Yom Kippur Sermon: what kinds of people are called dead even while still alive?

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In Midrash Tanchuma the question is asked:  “What kinds of people are called dead even when they are alive? Those who see the morning sunlight…those who see the sun set…those who eat and drink, and are not stirred to say a blessing” (Tanchuma, v’zot habracha, 7)

Yom Kippur is an unusual time – we treat it as a day outside of time, a day as if we are dead. We wear shrouds; we abstain from eating, drinking, washing and other activities of the living. We have in our liturgy the recurring imagery of a Book of Life, and we repeat the refrain of our hope that we will be inscribed in it for another year – for if we are not, then we will indeed be dead.  The awareness of our mortality looms over the day, it provides much needed perspective and hopefully also a spur to our thinking about our priorities when we return to daily life.

Yom Kippur is a kind of a dress rehearsal for our dying. When we will look back over a hopefully full and happy life, tradition teaches that we will understand what our life was really about, what was important and what was not – and the very thin lines between them. The Chasidic tradition tells us that that understanding will be our heaven and our hell – when we realise that things we overlooked as uninteresting or unimportant really were critical, when things we pursued and enjoyed having achieved will be sloughed off as irrelevant to our souls.

We have the chance today to weight the scales for that understanding. Yom Kippur reminds us each year that we will one day face our own death. Everyone dies, that is not negotiable, but the question is really, how well does everyone live? How well do we use our own lives?

Yom Kippur also gives us another experience – besides the time out of time, the day we can spend “as if dead” – it reminds us that we will undergo many deaths in our lifetimes, and that these small deaths can be doorways to other ways of being. We experience many losses, many changes from what we hoped or planned. Our life paths deviate again and again, sometimes randomly, sometimes unfairly – but as my mother is fond of saying, when a door closes, a window opens. We are able to find a new way of being, say goodbye to a previous iteration of ourselves and grow into someone a little different from before.

Our rabbis taught that sleep is one-sixtieth of death (Berachot 57b) and every day when we wake up  from sleep, we have a prayer to thank God for the return of our pure soul – the elohai neshama prayer speaks of God breathing our soul back into us – just as the first human was breathed into life. So every day is a new birth in potentia, we can start again after the small death of sleep. Every single day is a new possibility for change, for growth, for becoming more of the person we would like to be.

Just as each day brings the possibility of small changes or bigger transformation, the many sadnesses and losses and small deaths in our lives can help us focus on what is really important. And Yom Kippur is a gift of a day to us to weigh up the balance of our lives.

The Talmud tells us (Shabbat 31a) that after death every soul will arrive at the beit din shel ma’alah, the heavenly court, and will be asked the same questions. “Did you act in your business with honesty and integrity? Did you fix set times for studying Torah? Did you participate in the commandment of creation? Did you continue to hope? Did you engage in the pursuit of wisdom? Did you have fear of Heaven?”

These are not rhetorical or philosophical questions, they are designed to make us think about what our lives are for, how to best use the days and hours that we have – particularly since no one knows how short or long the time left to us might be.

The first question – did you have integrity and honesty in your dealings with others – is not only practical but aims deep at our character – how we treat others is a measure for how we value others.  The instinct to profit at the expense of others is in us all. The question aims squarely at how much we might have given in to that instinct, how much we temper it with the awareness that we are all the children of one God.

The second question is about study – our own inner lives are at stake here.  Torah study is the emblem of connection to our roots, to our people and to God. It provides the lenses through which we see the world, it shapes our moral code, it pushes us into an awareness that we are not the centre of the universe and that something else is. To make a fixed time to remind ourselves of the teachings which give framework to our behaviour and our decision making, is a life- giving action. It keeps us in the space where anything can happen, it gives us roots, it allows for us to continue to grow and to develop ourselves.

