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.

Balak: the curse of being a people who dwell alone

Balaam, the seer and professional prophet from Aram who is commissioned by Balak the king of Moab to curse the Israelites travelling through the land, says to Balak :- “[you told me] ‘come, curse me Jacob and come, defy Israel’  How shall I curse whom God has not cursed? Or how shall I disturb whom the Eternal has not disturbed?”

And then he tells him this: “For from the top of the rocks I see them, and from the hills I observe them. Behold, a people who will live alone, and with the nations they will not be reckoned”

כִּֽי־מֵרֹ֤אשׁ צֻרִים֙ אֶרְאֶ֔נּוּ וּמִגְּבָע֖וֹת אֲשׁוּרֶ֑נּוּ הֶן־עָם֙ לְבָדָ֣ד יִשְׁכֹּ֔ן וּבַגּוֹיִ֖ם לֹ֥א יִתְחַשָּֽׁב

Balaam is a seer, he is a powerful soothsayer who has a real connection with God, but none whatsoever with the people of Israel. When he sees them all his plans to curse are in disarray, he cannot curse the people protected by God, and while he continues to try to fulfil the contract as best he can he is limited in this case and he knows it. Yet he tries to offer curses – or at least ambiguous spells, and this story culminates in the verse which we have appropriated for well over a thousand years to help us into the mood for prayer:          מַה־טֹּ֥בוּ אֹֽהָלֶ֖יךָ יַֽעֲקֹ֑ב מִשְׁכְּנֹתֶ֖יךָ יִשְׂרָאֵֽל:

“How good are your tents O Jacob, your dwelling places O Israel”

It is a comic tale despite the horror of a powerful person hoping to destroy the vulnerable people of Israel while they are going about their business quite unknowing of the hatred and bile directed towards them. The comedy is underlined by our liturgical use of the final declaration. But this year one of the earlier “blessings/curses” caught my eye.  “Behold a people who will live alone, who will not be reckoned with the nations”

Tradition tells us that this is transformed into a blessing, that alone of all the nations of history, the Jews continue, uniquely indestructible, forever distinct and separate from the peoples among whom we live. This thread of Jewish peoplehood, surviving without the structures that normally support identity, moving geographically across a huge diaspora, moving through time and evolving time and again to create and accept new ritual and liturgical structures, accommodating to different cultures and political environments, living alongside other religious traditions – it is indeed unique.  Empires came and went, those of Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome were powerful entities under which the Jews lived and often suffered, and still the Jews continue while the artefacts of the great Empires can be found in museums.

But this interpretation so beloved of the medieval commentators living under oppressive authorities and fearful of the crusading powers sweeping through Europe to the Holy Land, reads less comfortingly in modern times.

A people who will dwell alone, who will not be reckoned/counted/aligned with the other nations sounds scarily like a nationalism out of control, assuming an arrogance and an identity that does not relate to other peoples.  As I have been reading the remarks of some who voted for the UK to leave our relationship with Europe I see statements such as “I have my country back”, and “we can send the foreigners home” and “England for the English”. I see the demagoguery of UKIP, the racism that was unacceptable in British society suddenly surfacing as people feel permission to “dwell alone”. Words like ‘sovereignty’ and ‘independence’ dominate the discourse, turning the narrative into one of narrow chauvinism, bigotry and nationalism and xenophobia which appear to be segueing smoothly from the earlier arguments of more local agency and greater political autonomy.

I am chilled by the increased nationalism and jingoism I see not only in present day post referendum United Kingdom but also in other countries in Europe and in the USA. Patriotism has become a cloak for hatred of the other. Brown skinned people are being abused on public transport and told to “go home” – even though home is here, even though this island has always had many races and cultures – Angles and Saxons and Normans and Danes and Celts and  Germanic tribes and …..

I am chilled by the idea that being a people who are alone can possibly ever be a blessing, but in particular now when we live in an interconnected and interdependent world, when we can see the suffering of others at the touch of a computer or television, and we can help alleviate that suffering just as quickly and easily.  We learn from each other, we enrich each other both culturally and intellectually, we offer each other relationship while retaining the individuality we need for a real relationship to exist. As Martin Buber wrote a person (“I”) has meaning only in relation to others, what he called “I-Thou dialogue” – the same is true for peoples, for ethnicities and national identities. To separate oneself off and deny our interdependence, instead proclaiming the holy grail of absolute and total independence, is dangerous for every person, for every society, for every nation state.

The first time we have the phrase of being B.D.D. alone, comes in Genesis (2:18) Where God, having made the first human being says

וַיֹּ֨אמֶר֙ יְהוָֹ֣ה אֱלֹהִ֔ים לֹא־ט֛וֹב הֱי֥וֹת הָֽאָדָ֖ם לְבַדּ֑וֹ אֶֽעֱשֶׂה־לּ֥וֹ עֵ֖זֶר כְּנֶגְדּֽוֹ:

It is not good for the human to be alone, I will make for him a support who is equal and different to him.

