Vayishlach – the death of Deborah whose wisdom is mourned

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וַתָּ֤מָת דְּבֹרָה֙ מֵינֶ֣קֶת רִבְקָ֔ה וַתִּקָּבֵ֛ר מִתַּ֥חַת לְבֵית־אֵ֖ל תַּ֣חַת הָֽאַלּ֑וֹן וַיִּקְרָ֥א שְׁמ֖וֹ אַלּ֥וֹן בָּכֽוּת:

And Deborah the nurse of Rebecca died, and she was buried below Beit El, under the oak tree. And its name was called “Oak Tree of Weeping” – Allon Bacut  (Genesis 35:8)

This is the first – and last – we will hear of this particular Deborah, although of course the story – and song – of a more famous Deborah will appear in the Book of Judges.

But this Deborah is more of a puzzle. Rashi tries to solve the mystery by saying “How came Deborah to be in Jacob’s house? But the explanation is: because Rebekah had promised Jacob (Gen. 27:45) “then I will send and fetch thee from thence”, she sent Deborah to him to Padan Aram to tell him to leave that place, and she died on the return journey. I learned this from a comment of R. Moses HaDarshan (the exegete and Rosh Yeshiva of Narbonne)

What does the bible tell us? That a woman named Deborah had been the nursemaid of our matriarch Rebecca. That she died on the journey back to the land, shortly before Rachel died giving birth on the road from Beit El, and that her grave was marked not by a pillar of stone as Rachel’s was, but by a well-known oak tree, whose name refers to mourning.

Eleven verses separate the deaths of the two women. One cannot but wonder if there was a connection – whether the loss of Deborah, “meineket Rivka”– meant a loss of the wisdom she held around childbirth and nurturing.  One cannot help comparing the two graves – one under a “tree of weeping”, the other by the roadside with a stone pillar “that is there till this day” (v20) .

When we read the text, we generally focus on the terrible experience of Rachel, who in her agony calls the child whose birth is killing her “son of my pain/sorrow” before she dies – and the fact that his father breaks the convention and renames the child “Benjamin”. We see this complex and traumatic death and birth, and our minds leap ahead to the problems of the sons of Rachel. Poor Deborah, the nursemaid of Rebecca, is left to her grave under the mysteriously named tree.

The Book of Jubilees also tells the story of the death of Deborah, nursemaid to Rebecca, and it adds a few details

“And in the night, on the twenty-third of this month, Deborah Rebecca’s nurse died, and they buried her beneath the city under the oak of the river, and he called the name of this place, “The river of Deborah,” and the oak, “The oak of the mourning of Deborah.”” (Jubilees 32:25ff)

So Deborah dies on what is now Simchat Torah, and there is not only an oak tree but also a river to mark her resting place. Simchat Torah is the date when we both end and begin the yearly Torah reading. There is a moment of death and of rebirth; a cliff-edge experience  as we see the land in front of Moses’ eyes and hear of his death but do not enter the land of Israel, immediately followed by a retelling of the creation of the world.  What can we make of a death that takes place on this date, marked by the flowing river water and the weeping tree?

The title of Deborah, “meineket Rivka” means that she literally fed Rebecca as her nursemaid. Given that Rebecca’s own children had children by now, one must ask what that role would have been, what Deborah would be “feeding” Rebecca for her to still be known by this title? It is generally understood that she was the transmitter of an important wisdom to enable Rebecca to function fully as the matriarch she was. This understanding is embodied in “Meineket Rivka” which is the title of the first known Yiddish book written by a woman – Rivka bat Meir Tiktiner of Prague – a book of ethical wisdom and piety which included stories from Talmud and midrash, and in which the writer differentiates between the wisdom of the body (guf) and the wisdom of the soul (nefesh)

The wisdom of Deborah was surely also both practical and spiritual, dealing with both material matters (body) and “beyond material” matters. The name Rebecca means “to join” or “to connect” or even to “tie firmly”.  The wisdom Deborah passes on to Rebecca must then be to help her to join heaven to earth, to use both the aspects of body and of soul to create a more fulfilled world.  The markers by her grave reflect her wisdom – the tree, planted in the ground, slow growing oak, represents the “guf” – the body or earthly realm. The river, fast moving and ever changing represents the “nefesh” and the flow of life.

The wisdom that Deborah brings – even if it is never explicit in biblical text – is alluded to at her death.  To get a fuller understanding of this almost disappeared woman, we must turn to the natural world and its symbolism.  The oak tree weeps. Someone who understood the relationship between the natural environment and the purpose of the human being in the world, has gone. The wisdom she held is partly transmitted and partly has to be learned again by another generation.

We have many texts in bible and in rabbinic literature which allude to the relationship between humanity and the earth, and how that relationship informs our relationship with God and our ability to fulfil our purpose. We learn from previous generations and we absorb from them much wisdom. But inevitably some is lost, some is deemed irrelevant, some is inconvenient and quietly forgotten. And then we have to relearn what once was understood.

The weeping tree standing guard over Deborah’s grave beneath Beit El is a living reminder of our role and responsibility in the world. The demonstrable loss of wisdom after her death, as well as the flow of life relentlessly moving onward, remind us that there is no once and for all event, but that we are part of a dynamic process, learning and relearning how to live in the world while expressing the ethics and values of what we now call the Jewish tradition. One might say that we are still called by natural objects  and events  to bring us back to our purpose in the world–  the rain forests being destroyed, polluted waters around the world, climatic events never before seen etc call to us to learn and relearn the wisdom of our tradition, so as to bring forth a world we can live in well, and pass on respectfully to the next generations.

image of the grave of Rivka bat Meir Tiktiner, author of meineket Rivka in Prague

Vayishlach – la morte di Debora, la cui saggezza è rimpianta

 :בָּכֽוּת אַלּ֥וֹן  שְׁמ֖וֹ  וַיִּקְרָ֥א  הָֽאַלּ֑וֹן  תַּ֣חַת  לְבֵית־אֵ֖ל מִתַּ֥חַת  וַתִּקָּבֵ֛ר רִבְקָ֔ה מֵינֶ֣קֶת דְּבֹרָה֙ וַתָּ֤מָת

E Debora, la nutrice di Rebecca, morì e fu sepolta sotto Beit El, ai piedi della quercia. E il suo nome divenne “Quercia del pianto” – “Allon Bacut” (Genesi 35: 8)

Questa è la prima, e ultima, volta che sentiremo parlare di questa particolare Debora, anche se, ovviamente, la storia, e la canzone, di una Debora più famosa appariranno nel Libro dei Giudici.