The third question – did you participate in the mitzvah of creation – this is more, so much more, than the plain sense of procreation. When we teach, when we model good behaviour, when we help others to grow or to change, to let go or to hold on, we participate in the mitzvah of creation. When we help a community to come together, be it providing the challot or the drashot, learning together, providing a group for the wedding or b’nei mitzvah celebrant or for the mourner to express their grief and fulfil their rites – we are participating in creation. When we recognise the humanity of the other – the refugee, the immigrant, the impoverished or the frightened, we are participating in the mitzvah of creation. When we visit the sick or comfort the bereaved, we are participating in that mitzvah too. Whenever we build relationship with the other, help a community to grow and thrive – all this is part of that same mitzvah. When we plant a garden or a tree, when we try to protect the environment with the choices we have – all of this is the mitzvah of creation.

Did you continue to hope? Despair is easy to come by in this world. More so for the generations of Jews exiled from their land and treated with scorn and humiliation. Yet the Jew continues to hope and that hope is what underpins our resilience and our particularity as a people. We don’t let go of our covenant promise, however distant it appears. We don’t let go of our faith in humanity either. As Edmond Fleg wrote:  “I am a Jew because in every age when the cry of despair is heard the Jew hopes.” The hope is understood in tradition as the hope for redemption, for the messianic age. The point of the hope is that Jews have clung on to our identity, our purpose and meaning through this mechanism. One day the hope will be fulfilled.

In our time it seems that darkness is coming once again, as nationalism and populism are on the rise, xenophobia and narrow hatred growing in many countries across the globe. All the more important then, to hold on to hope, not to give in to the eroding and corroding despair which would lead us to every darker, ever narrower places, which would destroy all that would be good in the world.

Did you engage in the pursuit of wisdom? – wisdom is more than knowledge, it is the ability to see through situations, to sift out the right from the wrong, to apply a morality as well as  legal or logical thinking. Traditionally explained as a gift of age and experience, wisdom does not fall into our laps, it must be pursued, worked on, it is the outcome of critical and honest thinking, of seeing honestly rather than through the lens of self-interest. One of my favourite sermons is by Milton Steinberg, called “To Hold With Open Arms” In it he tells the following story:

“After a long illness I was permitted for the first time to step out of doors. And as I crossed the threshold, sunlight greeted me. This is my experience; all there is to it. And yet, so long as I live, I shall never forget that moment…The sky overhead was very blue, very clear, and very, very high. A faint wind blew from off the western plains, cool and yet somehow tinged with warmth – like a dry, chilled wine. And everywhere in the firmament above me, in the great vault between earth and sky, on the pavements, the building- the golden glow of sunlight.  It touched me too, with friendship, with warmth, with blessing. And as I basked in its glory, there ran through my mind those wonder words of the prophet about the sun which some day shall rise with healing on its wings. In that instant I looked about me to see whether anyone else showed on his face the joy, almost the beatitude I felt. But no, there they walked – men and women and children in the glory of a golden flood, and so far as I could detect, there was none to give it heed,. And then I remembered how often I, too had been indifferent to sunlight, how often, preoccupied with petty and sometimes mean concerns, I had disregarded it, and I said to myself, how precious is the sunlight, but alas how careless of it are we”

Rabbi Steinberg died a young man – but the wisdom in this one story challenges us all about how precious our world is, and how careless we are of it.  He reminds us that that value of an experience is not lessened by whether or not it is commonplace. He reminds us we are in a connected world.

Did you fear heaven? The Talmud tells us that everything is in the hands of heaven except the fear of heaven (Rabbi Chanina TB Berachot 33b)- what does it mean? That we have free will to serve heaven or not – we cannot be coerced into faith or into religious practise, it is a free choice and not even God can act here. So we are being asked to defend our choices, from what ethical or other code we acted in our lives. We are being asked if we were true to our own selves.

“Everyone dies, but not everyone fully lives” said William Sachs Wallace. Yom Kippur is an opportunity, a repeated and fixed and regular time to examine our lives, so that on our deaths we can stand up in the heavenly court certain that we did, indeed, live as fully and as well as we could.  Each of us has our own life to live, there is no pro forma, no template that says “this one way is the right way”. We have to examine and discern, play the stories through our minds, speak to others to see how we have impacted on them, reflect and consider.

