations old, (Judah having been blessed by Jacob on his deathbed as being the Royal line), together with the brand new line of hereditary priesthood.

Elisheva is understood in tradition to be a woman who had reason for great pride and joy by virtue of her relationships to male leaders:  The Talmud (Zevachim 102a) tells us that on the day of the inauguration of the Mishkan “Elisheva had five additional joys over other daughters of Israel. She was the sister-in-law of the king (Moses), the wife of the High Priest (Aaron), her son (Elazar) was the segan (deputy high priest), her grandson (Pinchas) was anointed for war, and her brother (Nachshon) was a prince of the tribe of Judah [and the first of the twelve tribal leaders to make a gift offering for the inauguration]  One can add to this list that it was Betzalel ben Hur her nephew  of the tribe of Judah, who was the architect appointed by God to build the Mishkan.

Talmud however goes on to note “yet she was bereaved of her two sons”

I find this extraordinary. The Talmudic text is well aware that Elisheva, like Aaron, is bereaved of two of her adult children in a moment – destroyed when beginning their work as priests, but offering strange fire before God. We don’t really understand what happened here – were they drunk? Idolatrous? Inefficient?  Improperly dressed? – but we do understand that they die instantly. And we also understand that while a male response is described to these deaths, (Moses speaks to Aaron about God’s demands for the priesthood, Aaron is silent, Mishael and Elzaphan the sons of Uzziel the uncle of Aaron are instructed to bring the bodies out of the mishkan and put them outside the camp, Elazar and Itamar are instructed about their priestly duties, along with Aaron…) Nothing is said about the response of Elisheva, the mother of the dead boys.

Aaron is famously silent – we are told this and it is understood that he is able to accept that the greater good of the priesthood is more important than the individual fates of his two sons. But his enigmatic silence is at painful odds with the complete erasure of the response of Elisheva. I cannot for a moment imagine that she would have taken the deaths quite so phlegmatically.

In the Midrash (Vayikra Rabba 20:2) we see the situation from the viewpoint of Elisheva. “Elisheva, the daughter of Amminadav, did not enjoy happiness in this world. True, she witnessed the five crowns [attained by her male relatives] in one day…but when her sons entered to offer incense and were burnt, her joy was changed to mourning.”

The Midrash not only allows her mourning, it accepts that the deaths of her sons affected her profoundly so that even the achievements of her other male relatives would not give her any happiness.  Mourning as a parent is all-consuming. It is not ever something that one can recover fro;  the best that can happen is that joy can once again be experienced tinged with sadness, with an awareness that life is incomplete and will remain so.

Elisheva, the woman who brings together the lines of power and leadership – monarchy and priesthood, who is the foremother therefore of all those who have to care for the people, who have to lead it thoughtfully and in is best interest; Elisheva, matriarch and founding spirit of all the leaders whose job is to serve, to provide security, to be thoughtful about the impact of their decisions in the wider world –  brings not only the qualities of power that leadership needs, she brings another quality – the awareness of incompleteness and imperfection that we must live with.

It is a truism that peace/shalom is never fully here – the most we have is an absence of conflict and we must work to stop such conflict breaking out and gaining ascendancy. Our hope for each other uses the prefix le – leshalom, TOWARDS shalom, rather than b’shalom –IN/WITH peace because we are constantly striving towards it – we only reach our individual shalom when we are dead, as the biblical language confirms.  It is also true that every joy we have in life is good but it is temporary and it is always susceptible to change. We live in a world of uncertainty and entropy, change will happen and we must be able to cope with it.

Elisheva had so much in life – she came from a successful and value driven family, she married into another one, she had children and grandchildren, she features (albeit briefly) in bible. But as the midrash tells us, she did not enjoy happiness in this world, she lived in the liminal space where the pain of her mourning, and her awareness of the continuing fragility of the lives of those we love can  tinge, if not overshadow all happiness.

At a Jewish wedding there is a tradition to break a glass at the end of the ceremony. There are many reasons given – to scare away demons who may be lurking and to remember the destruction of the Temple  are two of the most famous, but the most likely is to remind everyone in the room that joy is transitory and good times must be enjoyed when we encounter them.

Life is hard and we shall all encounter a mixture of good and bad, of ease and difficulty, of problems and effortlessness as we go through it.  We will all meet difficulties, many of us will face fear and anxiety, some of us will have to deal with tragedy. We cannot allow fear or pain or sadness to overwhelm us but neither must we suppress the realities that they exist.