Ma questa Debora è più di un enigma. Rashi cerca di risolvere il mistero dicendo: “Come è arrivata Debora nella casa di Giacobbe? E la spiegazione è: poiché Rebecca aveva promesso a Giacobbe (Gen. 27:45) ‘allora ti manderò a prendere da lì’, mandò Debora da lui a Padan Aram per dirgli di lasciare quel posto, e lei morì nel viaggio di ritorno”. L’ho appreso da un commento di R. Moses HaDarshan (esegeta e Rosh Yeshivà di Narbonne)

Cosa ci dice la Bibbia? Che una donna di nome Debora è stata la balia della nostra matriarca Rebecca. Che morì sulla strada di Beit El durante il viaggio di ritorno verso la terra poco prima che Rachele stessa morisse di parto, e che la sua tomba non fu contrassegnata da una colonna di pietra come quella di Rachele, ma da una ben conosciuta quercia,  il cui nome si riferisce al lutto.

Undici versi separano la morte delle due donne. Non si può non chiedersi se ci sia una connessione, se la perdita di Debora, “meineket Rivka“, non significhi una perdita della saggezza custodita sui temi del parto e della cura. E non si può fare a meno di confrontare le due tombe: una sotto un “albero del pianto”, l’altra sul ciglio della strada con un pilastro di pietra “che è lì fino ai nostri giorni” (verso 20).

Quando leggiamo il testo, ci concentriamo generalmente sulla terribile esperienza di Rachele, che nella sua agonia chiama il bambino la cui nascita la sta uccidendo “figlio del mio dolore/dolore” prima di morire, e il fatto che suo padre rompa la convenzione e rinomini il bambino “Beniamino”. Vediamo questa morte complessa e traumatica e la nascita, e le nostre menti vanno in avanti verso i problemi dei figli di Rachele. La povera Debora, la balia di Rebecca, viene lasciata nella sua tomba sotto l’albero misteriosamente chiamato.

Anche il Libro dei Giubilei racconta la storia della morte di Debora, nutrice di Rebecca, e aggiunge alcuni dettagli:

“E nella notte, il ventitreesimo mese di questo mese, Debora la nutrice di Rebecca morì e la seppellirono dietro la città sotto la quercia del fiume, e chiamarono questo luogo ‘Il fiume di Debora’, e la quercia ‘La quercia del compianto di Debora’”. (Giubilei 32: 25 ss)

Quindi Debora muore nel giorno dell’odierna Simchat Torà, e non solo c’è una quercia, ma anche un fiume a segnare il luogo del suo riposo. Simchat Torà è la data in cui sia finiamo che iniziamo la lettura annuale della Torà. C’è un momento di morte e rinascita, un’esperienza di netta cesura in cui vediamo la terra davanti agli occhi di Mosè e sentiamo parlare della sua morte senza poter entrare nella terra di Israele, immediatamente seguiti dalla ripetizione della creazione del mondo. Cosa possiamo farne di una morte che avviene in questa data, segnata dall’acqua fluente del fiume e dall’albero piangente?

Il titolo di Debora, “meineket Rivka“, significa letteralmente che ha dato da mangiare a Rebecca in quanto sua nutrice. Dato che ormai gli stessi figli di Rebecca avevano figli, c’è da chiedersi cosa abbia comportato quel ruolo, cosa avrà “dato da mangiare” Debora a Rebecca per essere conosciuta con questo titolo? Resta generalmente inteso che fu la trasmettitrice di un’importante saggezza, che consentì a Rebecca di fungere pienamente  da matriarca. Questo significato è rappresentato in “Meineket Rivka”, che è il titolo del primo libro yiddish noto che sia stato scritto da una donna, Rivka bat Meir Tiktiner di Praga: un libro di saggezza etica e pietà che includeva storie di Talmud e midrash, e in cui il la scrittrice distingue tra la saggezza del corpo (guf) e la saggezza dell’anima (nefesh)

La saggezza di Debora era sicuramente sia pratica che spirituale, trattando sia le questioni materiali (il corpo) sia quelle “al di là dei materiali”. Il nome Rebecca significa “unire” o “connettere” o anche “legare saldamente”. La saggezza che Debora trasmette a Rebecca deve quindi essere quella di aiutarla a unire il cielo alla terra, a usare sia gli aspetti del corpo che dell’anima per creare un mondo più compiuto. Gli indicatori della sua tomba rispecchiano la sua saggezza: l’albero, piantato nel terreno, una quercia a crescita lenta, rappresenta il “guf” (il corpo o il regno terrestre), il fiume, in rapido movimento e continua evoluzione, rappresenta il “nefesh” e il flusso della vita.

La saggezza di cui Debora è portatrice, anche se mai esplicitata nel testo biblico, è menzionata alla sua morte. Per comprendere appieno questa donna quasi scomparsa, dobbiamo rivolgerci al mondo naturale e al suo simbolismo. La quercia piange. Qualcuno che ha capito la relazione tra l’ambiente naturale e gli obiettivi dell’essere umano nel mondo è scomparso. La saggezza che possedeva in parte è trasmessa, in parte deve essere riappresa da un’altra generazione.

Abbiamo molti brani nella Bibbia e nella letteratura rabbinica che alludono al rapporto tra l’umanità e la terra, e come quella relazione informi la nostra relazione con Dio e la nostra capacità di realizzare i nostri scopi. Impariamo dalle generazioni precedenti e assorbiamo da loro molta saggezza. Ma qualcosa inevitabilmente si perde, qualcosa viene considerato irrilevante, qualcos’altro è scomodo e silenziosamente dimenticato. Così poi dobbiamo riapprendere ciò che una volta fu compreso.

L’albero piangente che fa la guardia alla tomba di Debora dietro Beit El è un promemoria vivente del nostro ruolo e responsabilità nel mondo. La dimostrabile perdita di saggezza seguita alla sua morte, così come il flusso della vita che si muove incessantemente in avanti, ci ricordano che non esistono eventi definitivi, ma che siamo parte di un processo dinamico, imparando e riapprendendo come vivere nel mondo mentre esprimiamo l’etica e i valori di ciò che ora chiamiamo tradizione ebraica. Si potrebbe dire che siamo ancora chiamati da oggetti ed eventi naturali che ci riportano al nostro scopo nel mondo: le foreste pluviali vengono distrutte, le acque inquinate in tutto il mondo, eventi climatici mai visti prima ecc. Ci chiamano per imparare e reimparare la saggezza della nostra tradizione, in modo da far nascere un mondo in cui possiamo vivere bene, da trasmettere rispettosamente alle prossime generazioni.