When I think of the many funerals I have officiated at or attended, and the thousands of life stories I have heard, there are some that stand out for me and stay with me because of what I learn from that person and the life they lived. It is rarely the amazing achievements of some member of the great and the good – their political or scientific or academic performances, their stellar achievements in their chosen fields, their honorifics and their titles. Yes, these are impressive, but sometimes I have listened to the list of public successes in a group of mourners so small, and so emotionally distant from the deceased, that I wonder what can have gone so badly wrong in their personal lives, their relationships?

 I once wrote the Hesped  (eulogy) for a woman who had apparently done nothing in her life but bring up her children and clean her home. As I was talking with the family, wondering what I could possibly say at the funeral, one fact kept shining through, demanding to be noticed.  She had been a loving and much loved woman. A wife, mother, grandmother, sister, friend, neighbour. Everyone had a story of how she had been there for them in some crossroads in their lives. Everyone spoke of how they could move on in their lives having discussed things with her. Everyone told of how loved they felt, a love they missed beyond telling. She had no list of achievements to define her, only her persistent and consistent and supportive love that had held together a large extended family, allowing each one to grow to be who they were. I realised then what an extraordinary achievement her quiet ­­­­life had been, how appreciative and appreciated she had been. I have never forgotten the lesson I learned from her life, as told by the people who mourned her.

What kinds of people are called dead even when they are alive? Those who see the morning sunlight…those who see the sun set…those who eat and drink, and are not stirred to say a blessing”

Let us resolve today, while we are examining our lives and our hopes, recalibrating our aspirations and letting go of our doubts and fears, that we will not be amongst those who see the sunrise and sunset, who enjoy all there is of the ordinary pleasures of life, and not be stirred to say a blessing. Let us decide that we will be among those who live our lives as fully and as appreciatively as we possibly can, and be as true to ourselves as we were created to be. A small change in behaviour, but it might lead to us being able to answer those questions to the heavenly beit din with a sense of having understood while alive, what some may only begin to see when it is too late to act.

 

Nel midrash Tanchuma viene posta la domanda: “Che tipo di persone vengono chiamate morte anche quando sono vive? Quelli che vedono il sole del mattino … quelli che vedono il sole tramontare … quelli che mangiano e bevono e non si sono premurati di dire una benedizione”. (Tanchuma, v’zot habracha, 7)

 

Yom Kippur è un momento insolito: lo consideriamo un giorno fuori dal tempo, un giorno in cui è come se fossimo morti. Indossiamo dei sudari; ci asteniamo dal mangiare, dal bere, dal lavarci e da altre attività dei vivi. Nella nostra liturgia abbiamo le immagini ricorrenti di un Libro della Vita, e ripetiamo il ritornello della nostra speranza che ci saremo iscritti in esso per un altro anno, perché se non lo saremo, saremmo davvero morti. La consapevolezza della nostra mortalità incombe nel corso della giornata, fornisce una prospettiva tanto necessaria e, si spera, anche uno stimolo al nostro pensiero sulle nostre priorità nel ritorno alla vita quotidiana.

Yom Kippur è una specie di prova generale per la nostra morte. Quando ripenseremo a una vita piena di speranza e piena di felicità, la tradizione insegna che capiremo in cosa consisteva veramente la nostra vita, cosa era importante e cosa non lo era, e le sottili linee tra esse. La tradizione chassidica ci dice che quella comprensione sarà il nostro paradiso e il nostro inferno, quando ci rendiamo conto che le cose che abbiamo trascurato come poco interessanti o poco importanti erano davvero critiche, quando le cose che perseguivamo e godevamo di aver raggiunto sarebbero state abbandonate come irrilevanti per le nostre anime.

Oggi abbiamo la possibilità di soppesare le scale per quella comprensione. Yom Kippur ci ricorda ogni anno che un giorno affronteremo la nostra stessa morte. Tutti muoiono, questo non è negoziabile, ma la domanda è davvero: quanto bene vive ognuno? Quanto bene usiamo le nostre stesse vite?

Yom Kippur ci offre anche un’altra esperienza: oltre al tempo fuori dal tempo, al giorno in cui possiamo trascorrere “come se morti”, ci ricorda che subiremo molte morti nelle nostre vite e che queste piccole morti possono essere delle porte verso altri modi di essere. Viviamo molte perdite, molti cambiamenti rispetto a quanto sperato o pianificato. I nostri percorsi di vita si discostano ripetutamente, a volte in modo casuale, a volte ingiustamente, ma come mia madre ama dire, quando una porta si chiude, si apre una finestra. Siamo in grado di trovare un nuovo modo di essere, dire addio a una precedente replica di noi stessi e crescere come qualcuno un po’ diverso da prima.