Elisheva encountered both extreme highs and lows of life. Bible is silent on her way of dealing with it, but rabbinic tradition uses her as a model, in the full knowledge that the people it is writing for would also face good times and bad, and needed to find resilience beyond that of blind faith. Elisheva lives on after the tragedy of the deaths of her sons, she continues to experience joy and sadness, she is able to experience both but neither of them can be untouched by the other. She is a human being who copes with life.

The name Elisheva can mean either “my God has sworn an oath” or it can mean “my God has satisfied”. What is the oath that is sworn? That God will remain our God through the ages, through good times and bad. And in what way is Elisheva ‘satisfied’? She has had a lot of good in her life, which enables her to deal also with the bad.

We learn from Elisheva that we can both enjoy life and mourn for what we no longer have, or might never have. We must live with the mingling of light and dark, knowing that each will tinge the other but each must be lived through. We learn that holding a constant sense that we are still connected to God, even in the dark times, even when may be afraid or sad or even angry with God, will help us through our lives.

No one gets away with a life that has no loss and no pain. No one escapes pain – it is an elemental human condition and closely allied to the ability to love. The men around Elisheva take refuge in their status, but Elisheva stands out, a scion of the royal line, the mother of priests. She may appear to have everything, but what matters can be taken away in a heartbeat and then the “everything” shows what it truly is – momentary, material, and irrelevant. Elisheva reminds us that relationships not only underpin our lives, they provide connection and the place to be ourselves. Everything else will pass.

Chukkat: the fully lived life is not about length, but about limits or serious anger, serious consequences

The shadow of death hovers over parashat Chukkat.  It begins with the instructions for the ritual slaughter of the red heifer, and the cleansing rituals that those who had contact with a dead body must follow, and it records the deaths of both Miriam and of Aaron. It tells of the deaths by plague of those who rebelled against Moses’ leadership and it ends with two mighty battles.

One can read the whole Sidra as being about the coming to terms with mortality, and the limits of human existence.

At the centre of the Sidra is a powerful story which also deals with the limits of a human being. We hear of an incident which seems on the face of it quite minor, yet which has far reaching impact.  After the death of Miriam, the people complain about the lack of water, and God commands Moses to take Aaron’s  rod – the one which sprouted leaves and flowers when left overnight in the Mishkan – and with that miraculous sign in his hand, to order a rock to produce water in front of all the people waiting there.  Moses does indeed take the rod, but instead of using words, he strikes the rock. He seems to be at the end of his patience, angry and fed up with the people he is leading. Water gushes out at his action, but God informs him that because of his behaviour, he will not now enter the land he is leading the people towards.

It has been said about Moses that all of his sins – whether the impulsive murder of the Egyptian task master in his youth, the breaking of the stones containing the commandments, or the striking of the rock – show elements of anger and violence, of his unbridled self will and of his temporarily ignoring the real and present will of God.  A modern commentator (Rabbi Norman Hirsch) wrote that “the sin of Moses at Meribah is characteristic of the man, one of a series of sins, and serious. Why serious? Because civilization depends upon humility.  Without a sense of limits that flows from the awareness of a moral law and an ethical God, every brutality, every corruption, every atrocity becomes possible”

When people allow themselves to act without limitations, to let their anger overtake them, and to forget the reality of other people – their needs, their fears, their humanity – then atrocities not only become possible, they become inevitable. Once humility is overridden, and once people forget that God’s will is rooted in moral and ethical imperatives rather than in pride or land or material  success – then there are no boundaries, and our own characteristics and needs take over for good or for ill.

Moses fails ultimately in the job he has been set to do. His failure is in his unwillingness to control the righteous indignation he feels on behalf of God.  It shows itself in his need to demonstrate to others the rightness of his analysis.  His failure doesn’t lie in the feeling of anger as such, but in the way he uses it and allows it to use him.  In this story the demise we are witnessing isn’t to do with physical death, nor with a metaphysical response to the end of life – this time the fatality is Moses’ leadership and his ability to take the people into their next stage of the journey.  Because Moses shows that he is unable to change himself, his anger is ultimately stronger than him, and because he doesn’t seem to believe any more that he should rein his emotions in to prevent doing damage around himself, his leadership will come to a premature end.