 

Traduzione dall’inglese di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

 

Toledot – sometimes we can dig wells, sometimes we have to find other ways

And [Isaac] had possessions of flocks, and possessions of herds, and a great household; and the Philistines envied him.  Now all the wells which his father’s servants had dug in the days of Abraham his father, the Philistines had stopped them, and filled them with earth. And Abimelech said to Isaac: ‘Go from us; for you are much mightier than we.’  And Isaac departed thence, and encamped in the valley of Gerar, and dwelt there.  And Isaac dug again the wells of water, which they had dug in the days of Abraham his father; for the Philistines had stopped them after the death of Abraham; and he called their names after the names by which his father had called them.  And Isaac’s servants dug in the valley, and found there a well of living water. And the herdsmen of Gerar strove with Isaac’s herdsmen, saying: ‘The water is ours.’ And he called the name of the well Esek; because they contended with him.  And they dug another well, and they strove for that also. And he called the name of it Sitnah. And he removed from thence, and dug another well; and for that they strove not. And he called the name of it Rechovot; and he said: ‘For now the Eternal has made room for us, and we shall be fruitful in the land.’  And he went up from thence to Beersheva. (Gen26:14ff)

The story is one of Isaac finding his role both in the Land of Israel and as Patriarch of the family tribe– after a problematic childhood with two parents who each had powerful and somewhat overwhelming personalities. Isaac is clearly a different character, often described as the son of a strong father and the father of strong sons, he seems gentler, less “alpha”, less willing to take what he wants, although admiring of those who can.  But the story is also of the problem of how – and even if – to share resources, in particular the water which has always been a fragile and essential resource for life.

Water stress is a constant problem in Israel, the land which is watered only by the rainfall and should the rains not come, or not come at the right time, there will be drought and famine, and death.

We read in Deuteronomy 10ff “But the land…is a land of hills and valleys and drinks water as the rain of heaven…the eyes of God are always upon it….and if you obey my commandments…I will give the rain of your land in its season, both early and late rains, so you may gather your corn, wine and oil. And I will give grass in your fields for your cattle and you will eat and be satisfied… Take care less you …turn aside and serve other gods, for the anger of God will be against you and God will shut up the heavens and there will be no rain, and the ground will not yield her fruit and you will perish quickly from off the good land which God gives you”

The Land of Israel has always known water stress; The people Israel have built a theology around it, a routine of mitzvot in order to avert punishment by water, a choreography of teshuvah and fasting when the rains are delayed. It is in the DNA of rabbinic Judaism following the biblical exhortations – lack of rain follows the disruption of our relationship with God

But water stress is also a problem – and a growing one – in the rest of the world, and we know that there the causes and solutions are quite different.

New data reveals that 17 countries – home to one-quarter of the world’s population—face “extremely high” levels of baseline water stress, where irrigated agriculture, industries and municipalities withdraw more than 80% of their available supply on average every year.

Twelve out of these 17 most water-stressed countries are in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). The region is hot and dry, so water supply is low to begin with, but growing demands have pushed countries further into extreme stress. Climate change is set to complicate matters further: The World Bank found that this region has the greatest expected economic losses from climate-related water scarcity, estimated at 6-14% of GDP by 2050.

44 countries – one third of the world’s population, already face high levels of water stress. On average in these countries, more than 40 percent of the available supply is withdrawn every year. The World Bank also estimates that by 2025 about 1.8 billion people will live in regions or countries without enough water. Many other factors contribute to water scarcity – such as weak political will, climate variability and groundwater pollution – but climate change makes all of these challenges worse. When threats combine to lead to rapid water stress, the poorest suffer the worst consequences. (https://www.wri.org/news/2019/08/release-updated-global-water-risk-atlas-reveals-top-water-stressed-countries-and-states)

In the past decade floods, storms and fires, heatwaves and droughts have been increasing in frequency and in intensity. It is clear that this is a consequence of climate change.  The top 20 warmest years on record have occurred in the last 25 years, with 2017 the hottest without the contribution of El Nino.  The effect of this warming climate is an increasing impact on the water resources available to populations, and the effect of that drought will of course be famine, mass movement of desperate populations, potentially even war.

Isaac tried to reclaim the resources his father had used and presumably owned, but was no match for the resident population and each time moved on. It is a story of tribal struggle, of becoming a resource migrant, of learning that one cannot behave as we have been doing earlier, we must find new solutions to the problem of managing our resources alongside all who need to share them.

Abraham was insistent Isaac should never leave the land, but we know his descendants were forced by famine to go into Egypt where ultimately their fate was that of oppression and slavery. Returning to their own land after so many years away was a journey fraught with danger, but also requiring them to acknowledge that they would not take any of the resources of the land through which they were passing. (see Moses’ appeal to the King of Edom Numbers 20:17): “Let us pass I beg through your land, we will not pass through field or vineyard, nor will we drink of the water of the wells, we will go along the King’s Highway and will not turn right or left till we have passed your border” But Edom said to him “you will not pass through me, I will come out with a sword against you. And the children of Israel said: ‘We will go up by the highway; and if we drink of your water, I and my cattle, then will I give its price;  only let me only pass through on my feet; there is no hurt.’ And he said: ‘Thou shalt not pass through.’ And Edom came out against him with much people, and with a strong hand.”

This is the reality to this day. “Economic migrants” has become a term of abuse – how much more so when thousands of people fleeing water shortages, drought and famine will beg to come through or to our land? And what will our fate be when the floods wash away soil and crops, damage or destroy our houses?  We are already seeing the effects of what rabbinic Judaism terms “judgement by water”.

We could go the route of ancient Israel and make teshuvah. Not by fasting and praying necessarily but by changing our behaviour, becoming more mindful of the wastage of water in our own lives. Whether it be use of water in our homes – leaving taps running, long showers etc., or awareness of the way the products we buy are using water )it was a shock for me to discover that the making of one small chocolate bar is takes 21 litres), whether it be smarter plumbing (or simply a brick in the toilet cistern) , we all need to learn how to conserve our water supplies.  It may seem an odd thing to read in rainy and flooded England currently (other countries too), but the floods here are the other side of the coin of drought there, and they wash away infrastructure, soil and crops leaving agriculture and transport vulnerable.

Isaac moved to Rechovot – the broad place where there was space for him and his family to live and to thrive. We don’t have that option. Climate change and water stress is a global phenomenon, a global emergency. We are all responsible for each other, we are all responsible for the earth and her resources. It is time for the tikkun, to help heal the world and to treat her with the respect she deserves.  As the psalmist writes:

The earth is the Eternal’s, and the fullness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.  For God has founded it upon the seas, and established it upon the floods.  (Psalm 24)

If you want to read more about water stress and ways to help:

 

https://blog.ucsusa.org/pablo-ortiz/the-world-is-in-a-water-crisis-and-climate-change-is-making-it-worse

https://www.ametsoc.org/ams/index.cfm/publications/bulletin-of-the-american-meteorological-society-bams/state-of-the-climate/

https://www.wri.org/blog/2019/08/17-countries-home-one-quarter-world-population-face-extremely-high-water-stress

https://www.watercalculator.org/water-use/climate-change-water-resources/

https://washmatters.wateraid.org/climate-change

https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/oct/07/it-takes-21-litres-of-water-to-produce-a-small-chocolate-bar-how-water-wise-is-your-diet

https://friendsoftheearth.uk/natural-resources/13-best-ways-save-water-stop-climate-breakdown

The fruit of the goodly tree – the curious case of the etrog: or “what does the Etrog have to do with the Jewish people and land.