I nostri rabbini hanno insegnato che il sonno è un sessantesimo della morte (Berachot 57b) e ogni giorno quando ci svegliamo dal sonno, abbiamo una preghiera per ringraziare Dio per il ritorno della nostra anima pura, la preghiera elohai neshama parla di Dio che insuffla di nuovo la nostra anima in noi, proprio come al primo essere umano è stata insufflata la vita. Quindi ogni giorno è potenzialmente una nuova nascita, possiamo ricominciare dopo la piccola morte del sonno. Ogni singolo giorno è una nuova possibilità di cambiamento, di crescita, per diventare maggiormente  la persona che vorremmo essere.

Proprio come ogni giorno porta la possibilità di piccoli cambiamenti o maggiori trasformazioni, le molte tristezze e perdite e le piccole morti nelle nostre vite possono aiutarci a concentrarci su ciò che è veramente importante. E Yom Kippur è per noi il dono di una giornata per valutare l’equilibrio delle nostre vite.

Il Talmud ci dice (Shabbat 31a) che dopo la morte ogni anima arriverà al beit din shel ma’alà, la corte celeste, e gli verranno poste le stesse domande. “Hai agito nel tuo lavoro con onestà e integrità? Hai fissato dei tempi prestabiliti per studiare la Torà? Hai partecipato al comandamento della creazione? Hai continuato a sperare? Ti sei impegnato nella ricerca della saggezza? Hai avuto timore dei Cieli?”

Queste non sono domande retoriche o filosofiche, sono progettate per farci pensare a cosa servono le nostre vite, come utilizzare al meglio i giorni e le ore che abbiamo, in particolare perché nessuno sa quanto breve o lungo potrebbe essere il tempo che ci rimane.

La prima domanda, hai avuto integrità e onestà nei tuoi rapporti con gli altri, non è solo pratica, ma mira in profondità al nostro carattere, come trattiamo gli altri è la misura di come valutiamo gli altri. L’istinto di trarre profitto a spese degli altri è in tutti noi. La domanda mira esattamente a quanto potremmo aver ceduto a quell’istinto, a quanto lo temperiamo con la consapevolezza che siamo tutti figli di un unico Dio.

La seconda domanda riguarda lo studio: qui sono in gioco le nostre vite interiori. Lo studio della Torà è l’emblema della connessione con le nostre radici, con il nostro popolo e con Dio. Fornisce le lenti attraverso le quali vediamo il mondo, modella il nostro codice morale, ci spinge nella consapevolezza che non siamo il centro dell’universo e che qualcos’altro lo è. Trovare un tempo fisso per ricordare a noi stessi gli insegnamenti che danno un quadro al nostro comportamento e al nostro processo decisionale, è un’azione vitalizzante. Ci tiene nello spazio in cui tutto può succedere, ci dà radici, ci consente di continuare a crescere e svilupparci.

La terza domanda – hai partecipato alla mitzvà della creazione, è molto di più del semplice senso di procreazione. Quando insegniamo, quando modelliamo un buon comportamento, quando aiutiamo gli altri a crescere o a cambiare, a lasciarsi andare o a resistere, partecipiamo alla mitzvà della creazione. Quando aiutiamo una comunità a riunirsi, sia fornendo le challot o le derashot, imparando insieme, fornendo un gruppo per il matrimonio o per i  b’nei mitzvà o per il partecipanti al lutto per esprimere il loro dolore e soddisfare i loro riti, stiamo partecipando alla creazione. Quando riconosciamo l’umanità dell’altro, il rifugiato, l’immigrato, l’impoverito o lo spaventato, stiamo partecipando alla mitzvà della creazione. Quando visitiamo i malati o confortiamo i defunti, partecipiamo anche a quella mitzvà. Ogni volta che costruiamo relazioni con gli altri, aiutiamo una comunità a crescere e prosperare, tutto ciò fa parte della stessa mitzvà. Quando piantiamo un giardino o un albero, quando proviamo a proteggere l’ambiente con le scelte che compiamo, tutto ciò è la mitzvà della creazione.