Anger is not in and of itself a negative emotion.  Anger against an injustice can be a powerful propellant for change.  It can be a constructive force leading to a different way of being in the world.  Jewish tradition does not judge anger negatively, nor does it preach a tradition of humility for the sake of it.  If anything the two sentiments are simply different sides of the same coin, and either of them used to the exclusion of the other are likely to produce unfortunate events.  But anger that is allowed to dominate, anger that clouds the vision to such an extent that nothing else can be seen, is a very dangerous quality, and not even Moses could be allowed to indulge himself in it.

The thread that runs through the narrative here in Chukkat is that of the limits to a life.  Einstein wrote that “there is a certain satisfaction in the fact that natural limits are set to the life of an individual so that at its conclusion it may appear as a work of art”, and certainly in retrospect one can often discern a pattern that may not have been obvious during the living of the life – a pattern that suddenly shows a completeness not otherwise seen.  This is certainly the case both with Aaron and with Miriam, who leave nothing of importance undone by the time of their deaths. But for Moses this is sadly not true – he never deals fully with that all consuming rage and so it breaks out repeatedly in his life – one can even see traces of it in his resistance to dying and to passing on his authority to Joshua.  One lesson we learn is that length of life is not necessarily the same as fully lived life – in 120 years Moses is still unable to resolve his issues satisfactorily and even God becomes weary.   Moses limits his own life because he pays attention only to his own feelings and not to those of the people around him. It remains a flaw in his character to the end, and something that niggles us as we read torah to this day.  How come Moses wouldn’t – or couldn’t – overcome it? And if he couldn’t do it – what chance do we have with our own character flaws?

I suppose the answer lies in the continuation of the story. After Moses’ outburst God tells him that because of it he will not be leading the people into the Promised Land. At that point Moses would have been justified in giving it all up, but instead he seems to have picked himself up and found a way to continue leading the people to their destiny – even while knowing that he would not now share in it.

He shows that his vision can still be clear, that he can get over his attacks of despair or of rage and function as a proper leader, leaving his own needs to one side.

The story of Moses’ striking of the rock challenges us to look at our own characters, our own willingness to forgo humility in favour of some more selfish need, our own repeated patterns of behaviour.  It reminds us of the needs for limits – both those which emerge from a sense of an ethical God, and the boundaries around our own existence – both of which should contain any excesses we might otherwise consider.  The story reminds us too of the force that anger has that can mask any self awareness or awareness of the other, the way we can forget the humanity of the people around us – with tragic consequences should we go on to act on that ignorance.  And it reminds us of the power of keeping going, even when the future may seem dark and hopeless, for in that keeping going some redemption may come.

Beha’alotecha: the silencing of Miriam and the Cushite woman

And Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married; for he had married a Cushite woman.” (12:1)

 

 

She is the ultimate object, critical to the narrative but without voice or name. She exists only in passivity – the woman that Moses had taken.  Ha’Isha HaKushite, black and female, her presence in the text is enough to irritate Miriam and Aaron, but not enough to make any statement of her own.  Only her femaleness and her blackness are remarkable, and both are cause to keep her powerless. The unseen narrator sets her up against Miriam, the powerful sister of the man to whom she is married, a woman earlier described as a prophetess – yet Miriam too is demeaned and diminished in this interaction.

 

Framed between the story of the false prophesying of Eldad and Medad, and the divine statement that only Moses’ prophecy is entirely trusted, this is a story about real and illusory power and the two women are ciphers, literally seen in black and white, silenced .

 

Miriam is described as challenging Moses “on account of the Cushite woman he has taken as wife”, even while the speech reported to us is about the equal prophetic status of the triumvirate of siblings: “Has the Eternal indeed spoken only with Moses?  Has God not spoken also with us?’    And it is noticeable that Miriam alone is punished, even though Aaron had joined her in asserting their status in relation to Moses. Why does the narrator divert our attention towards race and gender when the issue is about the leadership of Moses and the relative status of his sibling co-leaders?

 

We never learn more about the Cushite woman, about when Moses married her, about her story and how she came to be with the Israelites and the mixed multitude leaving Egypt. We know that ancient civilisations were racially diverse and there is a buried history of black Egyptians which only now is being recognised by scholars, but our modern categories of race are not those of the ancient world. Her description as Cushite signifies only that this is not Zipporah, Moses’ Midianite wife.