L’italiano segue il testo inglese

Sukkot is one of the three pilgrimage festivals – the shalosh regalim – where the bible (Leviticus 23) tells us that the people must come to Jerusalem with their harvested produce, to give thanks to God.

We read “The fifteenth of this seventh month shall be the feast of booths for seven days to the Lord… Also on the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the fruit of the land, you shall keep a feast to the eternal seven days: on the first day shall be a Sabbath, and on the eighth day shall be a Sabbath. And you shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of the tree hadar, branches of palm trees, and the boughs of thick leaved trees, and willows of the brook… You shall dwell in booths seven days…that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt…”  Lev 23:33ff

Fascinatingly, this text about Sukkot gives us two reasons for its celebration – both an agricultural one with the celebration of the harvest, and a theological one, reminding us of our dependence on God during (and after) the exodus from Egypt.

In fact Sukkot is referenced in bible in a number of different ways. The book of Exodus repeatedly calls it “Chag haAsif – the Festival of Ingathering”; In Leviticus and Deuteronomy it is referred to as Chag HaSukkot – the Festival of Booths/Sukkot; In the Books of Kings, Chronicles and Ezekiel it is called simply “HeChag” –THE Festival; and in Leviticus in the text quoted above it is called “Chag Adonai” – the Festival of God. The first two names are clearly agricultural in origin – they reference the acts of harvesting and of living in small booths in the fields during the harvesting/birthing of animals. The second two are clearly more theological/national in origin. It remains for the rabbinic tradition simply “HeChag” The festival par excellence. And the rabbis have one more name for it, again deriving from the Leviticus piece quoted – it is Z’man Simchateinu, the time of our rejoicing.

What is this joy about? Is it because we have an abundance in the Autumn, before the harshness of the winter sets in? Is it because we not only are faced with out vulnerability as we live on and work the land, but because we also are secure in God’s protection?

In the Talmud (Sukkah 11b) there is a debate – Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Akiva are trying to understand the verse “That your generations will know that I made the Children of Israel live in booths [sukkot] when I brought them from the land of Egypt..” Rabbi Akiva understands these to be literal physical booths, while Rabbi Eliezer understands them as metaphor – these booths are the clouds of glory that descended from God to protect the wandering Israelites in the desert.  If we were to follow Rabbi Eliezer we would understand that the mercy of God protects us, and in particular if we would see the context of Sukkot as part of the set of Autumn Festivals, then these clouds continue to hide our sinfulness and give us even longer to repent and return to a merciful God. Given that there is a tradition that one can continue to do the work of Elul/Rosh Hashanah/ Yom Kippur right up to the last day of Sukkot – Hoshanah Rabbah, this metaphorical understanding of the Sukkah is a way to give us extra time with a patient and merciful God waiting to offer us protection – something surely to be joyful about.

The text in Leviticus, besides telling us both the agricultural and the theological/peoplehood reasons for this festival, and giving us the command to rejoice before God (no other festival has this commandment), tells us to take four different plants – only two of which, the palm and the willows of the brook, are named. The others- the fruit of goodly trees, and the branches of leafy trees, require some interpretation.

The Book of Nehemiah describes an event that occurred on the date of Rosh Hashanah during the early Second Temple period. We are told that all the people gathered themselves together as one into the broad place that was before the water gate in Jerusalem; that they spoke to Ezra the scribe to bring the book of the Law of Moses, which God had commanded to Israel.  Later in the same chapter we find: “Now they found written in the Law, how that the Eternal had commanded that the children of Israel should dwell in booths in the feast of the seventh month; and that they should publish and proclaim in all their cities, and in Jerusalem, saying: “Go forth to the mountain, and fetch olive branches, and branches of wild olive, and myrtle branches, and palm branches, and branches of thick trees, to make booths, as it is written.” So the people went forth, and brought them, and made themselves booths, every one upon the roof of his house, and in their courts, and in the courts of the house of God, and in the broad place of the water gate, and in the broad place of the gate of Ephraim. And all the congregation of them that were come back out of the captivity made booths, and dwelt in the booths; for since the days of Joshua the son of Nun until that day the children of Israel had not done so. And there was very great gladness (Neh. 8:14-17).

This is clearly a description of Sukkot, yet there is no etrog, rather the branches of olives and wild olives, and the leafy tree is named here as the myrtle. There is also no mention – unlike the passage in Leviticus – of putting the four species together and enacting a ritual with them. Indeed, it is clear to the people of Nehemiah’s time that these branches are for the creating of the booths/sukkot, and this is also reflected in a Talmudic discussion (BT Sukkah 36b – 37a), that Rabbi Meir says a sukkah can be built of any material, whereas Rabbi Judah, basing himself on the description in the Book of Nehemiah, says it can only be built with the woods of the four species.

It seems also, that the fruit of the goodly tree should, by rights, be the olive. It was and it remains a staple in the agriculture of the region, the oil used as both food and fuel for lighting, for medicine and for religious ritual. The olive also is harvested around this time. When you factor in the statement by Jeremiah (11:16) “16 The Eternal called your name a leafy olive-tree, fair with goodly fruit”, it seems a bit of a no-brainer that the fruit of the goodly tree would be the olive

Yet we have instead, the rather ambiguous fruit – the etrog. Why?

The earliest text probably is that of 1st -2nd century Targum Onkelos, the first translation of the bible (into Aramaic), which has a habit of also interpreting the text, and which clearly writes “the fruit of the etrog tree”. Josephus (1st century Romano-Jewish writer) also describes the use of the Etrog when he writes about the festival. The Talmud (TB Sukkot 34a) tells the story of the Hasmonean king and High Priest Alexander Yanneus (103-76 BCE) who was not respectful of the ritual of Simchat Beit HaSho’eva (the ceremony of the water libation) and was pelted with etrogim by the angry worshippers.  The Hasmonean coins of the period show etrogim, and it was clearly an important symbol of the nation at that time.

I wonder if the etrog came to be one of the four species (arba’a minim) because it had a particular quality that the rabbis wanted to add to the ritual – and what that quality might be.