Hai continuato a sperare? La disperazione è facile da trovare in questo mondo. Ancora di più per le generazioni di ebrei esiliati dalla loro terra e trattati con disprezzo e umiliazione. Eppure l’ebreo continua a sperare e quella speranza è ciò che sostiene la nostra resilienza e la nostra particolarità come popolo. Non abbandoniamo la promessa del nostro patto, per quanto distante appaia. Neanche noi abbandoniamo la nostra fiducia nell’umanità. Come scrisse Edmond Fleg: “Sono ebreo perché in ogni epoca in cui si sente il grido di disperazione l’ebreo spera”. La speranza è intesa nella tradizione come la speranza della redenzione, per l’era messianica. Il punto della speranza è che noi ebrei ci siamo aggrappati alla nostra identità, al nostro scopo e significato attraverso questo meccanismo. Un giorno la speranza si realizzerà.

Ai nostri tempi sembra che l’oscurità stia tornando, mentre il nazionalismo e il populismo sono in aumento, la xenofobia e l’odio stretto crescono in molti paesi in tutto il mondo. Tanto più importante, quindi, continuare a sperare, non cedere alla disperazione che erode e corrode che ci porterebbe in ogni luogo più oscuro, sempre più stretto, che distruggerebbe tutto ciò che c’è di buono nel mondo.

Ti sei impegnato nella ricerca della saggezza? La saggezza è più della conoscenza, è la capacità di vedere attraverso le situazioni, di selezionare il bene dal male, di applicare una moralità così come il pensiero legale o logico. Tradizionalmente spiegato come un dono dell’età e dell’esperienza, la saggezza non ci casca in braccio, deve essere perseguita, elaborata, è il risultato di un pensiero critico e onesto, di vedere onestamente piuttosto che attraverso l’obiettivo dell’interesse personale. Uno dei miei sermoni preferiti è di Milton Steinberg, chiamato “To Hold With Open Arms” In esso racconta la seguente storia:

“Dopo una lunga malattia mi è stato permesso per la prima volta di uscire di casa. E mentre attraversavo la soglia, la luce del sole mi salutava. Questa è la mia esperienza; tutto ciò che c’è da fare. Eppure, finché vivrò, non dimenticherò mai quel momento … Il cielo sopra di noi era molto blu, molto chiaro e molto, molto alto. Un vento debole soffiava dalle pianure occidentali, fresco eppure in qualche modo tinto di calore – come un vino secco e freddo. E ovunque nel firmamento sopra di me, nella grande volta tra terra e cielo, sui marciapiedi, l’edificio – il bagliore dorato della luce del sole. Mi ha toccato anche, con amicizia, con calore, con benedizione. E mentre mi crogiolavo nella sua gloria, mi passarono per la mente quelle parole meravigliose del profeta sul sole che un giorno sorgerà con la guarigione sulle sue ali. In quell’istante mi guardai attorno per vedere se qualcun altro avesse mostrato sulla sua faccia la gioia, quasi la beatitudine che provavo. Ma no, lì camminavano – uomini, donne e bambini nella gloria di un diluvio dorato, e per quanto potessi rilevare, non c’era nessuno a prestare attenzione. E poi mi sono ricordato di quanto spesso anche io ero stato indifferente alla luce solare, quanto spesso, preoccupato per le piccole e talvolta meschine preoccupazioni, l’avevo ignorato, e mi sono detto, quanto è preziosa la luce del sole, ma purtroppo quanto ne siamo disinteressati”. 

Il rabbino Steinberg morì da giovane, ma la saggezza in questa storia ci mette alla prova su quanto sia prezioso il nostro mondo e su quanto noi ne siamo negligenti. Ci ricorda che quel valore di un’esperienza non è diminuito dal fatto che esso sia o meno un luogo comune. Ci ricorda che siamo in un mondo connesso.