 

It is sometimes said that the story of Miriam and the Cushite woman proves that God has a sense of humour, that Miriam who complained about this black interloper is given her comeuppance by God when her skin is turned white as snow with the impurity of tzara’at. And her anger at her relative loss of leadership status leads to her exclusion from the community, put outside of the camp until her skin heals once more. Comical reversals of fortune.

 

But there is a murkier thread to this tale. For now both women are silenced, both passive recipients of the narrators attention.  Aaron, who confesses their joint sin, is not only unpunished for his part in challenging Moses’ authority but joins together with him in prayer for her healing, leading the people who are anxiously awaiting her return to camp. Both women are now out of action, their skin colour and their gender apparently rendering them unsuitable for a role in the public space. The power of the men is enhanced.

 

A Jewish friend of mine, married to a black woman, once told me that their fights usually ended up with her telling him he could always take off his kippah and ‘pass’ in society, but she could never take off her skin, echoing Jeremiah who asks “Can an Ethiopian/Cushite person change their skin, or a leopard their spots?” (Jer13:23) Some things about us are the first thing that people see, and sometimes those people never get past that attribute. Never notice the person inhabiting that skin.  Sometimes they dismiss the person because of the characteristic, ignoring them or silencing them, putting them ‘outside the camp’, not hearing their voice or recognising their cause.

Whatever we might wish, society is neither colour nor gender blind. But noticing characteristics should not lead to disadvantaging their bearers.

 

The prophet Amos had God ask “Are you not like the Children of the Ethiopians to me, O Children of Israel?”  Bible reminds us that our common humanity is recognised by God who sees beyond the outer aspects. But it also reminds us that we often fail to see that shared humanity for ourselves, that we categorise and judge by gender and by race, and those who are so judged can find themselves trapped without voice or power to change the perception.

 

We never find out the fate of the unnamed woman from Ethiopia, but we do have one shaft of light at the end of this story. The people wait for Miriam to be healed and brought back to the camp before they move on. She may be chastened, but Miriam is back in the public space, and one day she may yet sing with her unnamed black sister, their voices raised up – and heard and responded to by all.

 

 

First published in Jerusalem Report The People and the Book 2015

image “Miriam The Leper” by Rose Rosenthal http://imajewnation.org/the-museum/past-events/freedom-imagined-freedom-lived/part-3/

 

 

Va’era: Does God hear prayer? Does God appear to us when we pray?

When God speaks to Moses at the beginning of the sidra, God says to him “And moreover I have heard the groaning of the children of Israel, whom the Egyptians keep in bondage; and I have remembered My covenant (6:5)

 וְגַ֣ם אֲנִ֣י שָׁמַ֗עְתִּי אֶֽת־נַֽאֲקַת֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל אֲשֶׁ֥ר מִצְרַ֖יִם מַֽעֲבִדִ֣ים אֹתָ֑ם וָֽאֶזְכֹּ֖ר אֶת־בְּרִיתִֽי:

In Bible, God hears prayer and frequently is recorded responding to the request. Be it Isaac’s prayer for a child for Rebecca (Genesis 25:21) or Jacob asking for deliverance from the avenging Esau (Gen 32:12), be it Moses and Aaron asking for the healing of Miriam’s skin disease (Numbers 12:13) or the desperate request for a child from Hannah. Be it David asking for God’s blessing and support (2Sam 7:18ff) or Solomon asking for wisdom (1 Kings 3:5ff) It seems that people prayed for what they wanted or needed and God reacted.

Jewish traditional texts assume that prayer comes from the heart and finds its way to a divine hearing. Later in rabbinic Judaism, prayer was more formalised, the wording more fixed (or at least the themes of the prayers, their introductions and endings were organised and prescribed) and while there was room for spontaneous prayer there was also a structure of community prayer, with the underlying assumption that the prayers of a community together would somehow strengthen the power of the words, that God would more readily listen to the combined communal prayer. Hence the minyan, the minimum of ten people for some prayers to be recited, and the extraordinary effect it has of creating community and awareness of the needs of others. Jewish tradition teaches that our communal prayer reminds us not just to think of ourselves, that our prayer must be broader, and when we pray in the right way, with our hearts and minds fully engaged and within the community of our peers, that God will hear our prayer.

But this all begs the question – does God hear all prayer? And if so does our prayer make a difference to the outcomes we seek? What does it mean for God to hear our prayer? And what does it mean if it appears that God does not hear us, or at least does not give us what we want?