By the time of the Mishnah (2nd Century CE) the etrog is part of the group of the four species. While it is practically inedible in its raw state, it does have a particularly lovely smell should you scratch the skin a little with your nail. The old joke usually told about Israelis being like the sabra fruit, that they might be prickly and unedifying on the bush, but deliciously sweet when opened, is maybe better designed for the etrog – they appear to be firm dense and unyielding, but the smell of them when touched is exquisite. They also have another quality – leave most fruits and they will soften and rot. The etrog will generally wither and harden, but not rot, and the smell continues for a long time – not for nothing are they a favourite to make as the spice box for havdalah.

There are midrashim that talk about the four species describing the different people in a community – the date palm has taste but no smell, and describes the one who knows much torah but does not do good deeds. The myrtle has smell but no taste, the one who does good deeds but knows little Torah. The willow has no taste or smell – denoting the person who neither learns Torah nor does good deeds; and the Etrog has both taste  and smell – the ideal. We put them together in our sukkot ritual waving of the arba’a minim – because every community has people of each kind, and every community needs people of each kind.

There is a midrash that the four species resemble a whole person – the willow leaves look like lips, the myrtle leaves look like eyes, the palm is the spine and the etrog – the etrog is the heart. Again, we need to use our  whole bodies when we worship.

But the midrash I like best, and the one I have the feeling was the reason for the Etrog joining the branches of the other trees, is that each of the four species is a distinct botanical type, each quite different from the other.

The palm trees love hot and dry climatic conditions – they don’t fruit well in the humid coastal areas, but like to be in dryer, desert conditions. And so the palm branch represents the desert areas of the Land of Israel.

The myrtle thrives best in the colder and mountainous regions of the northern parts of the Land, and the willow needs to be in the areas close to the yearlong streams of water ; The etrog does best in the irrigated land of the lower coastal areas and the valleys.

The Land of Israel, small as it is, is a land of micro climates, and each one of the arba’a minim represents a different climate and so a different part of the Land. Sukkot is par excellence the festival of agriculture, of the awareness of the need for rain to fall appropriately and in timely fashion. The three trees named are, to a gardener’s eye, representative of three quite different climates. The olive is no such sensitive plant, so a different plant should be chosen to represent the carefully farmed areas of the land.

The shaking of the Lulav, the connection with harvest and agriculture, the pouring of water at Simchat Beit HaSho’eva – this is a festival both of thanksgiving and of request for the coming year. The shivering of the palm leaves as one shakes the lulav sound like the rain pattering onto the ground. What good would it be if one part of the land is well irrigated if another part suffers drought or floods?

As we become ever more aware about the problems of the changing climate – the hurricanes, the floods, the delayed monsoons, the scorching drying sun which allows fires to spread so quickly – we begin to realise what an interconnected world we live in, that what happens in one part of the world impacts upon us all.

So when we pick up the four species, let’s focus on the lesson it give us, in particular the substation of the etrog for the olive, to remind us that we are all inhabitants of the same earth, all individual parts of a greater whole, and lets do what we can to protect the earth, the crops, the rivers and the deserts, the frozen areas of the poles and on the mountains, the glaciers and the seas… Sukkot is all about how we respect water, Mayim Hayim, the giver and supporter of life.. and how we respect the world and its Creator.

 

Il frutto dell’albero di bell’aspetto – il curioso caso dell’Etrog: o “cosa ha a che fare l’Etrog con il popolo ebraico e la terra d’Israele”.

Di rav Sylvia Rothschild, pubblicato il 13 ottobre 2019

Sukkot fa parte delle shalosh regalim, una delle tre feste di pellegrinaggio, per cui la Bibbia ci dice che il popolo debba giungere a Gerusalemme con i prodotti dei propri raccolti, per ringraziare Dio.

In Levitico 23, si legge “…Il quindicesimo giorno dello stesso settimo mese è la festa di Sukkot, (delle capanne), in onore del  Signore, che dura sette giorni…. Ma il quindicesimo giorno del settimo mese, quando raccoglierete i prodotti della terra, festeggerete la festa del Signore per sette giorni; nel primo giorno vi sarà astensione dal lavoro e nell’ottavo giorno vi sarà astensione dal lavoro. E vi prenderete il primo giorno un frutto di bell’aspetto, rami di palme e rami dell’albero della mortella e rami di salice …. Nelle capanne risiederete per sette giorni …. affinché sappiano le vostre generazioni che in capanne ho fatto stare i figli di Israele quando li ho tratti dalla terra d’Egitto … ”

Questo testo su Sukkot, in maniera affascinante, ci offre due ragioni per la sua celebrazione: una agricola, con i festeggiamenti per il raccolto, e una teologica, a ricordarci la nostra dipendenza da Dio durante (e dopo) l’esodo dall’Egitto.

Effettivamente, Sukkot viene menzionata nella Bibbia in diversi modi. Il libro dell’Esodo la chiama ripetutamente Chag HaAsif , “la festa del raccolto”; in Levitico e Deuteronomio viene indicata come Chag HaSukkot, “la festa delle capanne”; nel Libro dei Re, nelle Cronache e in Ezechiele è chiamata semplicemente HeChag, “LA festa”; infine in Levitico, nel testo sopracitato, la si chiama “Chag Adonai, la festa di Dio”. Le prime due denominazioni sono chiaramente di origine agricola: fanno riferimento all’atto del raccogliere e del vivere in capanne nei campi durante la stagione del raccolto e le nascite del bestiame. La terza e la quarta sono in origine più chiaramente più teologico-nazionali. Per la tradizione rabbinica resta semplicemente HeChag, la festa per eccellenza. E per essa i rabbini hanno ancora un altro nome, sempre derivante dal pezzo del Levitico citato: Z’man Simchateinu, il momento della nostra gioia.

In cosa consiste questa gioia? Perché abbiamo l’abbondanza dell’autunno, prima che inizi la durezza dell’inverno? Perché non solo affrontiamo la nostra vulnerabilità mentre viviamo e lavoriamo la terra, ma perché siamo anche sicuri nella protezione di Dio?

Nel Talmud (Sukkà, 11b) c’è una discussione: rabbi Eliezer e rabbi Akiva stanno cercando di capire il versetto “Che le tue generazioni sapranno che ho fatto vivere i Figli di Israele in capanne [sukkot] quando li ho portati dalla terra di Egitto…” rabbi Akiva interpreta, alla lettera, che si tratti di capanne, in senso fisico, mentre rabbi Eliezer le intende come metafora: queste capanne sono le nuvole di gloria discese da Dio per proteggere gli Ebrei erranti nel deserto. Seguendo rabbi Eliezer, potremmo dire che la misericordia di Dio ci protegge, in particolare se vedessimo il contesto di Sukkot come parte del complesso delle feste autunnali, allora queste nuvole continuano a nascondere il nostro peccato e ci danno persino più tempo per pentirci e fare ritorno a un Dio misericordioso. Esiste una tradizione secondo cui si può continuare a fare il lavoro introspettivo di Elul, Rosh Hashanà e Yom Kippur fino all’ultimo giorno di Sukkot,  Hoshanà Rabbà, questa interpretazione metaforica della Sukkà è un modo di darci del tempo con un Dio paziente e misericordioso che attende di offrirci la sua protezione, ed è sicuramente qualcosa per cui essere felici.