Hai temuto i Cieli? Il Talmud ci dice che tutto è nelle mani del cielo tranne la paura del cielo (Rabbi Chanina TB Berachot 33b) – cosa significa? Che abbiamo il libero arbitrio di servire il Cielo oppure no, non possiamo essere costretti alla fede o alla pratica religiosa, è una scelta libera e nemmeno Dio può agire qui. Quindi ci viene chiesto di difendere le nostre scelte e secondo quale codice etico o di altro tipo abbiamo agito nella nostra vita. Ci viene chiesto se siamo stati fedeli a noi stessi.

“Tutti muoiono, ma non tutti vivono pienamente”, ha detto William Sachs Wallace. Yom Kippur è un’opportunità, un tempo ripetuto, fisso e regolare per esaminare le nostre vite, in modo che sulle nostre morti possiamo stare in piedi nella corte celeste certi di aver vissuto, in verità, nel modo più completo e migliore possibile. Ognuno di noi ha la propria vita da vivere, non esiste un modello pro forma, nessun modello che dice “questo unico modo è il modo giusto”. Dobbiamo esaminare e discernere, interpretare le storie attraverso le nostre menti, parlare con gli altri per vedere come abbiamo avuto un impatto su di essi, riflettere e considerare.

successi pubblici in gruppi di persone in lutto così piccoli, e così emotivamente distanti dal defunto, Quando penso ai molti funerali in cui ho officiato o frequentato e alle migliaia di storie di vita che ho ascoltato, ce ne sono alcune che si distinguono e rimangono con me per ciò che ho imparato da quella persona e per la vita che hanno vissuto. Raramente sono i successi sorprendenti di alcuni membri dei grandi e dei buoni, le loro prestazioni politiche o scientifiche o accademiche, i loro successi stellari nei loro campi scelti, i loro onori e i loro titoli. Sì, sono impressionanti, ma a volte ho ascoltato l’elenco dei che mi chiedo cosa possa essere andato così male nella loro vita personale, nelle loro relazioni ?

Una volta ho scritto l’Hesped (elogio funebre) per una donna che apparentemente non aveva fatto nulla nella sua vita, ma ha allevato i suoi figli e pulito la sua casa. Mentre parlavo con la famiglia, chiedendomi cosa avrei potuto dire al funerale, un fatto continuava a splendere, chiedendo di essere notato. Era stata una donna amorevole e molto amata. Una moglie, madre, nonna, sorella, amica, vicina di casa. Tutti avevano una storia di come era stata lì per loro in un bivio nella loro vita. Tutti hanno parlato di come potevano andare avanti nella loro vita dopo aver discusso di cose con lei. Tutti hanno raccontato di quanto si sentissero amati, un amore che sentivano mancare oltre ogni dire. Non aveva una lista di risultati da definire, solo il suo amore persistente, solido e solidale che aveva tenuto insieme una grande famiglia allargata, permettendo a ciascuno di crescere di essere quello che erano. Mi resi conto quindi di quale straordinario successo fosse stata la sua vita tranquilla, di quanto fosse stata riconoscente e riconosciuta. Non ho mai dimenticato la lezione che ho imparato dalla sua vita, raccontata dalle persone che la piangevano.

Che tipo di persone vengono chiamate morte anche quando sono vive? Quelli che vedono il sole del mattino … quelli che vedono il sole tramontare … quelli che mangiano e bevono e non si premurano di dire una benedizione.

Cerchiamo di risolvere oggi, mentre esaminiamo le nostre vite e le nostre speranze, ricalibrando le nostre aspirazioni e lasciando andare i nostri dubbi e le nostre paure, che non saremo tra coloro che vedono l’alba e il tramonto, che godono di tutti i piaceri ordinari di vita, e non essere agitato per dire una benedizione. Decidiamo che saremo tra coloro che vivranno la nostra vita nel modo più completo e comprensivo possibile e saremo fedeli a noi stessi così come siamo stati creati per essere. Un piccolo cambiamento nel comportamento, ma potrebbe portarci a essere in grado di rispondere a quelle domande al Bet Din celsete con il senso di aver capito da vivi, ciò che alcuni potrebbero iniziare a vedere solo quando è ormai troppo tardi per agire.

Traduzione di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

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.