The Hebrew verb le’hitapallel, from which the word for prayer –tefillah – comes, means in essence to work on oneself and to judge oneself. So the language of prayer is reflexive, we do something to or for ourselves in prayer, albeit in the gaze of the divine. Prayer is not so much for God as it is for us. In one form, alluded to in the English form of the word, prayer, it is indeed about asking for something, usually for God to influence and outcome, but tefillah is much more than this – it is about stepping outside of the normal stream of time and busyness and looking at ourselves in order to decide for ourselves.

And yet we persist in praying as if our prayer is heard by someone outside of ourselves who has the power to effect change for us. Our core texts all assume this to be true, even while our lived experience shows no real evidence. And we continue, despite everything, to pray to God as if such prayer is heard, as if it matters, as if God will be impacted by our words and the world will be different.

The later books of the Hebrew bible record many prayers uttered in desperate times. The book of Psalms can be read as a liturgical resource bank, and it is no coincidence that so many verses from this book are the building blocks of our liturgy and prayers. Prayer is seen as a natural and human response, and Maimonides reminds us in the Laws of Prayer that “It is a positive commandment to pray each day as it is stated, “And you shall serve the Eternal your God (Ex. 23:25) … They taught that “serve,” means prayer, as it is stated, “And you shall serve God with all your heart” (Deut. 11:13). The Sages asked, “What is the service of the heart? This is prayer” (Ta’anit 2a).”

Prayer is understood in tradition as being rooted in the behaviour of our founding Patriarchs, has the status of being a mitzvah, a commandment, and is one of the spiritual pillars upon which the world stands, taking the place of the sacrificial system of Temple worship that brought God closer to our world.

Right up to current responsa, prayer is seen as being the obvious and most basic demonstration of belief in God. R. Moshe Feinstein wrote that “The essence of belief in God is that only God can ultimately guarantee our livelihood or cure our diseases. And when a person does not trust in God and does not pray to God, it is as if he is denying belief in God for the sake of belief in something else…” (Igrot Moshe, Orach Chaim Vol. II, Chapter 24)

Yet if asked, many people of faith, who pray regularly and with kavannah (focus/intention) will still hesitate to sign up to such an idea that it God has such activity within our daily lives so that our livelihoods and our health are entirely at the mercy of the divine. How can we live with a God who can capriciously save some and condemn others? How can we live with a God who sees the righteous suffer, when by an act of will they would not have to do so? How can we live with a God who demands praise even while the world is in pain?

Like so much of Jewish experience, we seem able to live with two contradictory ideas both being true, to be comfortable with the cognitive dissonance of both/and, of eilu v’eilu – that many ways of being can be ways to live a righteous and blessed life. We pray because we have to pray, it is hard wired in our souls. We call to a God we don’t always believe in, a God we are sometimes uncertain might be there. We act ‘kiv’yachol’ – as if our prayer will be heard and answered, and yet at the same time we call it the act of le’hitpallel, of judging ourselves, of working upon ourselves.

Does our prayer change God’s mind? In many ways it is simply the wrong question. Our prayer is essentially the internal dialogue that keeps us true and keeps us aware of the direction our moral compass must direct us towards. Whether God hears and responds, hears and takes note, hears and ignores, or does IMG_1791not hear – who can tell? It is enough that we believe ourselves to be in God’s presence when we judge ourselves and we work to change ourselves. And sometimes, rarely, we suddenly have the encounter, we recognise the presence of God and hear the voice of slender silence resonating in our soul and we know that God is listening, that God is there. And we have the strength to go on.

 

Chukkat: how to remove the ritual impurity that is confusion so that we see the world more clearly

The sidra Chukkat is named after the instructions about the red heifer – instructions that even the learned commentators on Hebrew bible found mysterious and puzzling beyond understanding. A person made ‘tum’ah’ – unclean through contact with a corpse, was to be sprinkled with special water made with the ashes of a sacrificed perfectly red cow with absolutely no blemish upon it. The ritual is given in great detail over five verses, and is described as Chukkat Olam – a law for all time.

In the midrash Tanhuma, Rabban Yohanan ben Zakkai is described as telling the outer world that this ritual is one of exorcism, of ridding oneself of something awful – but tellingly to his own disciples he declares “the corpse does not defile, nor does the water cleanse. The truth is that the ritual of the red heifer is simply a decree of the Sovereign above all Sovereigns, and we are not permitted to transgress it…”

So our portion is named for a ritual that has no rational meaning, and that we cannot in truth really understand – something that we just do because God tells us to do it. It is a difficult concept to embrace in the twenty first century for modern progressive Jews.