Il testo in Levitico, oltre a raccontarci le ragioni sia agricole che teologiche e nazionaliste di questa festa, e a darci il comando di rallegrarci davanti a Dio (nessun’altra festa ha questo comandamento), ci dice di prendere quattro piante diverse, solo due delle quali, la palma e il salice, vengono nominate. Le altre, il frutto dell’albero di bell’aspetto e i rami di alberi frondosi, richiedono una certa interpretazione.

Il Libro di Nehemia descrive un evento accaduto alla data di Rosh Hashanà durante il primo periodo del Secondo Tempio. Ci viene detto che il popolo si radunò come un tutt’uno nell’ampio spazio che si trovava davanti alla porta dell’acqua a Gerusalemme; che parlarono a Esdra, lo scriba, per portare il libro della Legge di Mosè, che Dio aveva comandato a Israele. Più avanti nello stesso capitolo troviamo: “Allora trovarono scritto nella legge che il Signore aveva dato per mezzo di Mosè che i figli di Israele dovevano abitare in capanne durante la festa del settimo mese. Così pubblicarono in tutte le loro città e a Gerusalemme questo bando: “andate in montagna e protatene rami d’ulivo, d’olivastro, di mirto, di palma, e dell’albero folto, per farne capanne, come è scritto”. Il popolo ci andò: portarono a casa rami e si fecero capanne, ognuno sul suo tetto, nei loro cortili, , nei cortili del Tempio, sulla piazza della porta delle Acque e su quella della porta d’Efraim. Tuta l’adunanza, quelli che erano tornati dalla cattività, fecero così capanne e vi abitarono. Dal tempo di Giosuè figlio di Nun, fino a quel giorno, i figli d’Israele non avevano celebrato così: la gioia fu grandissima. Ezra diede lettura alla Legge di Dio ogni giorno, dal primo all’ultimo,. La festa si celebrò per sette giorni; l’ottavo giorno, ci fu solenne adunanza, come prescritto. (Neh. 8.14-17)

Questa è chiaramente una descrizione di Sukkot, eppure non c’è l’etrog, piuttosto i rami d’ulivo e olivastro, e l’albero frondoso qui è chiamato mirto. Non c’è nemmeno menzione, a differenza del passaggio nel Levitico, del mettere insieme le quattro specie e con esse porre in atto un rituale. In effetti è chiaro al popolo dei tempi di Nehemia che questi rami sono per la creazione di capanne/sukkot, e questo si riflette anche in una discussione talmudica (BT Sukkà 36b – 37a), in cui rabbi Meir afferma che una sukkà può essere costruita con qualsiasi materiale, mentre il rabbi Judah, basandosi sulla descrizione del Libro di Nehemia, afferma che può essere costruita solo con il legno delle quattro specie.

Sembra anche che il frutto dell’albero di bell’aspetto dovrebbe, per diritto, essere l’ulivo. Era e rimane un punto fermo nell’agricoltura della regione, l’olio era usato sia come cibo che come combustibile per l’illuminazione, la medicina e il rituale religioso. E l’oliva stessa viene raccolta in questo periodo. Quando si considera l’affermazione di Geremia (11:16) “Il Signore ti aveva chiamato ulivo fiorente, adorno di magnifici frutti.” Leggendo ciò sembrerebbe ovvio che il frutto dell’albero di bell’aspetto debba essere l’oliva.

Eppure abbiamo questo frutto piuttosto ambiguo: l’etrog, il cedro. Perché?

Il primo testo probabilmente è quello del Targum Onkelos del I-II secolo, la prima traduzione della Bibbia in aramaico, che ha l’uso di interpretare il testo e che scrive chiaramente “il frutto dell’albero del cedro”. Anche Giuseppe Flavio (storico ebreo romano del I secolo) descrive l’uso del cedro quando descrive la festa. Il Talmud (TB Sukkot 34a) racconta la storia del re e sommo sacerdote asmoneo Alessandro Ianneo (103-76 a.C.), che non rispettava il rituale di Simchat Beit HaSho’eva (la cerimonia della libagione dell’acqua) e fu colpito con dei cedri da dei devoti arrabbiati. Le monete asmonee del periodo recano dei cedri, che evidentemente erano un simbolo importante della nazione in quel momento.

Mi chiedo se l’etrog sia diventato una delle quattro specie (arba’a minim) a causa di una qualità particolare che i rabbini volevano aggiungere al rituale, e quale potrebbe essere stata questa caratteristica.

Al tempo della Mishnà (II secolo d.C.) il cedro fa parte del gruppo delle quattro specie. Mentre è praticamente immangiabile allo stato grezzo, ha un odore particolarmente gradevole se gli si graffia la buccia con l’unghia. Un vecchio detto comune riportava che gli israeliani sono come il frutto del sabra, il fico d’india, che potrebbero essere spinosi e poco attraenti sul cespuglio, ma deliziosamente dolci quando aperti, forse la similitudine si adatterebbe meglio al frutto del cedro: sembra essere rigido e irremovibile, ma il suo profumo, quando viene toccato, è squisito. Hanno anche un’altra qualità: la maggior parte dei frutti lasciati sull’albero si ammorbidisce e marcisce, il cedro invece appassisce e si indurisce, ma non marcisce, e l’odore continuerà a lungo: non per niente è uno dei frutti più utilizzati  per  preferiti da utilizzare nella scatola delle spezie per l’Havdalà.

Secondo alcuni midrashim, le quattro specie descrivono le diverse persone di una comunità: la palma da dattero ha sapore ma non profumo, quindi descrive la persona che conosce la Torà, ma non compie buone azioni. Il mirto ha profumo ma non ha sapore, corrisponde a colui che compie buone azioni ma conosce poco la Torà. Il salice non ha sapore o profumo e denota la persona che non impara la Tora né fa buone azioni; infine l’Etrog ha sia sapore che profumo: l’ideale. Uniamo gli arba’a minim, le quattro specie, nel nostro rituale di Sukkot perché in ogni comunità ci sono persone di ciascun tipo e perché ogni comunità ha bisogno di persone di ciascun tipo.

In un altro midrash le quattro specie vengono paragonate a una figura umana: le foglie del salice sembrano labbra, le foglie di mirto sembrano occhi, la palma è la spina dorsale e l’etrog… il cedro è il cuore. Nuovamente, abbiamo bisogno di usare tutto il nostro corpo quando preghiamo.