We all need others, people who are different, who have equal strength of opinion and independence, who challenge us and support us and are in relationship with us.  The saddest phrase in bible is probably the one at the beginning of the book of Lamentations, read after the commemoration of the calamity of the destruction of Jerusalem:

אֵיכָ֣ה ׀ יָשְׁבָ֣ה בָדָ֗ד הָעִיר֙ רַבָּ֣תִי עָ֔ם הָיְתָ֖ה כְּאַלְמָנָ֑ה רַבָּ֣תִי בַגּוֹיִ֗ם שָׂרָ֨תִי֙ בַּמְּדִינ֔וֹת הָיְתָ֖ה לָמַֽס:

How does the city sit solitary, that was full of people. How is she become as a widow. She that was great among the nations, and princess among the provinces, how is she become tributary!

We are already in the month of Tammuz – this weekend will see the 9th Tammuz, the date when the walls of Jerusalem were breached by King Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE and the temple sacrifices were discontinued, and next week we will commemorate the 17th Tammuz, the date when the walls of Jerusalem were breached by the Roman army in 70CE leading to the removal of the Jewish people from their ancestral land. We may as a people have survived these historical catastrophes but the question is – have we learned from them? We need no longer fear being forcibly assimilated into a dominant power (or worse), the ‘blessing’ of being a people apart may now be less of a blessing if it blinkers us to the importance of our relationships with others.

As John Donne wrote in his meditation “

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were;  any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

We should listen out for the bell tolling out its warning and push for relationship and the recognition of the reality of our interdependence with others. Or Balak’s ‘blessing’ may yet prove to be our curse.

Balaam: Carried away and lost by his own words

 My teacher Jonathan Magonet used to ask – “If you were a donkey, how would you read the bible?” The answer of course is that you would notice the stories about donkeys. They are not hard to find, Abraham, Moses and Samuel had famous donkeys, though it might be disappointing to a donkey reader to find the donkeys always described in relation to their human companion. And of course there is Balaam’s amazing donkey we read about today, which was clearly more perceptive than the prophet who rode her.

The point he was making is that when we read a text we bring to it an enormous number of presuppositions related to our experience, knowledge, personal situation, tradition etc. We are none of us objective readers of the text; we are all shaped by our life experience. We bring ourselves to the texts; we read into it as well as read out from it, we notice what we notice and not what has no meaning to us or resonance in our own minds.

The same is true of prophecy in the Hebrew bible. Biblical prophecy is as shaped by the prophet’s own understanding as it is formed by the will of God. And it is affected by those who hear it and act. Jews read biblical text as part of a dialogue and dialectic seeking truth through debate and discussion; We bring ourselves into relationship with the words of Torah. To simply read the p’shat, the literal and surface meaning of the text, is to miss out on the richness that is brought to it through human understanding. We have to reflect on and process what we read, examine it and turn it again and again, for the word of God is renewed through our engagement with it.

Curiously, the story of Balaam, this professional prophet of God, whose donkey is also sensitive to the divine in the world, seems to lack this capacity. And the tradition seems to try to tell us something in the way the story is written – not only the text but the physical appearance of the words.

If you look in a Torah scroll, you will see that while the columns are carefully designed to begin and end at the end of each line (what we might call ‘line justified’ in today’s parlance, there are also breaks in the text, some at the end of a line (p’tuhah) and some in the middle of a line (s’tumah). There is a long tradition preserving these spaces, and scribes follow this tradition carefully. But Balaam’s prophecy contains no such spaces.

The Chafetz Chayim (Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, 1838-1933) asks why there are no breaks in this parashah as it is written in the Torah scroll. From Balak’s initial alarm and commissioning of Balaam to curse Israel to the very end of Balaam’s prophecy (Numbers 22:2-24:25), there is only solid text. True, Balaam was a prophet, and his prophecy was inspired from above: “I can utter only the word that God puts into my mouth.” (Numbers 22:38) But why should this section look so different from others in the Torah?

The Chafetz Chayim answers his own question, based on several midrashic sources, in the following way: The various breaks in Moses’ prophecy (i.e., the rest of the Torah) are indications that God gives Moses (and other Israelite prophets) breathing room to process what they are receiving. They are not to act simply as mouthpieces, as empty vessels through which divine speech flows. Rather, the prophet must understand the prophecy and be changed by it.

Moses and the other prophets of Israel participate in prophecy: Their words of God are refracted through their human thought and experience. Moses at times even argues with God, following the precedent set by Abraham and establishing a pattern that will be followed by the later prophets and by others. We can view breaks in the text as opportunities for reflection-both theirs and ours. But Balaam is allowed no breaks for reflection, nor is he changed by his words. He is only the conduit through which the text is passed, no different than a book or a tape or a digital recording. His prophecy is shallow and limited, his personality not engaged in the activity at all, his lack of understanding and commitment to participation means he fails as a prophet.

Yet Balaam’s words are remembered and, in the case of the phrase ‘Mah tovu ohalecha Ya’akov, mishkenotecha Yisrael” they are used prominently in Jewish liturgy.

So while Balaam neither reflected on his words nor sought a deeper meaning, we still are able to take these words and refract them into something both challenging of our world and supporting of what we see. This liturgical twist is an elegant example of the interaction of people and text, when we take the words that were intended for curse and transform them into words that acknowledge and reframe our reality to turn it into blessing.