But maybe we might understand it more if we don’t focus on the nature of this law as being an illogical diktat from on high, but we look instead at the nature of tum’ah that the ritual is designed to remove.

In the 19th Century, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch commented on the relationship between tum’ah – described as ritual impurity, and timtum – confusion. He suggested that the connection between them was that of the intensity of physical experience, that what renders a person ‘tam’ei’(ritually impure) is the state of being emotionally overwhelmed and unable to focus on the present context. This idea builds on the Talmudic comment that the nature of tum’ah is one ‘she’metamem et halev’ – one that blocks or paralyses the heart. Essentially to be ritually impure means to lack any mindfulness of self or context, to not be able to locate oneself fully in the world.

Ritual impurity – tum’ah – then can be seen as a function of the clarity of our consciousness, or lack of it. It is something that has to be removed, unblocked, or given a new frame and lens through which to understand what is happening and so change our response to it.

Suddenly this apparently irrational ritual of the red heifer has meaning – we have to do something to change our world view, do something to clarify our perceptions and to move on.

It is no accident I think that the sidra also contains the reporting of the deaths of first Miriam and then Aaron. When Aaron dies the community mourns and sheds tears for him for thirty days, but in the case of Miriam’s death the mourning is not reported – instead we are told that the source of the water dried up and the Israelites became thirsty and frightened.

A frequently quoted Midrash on this text tells us that Miriam had been the source of water for the Israelites, so that when she died the water too went away, but Rabbi Moshe Alsheich’s comment is I think more interesting – “Because they did not shed tears over the loss of Miriam the source of their water dried up”.

Because the children of Israel did not know what to do at the sudden loss of the woman who was the source of water, the source of life, their response was one of confusion – timtum – and of anger. We know about the anger because its most potent expression was that of Moses in response to the anger of the people. Against God’s instruction simply to speak to the rock he made an emotional speech accusing the people of rebellion and then he struck the rock not once but twice in front of the community, and the water poured out of it. Moses’ anger almost burns the page as we read it. Bereaved, lost, his world turned upside down, and with a community who are simply unable to cope with what has happened, his response is to give way to his fury – a completely human reaction but unfortunately not one that was helpful to anyone. Both he and the community are trapped in a state of tum’ah – blind confusion where no possibilities of renewal can be perceived, where everything is terrible and lost and lonely, and the future a bleak and frightening place.

The anger is the first response of the timtum, but it is ultimately a very damaging one – for this anger Moses and Aaron will not enter the Promised Land. The healing response comes after the death of Aaron when we are told “All the house of Israel bewailed Aaron for thirty days”. These tears are curative, part of the necessary process of mourning. And restorative life giving water comes in response to the waters shed in the tears.

The tears bring relief from tum’ah, from the intense confusion and pain and depression caused by the loss of Miriam and Aaron. But tears alone do not bring full cleansing – the waters of the ritual are mixed with the ashes of the red heifer, the emblematically perfect animal sacrificed for this ritual.

What can we use instead of the ashes to help ourselves out of the state of tum’ah?

Some mix whiskey with their water, but it will only help the tears to flow and ultimately prolong the state of timtum.

Some sacrifice themselves, their joy in life, their interest in the world, sinking into depression and despair.

Some sacrifice their future, holding on the state of anger and confusion, in order to punish the one who put them there.

Many rabbinic traditions (BB10a) suggest that instead of ashes we use tzedakah – for as our liturgy for the Yamim Noraim tells us, tzedakah, acts of righteousness and charity, save from death (proverbs10:2) or at least will blunt the severity of the decree against us.

Tzedakah, deeds of righteousness and charity, along with our freely flowing tears and expressions of our inner pain, do seem to be the way towards cleansing ourselves from our state of tum’ah, our pain filled confusion of timtum. But it is hard to do. Maybe this is why the heifer of the bible had to be so perfect, so completely red, so unusual that few have ever been born. It is hard but not impossible. For the people did it – they learned to mourn for Aaron fully, they learned to let go of the feelings of fear and confusion and express them in a structured and ultimately contained way. Only after that did they begin to live again, and to go on to new things, symbolised by the water which once again was accessible to them, the living waters of restoration and new ways of being.