Ma il midrash che preferisco, e che ho la sensazione stia stato il motivo dell’aggiunta del cedro ai rami degli altri alberi, è che ciascuna delle quattro specie è un tipo botanico distinto, ognuna abbastanza diversa dall’altra.

Le palme amano un clima caldo e secco: non producono buoni frutti nelle zone costiere umide, ma necessitano di condizioni più asciutte e desertiche. E così il ramo di palma rappresenta le aree desertiche della Terra di Israele.

Il mirto prospera meglio nelle regioni più fredde e montuose delle parti settentrionali della Terra e il salice ha bisogno di stare vicino a un corso d’acqua per tutto l’anno; L’etrog rende meglio nelle terre irrigate delle zone costiere inferiori e delle valli.

La Terra di Israele, per quanto piccola, è connotata da microclimi, e ognuno degli arba’a minim rappresenta un clima diverso e quindi una parte diversa della Terra. Sukkot è per eccellenza la festa dell’agricoltura, della consapevolezza della necessità che la pioggia cada in modo appropriato e tempestivo. I tre alberi nominati sono, per un giardiniere, rappresentativi di tre climi piuttosto diversi. L’ulivo non è una pianta così sensibile, così andrebbe scelta una pianta differente per rappresentare le aree della Terra coltivate con cura.

Lo scuotimento del Lulav, il legame con il raccolto e l’agricoltura, l’acqua di Simchat Beit HaSho’eva: questa è una festa di ringraziamento e di richiesta per il prossimo anno. Il tremolio delle foglie di palma mentre si agita il Lulav suona come la pioggia che batte sul terreno. Dove sarebbe il vantaggio se una parte del terreno fosse ben irrigata e un’altra parte soffrisse di siccità o inondazioni?

Man mano che diventiamo sempre più consapevoli dei problemi del cambiamento climatico, degli uragani, delle inondazioni, dei monsoni in ritardo, del sole cocente che inaridisce e consente agli incendi di diffondersi così rapidamente, iniziamo a renderci conto in che mondo interconnesso viviamo, tanto che se qualcosa accade in una parte del mondo avrà un impatto su tutti noi.

Quindi quando raccogliamo le quattro specie, concentriamoci sulla lezione che ci dà, in particolare la sostituzione dell’ulivo con il cedro, per ricordarci che siamo tutti abitanti della stessa terra, siamo le singole parti di un tutto più grande, e facciamo ciò che possiamo per proteggere la terra, i raccolti, i fiumi e i deserti, le aree ghiacciate dei poli e sulle montagne, i ghiacciai e i mari …

Il significato di Sukkot riguarda completamente il modo in cui rispettiamo l’acqua, mayim hayim, elemento che dona e sostiene la vita, e in come rispettiamo il mondo e il suo Creatore.

 

Traduzione dall’inglese di Eva Mangialajo Rantzer

 

Sukkot: the people, the land, the relationships that connect us

Sukkot is one of the three pilgrimage festivals mandated in Bible, forming a particular cycle of harvest celebrations with Pesach and Shavuot, yet unlike them in the passage in Leviticus which details the festivals, Sukkot is given an extra dimension – it is not only an agricultural celebration but also one that reminds us of the foundational story of our people.  “The fifteenth day of this seventh month, when you have gathered in the fruits of the land, you will keep the feast of the Eternal seven days …And you shall take for yourselves on the first day the fruit of the tree (hadar), branches of palm trees, and the boughs of thick leaved trees, and willows of the brook and rejoice before the Eternal .. You shall dwell in booths seven days…that your generations may know that I made the children of Israel to dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt…”  Lev 23:34-43

This explicit link to the exodus, to the people’s vulnerability and dependence on God, brings a powerful richness to our celebration. Unlike the Spring/Summer celebrations of Pesach and Shavuot, with hope and new life bursting forth, the autumnal setting of Sukkot brings intimations of the dark, hard winter days ahead, the leafless trees, the sleeping earth, a quasi-death experience. Sukkot comes six months after Pesach, and it builds and develops the themes of that festival. Unlike the intense dramatic ‘high’ of the plagues and our leaving slavery in Egypt that Pesach provides, Sukkot marks the “ordinary and everyday” struggle to stay alive and safe. It reminds us that our freedoms are fragile, that even basic necessities are not automatically given to us, that life is made up of routine hard graft and of effortful striving. And in this quotidian mundane activity, God is also present, even if less obvious to us.

Sukkot is a festival of autumnal abundance in preparation for months of wintertime scarcity. But at the same time it draws our attention to our two most basic frailties, our need for water (for ourselves and our crops) and for shelter.  The sukkah itself represents the fragility of our homes, with the “s’chach” open to the skies even as the abundant fruit is hanging from it, and the arba’a minim shaken as an almost magical ceremonial to bring rain in the right season.

The four components, held together as they are shaken, are a fascinating concatenation of concepts. Biblically mandated, the palm, myrtle, willow and etrog can represent such a complexity of characteristics. One midrash suggests that together they represent the whole community, all of whom have value and are included in the ritual – the hadar fruit, the etrog, has taste (Torah) and aroma (Mitzvot); the palm has tasty fruit but no smell, (ie represents those who have torah but no good deeds); the myrtle leaves smell wonderful but it has no fruit (mitzvot but no torah), and the willow has neither taste nor smell (no torah and no mitzvot). Every community has people with each of these categories. When we pray before God, each person is important.

Another view is that each one represents a different part of the land of Israel- so the palm tree which loves a hot dry climate grows well in desert areas, the myrtle thrives in the cooler mountains regions, the willows grow only near the streams and waterways that flow all year, and the etrog is most comfortable in the lower coastal areas and the valleys. Israel has a series of microclimates, each represented here.

Or one can understand the arba minim to represent our history from Egypt to settlement: so the lulav would represent wandering in the desert, the willow- crossing the Jordan, the myrtle our settling in the mountains and the etrog the establishment of orchards.

And there is also a midrash that the arba’a minim represents each human being – the palm being the spine, the myrtle the eyes, the willow the lips and the etrog the heart, and we come in supplication to God because we understand how fragile our existence truly is.

Whichever symbolism resonates, the core truth is the same. We are in this world together, our survival is not guaranteed, we need to work together and support each other even as we celebrate a plentiful harvest.  We need to be aware of scarcity, that we can all be affected, that only by sharing and by working together can we create a more harmonious world.

Sukkot is given four names in bible: “Chag ha’Asif”[i] – the festival of ingathering; “Chag ha’Sukkot”[ii] – the Festival of Booths; He’Chag[iii] – THE festival; and “Chag l’Adonai”[iv] the Festival of the Eternal. Of these, the third name – the festival par excellence – gives us most pause for thought, for it reminds us that Sukkot is the most important festival.

