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Chukat 5778 — "The Miriam of the Moment"

June 22, 2018

Few substances are as precious in Torah as water.  Of course, taking place in the arid landscape of the Middle East, it’s hardly a surprise.  But over the course of the five books, water seems to take on an almost mystical quality.  It is treasured and desired, it is scarce and valuable, it engenders life and — occasionally — deals death. 

It is death that we consider this week, in parashat Chukat.  The death of Moses’ dream to see the Promised Land, when he defies God and strikes a water-giving stone — twice — rather than speak to it.

We remember, too, the physical death of Miriam the prophet, sister to Aaron and Moses.  Miriam, a woman intimately connected to water through the course of her entire existence.

Her name is of the water.  There are different understandings of its etymology, but “Miriam” is possibly related to mar-yam.  The “bitterness of the Sea.”  The oldest of Yocheved and Amram’s children, Miriam is born at the beginning of Pharaoh’s bitter persecution orders, birthed on the shores of the Nile River.

It is in that very Nile where, in the first chapter of Exodus, in the first chapter of Miriam’s story, a mad and wicked Pharaoh wants all Hebrew infant boys drowned. 

The Talmud teaches that, given Pharaoh’s decree, Amram decides that the Hebrews should no longer have any babies.  And — further — that they should no longer even be married. 

Miriam challenges her father, arguing passionately, “Your decree is harsher than Pharaoh’s!  Pharaoh’s decree kills the boys.  Yours kills the girls as well!”[1]

Persuaded by their daughter Miriam, Amram and Yocheved have another son.  It is only because of Miriam’s strength of will and wise words that he is born.

It is not the last time that she ensures his survival.  As a last resort, to save him from Pharaoh’s murder machine, Moses’ mother endures the excruciating pain of sending Moses away as a child refugee.  And as Yocheved puts her son in history’s most famous basket, it is Miriam who watches him to ensure his safety — walking along the banks of the Nile, the water that threatened to be a place of the Hebrews’ death, now a source of life.

And when the Israelites escape Egyptian bondage – exchanging the death water of the Nile to the birth waters of the Red Sea — it is Miriam again at the waterside, leading the women in song. 

And as the Israelites travel, they are sustained by Be’er Miryam, Miriam’s Well — a mystical rock that accompanied the Jewish people on their wanderings, providing fresh water in the desert wasteland.

But we lose Miriam this week.  And, as if on cue, Moses loses himself.

Shimu-na ha-morim!  “Listen up, you rebels!,” Moses shouts at the kvetchy Israelites.  “Should we get water out of this rock for you??”[2] “Moses called them ha-morim, ‘rebels,’” says a Midrash.  “Or, as in the Greek, ‘morons.’”

What’s happened to Moses?  He’s famously punished for this outbust, of course, and prohibited from entering the Promised Land.  The reason for the severity of the punishment?  Depends who you ask.  Rashi says it’s because he didn’t trust God.  The Rambam says his sin was yelling at the people and calling them names — just for wanting water.

It’s odd, though, for Moses to act so put-upon and say, “should we get you water?”  After all, with one exception in the book of Exodus, he seemingly hasn’t had to do it.

It’s been Miriam.  All these years.

And now, now that she’s gone, Moses is at a loss.

Judging Moses favorably, we could say that the mention of water triggers a grief response over Miriam, his outburst a paroxysm of grief.

But it has been, sadly, all too common for men to take for granted the contributions of woman, as long as they didn’t have to be troubled with them — until, of course, it’s too late.

As long as Miriam lived, she was Miriam the life-giver, Miriam the savior, Miriam the sustainer.  Without Miriam, there is no Moses.  And maybe you and I work in Egypt instead of Acton, still slaves to Pharaoh.

And, further, it’s occurred to me — as long as we’re talking about Pharaohs, who are the Jews who have been counted to fight against the Pharaohs of each age?  Is it not, invariably, women?  Emma Lazarus and Emma Goldman?  Clara Lemlich and Rose Schneiderman and Hannah Szenesh? 

And, in our day, who stands by the Nile to safeguard the refugee kids, who demands justice for today’s baby Moses?  In every Jewish social justice organization, you will find women.  Ruth Messinger at AJWS, Stosh Cotler and Susan Lubeck at Bend the Arc, Rabbis Jill Jacobs and Rachel Kahn-Troster and Salem Pearce at T’ruah, Rabbi Rachel Grant-Meyer at the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society.

Here in Massachusetts?  First Sheila Decter and now Cindy Rowe at JALSA, Rabbi Barbara Penzner and Marya Axner at the New England Jewish Labor Committee, Rabbi Toba Spitzer as the clear moral voice heading up the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis.

And here?  Here at Beth Elohim?  Who is spearheading Na’asah, demanding that we act?  Ann Budner and Barbara Michaelsen, Sue Abrams and Sarah Coletti and Marjie Cahn.

All of them Miriams, all of them knee-deep in the water, all of them refusing to let hope drown in despair, reaching a hand into the river, rescuing our children — all our children — rescuing principle and integrity from the moral quagmire of this moment.

Let us not be Moses, forgetting to remember who brought us here.  Let us look to Miriam, even now, as the water rises.  In a time of agony and heartbreak and unspeakable sadness, let us be lifted in our hearts and do the work that needs doing.  Let us learn from all the Miriams in our world, in our community, joining together to march together.

Raising up life from the living waters.

[1] Sotah 12a

[2] Numbers 20:10

Sun, May 29 2022 28 Iyyar 5782