Why is this? The symbols of the festival remind us that EVERY person in our society is important; each one needs the dignity of their own home and the security of knowing that basic needs will be met; (Talmud Berachot 57b tells us a home of one’s own increases self-esteem and dignity). They remind us that we are all journeying, that while we may have the illusion of a stable rooted existence, the world turns and our fortunes can turn with it. They remind us that we all have responsibility for the environment and for how we treat our world, that damage to our environment and changes to our climate affects us all. They remind us that we are dependent on factors that are beyond our control. Yet with all of this unsettling symbolism, the rabbis call this festival “z’man simchateinu”, the time of our rejoicing, based upon the verses in Leviticus.  Why does Sukkot make us so happy, this festival of wandering and of fragility? I think because it reminds us of our human commonality and the power of human community. We are connected to God and we are connected to our land, we are connected to our foundational stories and to our historic experiences, but for any of this to truly matter, we must be connected to each other.

[i] Exodus 23:16; exodus 34:22

[ii] Leviticus 23.34; Deuteronomy 16:13,16

[iii] Ezekiel 45, 25, 1 Kings 8, 2, Ezekiel 45, 25 and 2 Chronicles 7, 8

[iv] Leviticus 23:39

(written for the “Judaism in 1000 words” section of Movement for Reform Judaism website)

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.

Beshallach/ Shabbat Shira: the Song of Miriam

“And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances. And Miriam sang to them: Sing ye to the Eternal for God is highly exalted: the horse and its rider God has thrown into the sea.”

Shabbat Shira, the Sabbath of Song, is named for the Song at/of the Sea (Shirat haYam) and this name takes precedence over the usual format of the first important word giving the title to the week. Shirat haYam was the song of victory sung by the Israelite slaves after they had successfully crossed the Reed Sea, and the pursuing Egyptians had drowned there following the miraculous opening and then closing of the waves to allow the Israelites safe passage but not the heavily armed Egyptians.

Along with the poem in Deuteronomy (Ha’azinu) it bookends the story of Moses and the people of Israel as they leave Egyptian slavery and journey through the wilderness to arrive at the edge of the promised land, and tradition ascribes its authorship to Moses.

But tucked into the text a little way down we are introduced for the first time by name to Miriam, described as “Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron” and she takes a drum in her hand and leads the women in singing and dancing and drumming to celebrate the victory. And while apparently singing the same first line, Moses and the children of Israel sing “I will sing to the Eternal, for God is highly exalted” while Miriam sings “Sing to the Eternal, for God is highly exalted”. She uses the imperative version, whereas Moses and the Israelites use the personal pronoun.

The order of the text makes us read this as the song of Moses, but is there a clue in the wording of the text to tell us that this is the song of Miriam?

In the fragments of text found in Qumran (known as the Dead Sea Scrolls) we find a tantalising addition. Just as in the biblical text we find that “Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron took a timbrel in her hand and led the women out with her with timbrels and dancing”, but then there is a break, and then the fragments of seven lines NOT found in the biblical text, followed by the narrative being picked up as the biblical verse 15:22 where Moses leads the Israelites away from the Reed Sea into the desert, and the people find no water until arriving at Marah they find undrinkably bitter (Marah) water.

Is the Qumran text a gloss on the biblical poem of Moses, answering the question of what Miriam might have sung and paralleling other songs of victory or was it the original text which took away words from Miriam and the women in order to give them to Moses and the Israelites? We know that women sang songs of victory after battles – Deborah is a prime example whose song is recorded (Judges 5), and Jephthah’s daughter (Judges 11:34) comes out with timbrel and dancing on his return home. Unnamed women come out dancing and singing with their timbrels when David returns having defeated the Philistines (1Sam 18:6-7) celebrating his success and humiliating King Saul’s record. Hannah (1Sam:2) sings when she achieves her goal of a child, and the late book Judith has her sing in the final chapter, having beheaded Holofernes…

So why not Miriam and the women singing their song? Miriam the prophetess was also Miriam the musician and song leader. Her voice and her words deserve to be heard and to be recognised.

miriams timbrel

Whatever the reason for the biblical canon to contain just the remnant of her singing with the women, apparently echoing the words of Moses and the men, so that tradition could claim her as the song leader for the women only, I think there are enough clues left for us to give her the power and place she deserves.

The first place that Moses leads the Israelites to is called by the narrator “Marah” , after the bitter and undrinkable water found there and there is much murmuring against Moses until on God’s instructions he finds a tree whose wood will sweeten the water. Moses uses this as a teaching aid to remind the people that God is their healer, and then they move on to Elim where there are twelve good water sources and seventy palm trees. Is this a veiled reference to Miriam, whose name is impossible to translate with certainty but which is often understood as coming from “Mar – yam – bitter – water/sea”? Are the people murmuring because of Miriam and her treatment by Moses that he appropriated her rightful role? And are they pacified by the oasis of plenty represented by 12 springs and seventy palm trees and so forget their indignation?

But more intriguing I think is the possibility that Miriam’s name is not derived from bitterness MRH) but comes from a rarely used root MRR to mean a flow of water, drops of water or a watercourse. In which case her name would mean the flowing of water or the directing of water – something that would come to fruition not only in the midrashic idea that wherever Miriam was there was water for the Israelites in the desert (which comes from the drought that is the first reported event after her death), but from this text about the Reed Sea, which changed direction, flowed differently and intentionally while the Israelites crossed it. The name Miriam, introduced exactly here, is I think a clue to her purpose –  we are already explicitly told that she is a prophetess, she has real and intentional meaning and understanding – it is Miriam who causes the sea to part and the miraculous redemption of the fugitive people. Her name, hiding in full view, tells us exactly that.

So the Song here attributed to Moses yet called slightly confusingly Shirat HaYam , the Song of (or at) the Sea (a name first recorded in the 2nd Century in Talmud Yerushalmi), might actually have been Shirat MirYam, the song of Miriam. And how powerfully that simple change could have affected our understanding of our foundational texts and shaped the hearing of the voices of women in our tradition.

Drop by drop as we look again at the texts, we who see Miriam as a role model, who see ourselves reflected in her life as prophetess, sister, organiser, carer for children, provider of life giving water/nourishment, song leader, drummer and dancer , as well as a hard worker behind the scenes who protested injustice done to others and the arrogating of power to the male leadership – we need to take notice of the effect that the flow of water can have – it can wear away the hardest rock. Drop by determined drop we take up her mantle and raise our voices in song and in challenge and in prophecy, and hope that this time the words will not disappear from the canon.

(Photo of Miriam’s timbrel and the reeds in Egypt/water of the Reed Sea from an embroidered Torah Wimple made by Caroline and Naomi Ingram for the author)