As we approach the end of the book of Bamidbar ("In the Wilderness)/the book of Numbers, we witness the death of two iconic leaders: Moses' sister, Miriam and Moses' brother, Aaron. The accounts of the deaths of these siblings are stark and thought-provoking. Of Miriam we read: "The Israelites arrived in a body at the wilderness of Zin on the first new moon, and the people stayed at Kadesh. Miriam died there and was buried there." (Bamidbar/Numbers 20:1)
Verse 2 takes us to a new subject: "The community was without water, and they joined against Moses and Aaron."
On the surface, it seems as though Miriam's death goes unmarked, she is buried and we move on to the crisis of water. The classic commentators on this passage were moved to associate these two passages and concluded that the people were without water as a result of Miriam's demise, that a well would magically appear wherever Miriam was situated, so that the people always had water as long as Miriam lived. Miriam's Well became a midrashic symbol enriching and entrenching the image of Miriam as the spiritual leader of the people who nourished their souls through her special gifts of song and of water.
Moses and Aaron are depicted as engaged in a defensive position coping with the anger and fear of their parched Israelite charges. The brothers consult with God at the Tent of Meeting and God instructs them:
8 "You and your brother Aaron take the rod and assemble the community, and before their very eyes order the rock to yield its water. Thus you shall produce water for them from the rock and provide drink for the congregation and their beasts."
9 Moses took the rod from before the Lord, as He had commanded him. 10 Moses and Aaron assembled the congregation in front of the rock; and he said to them, "Listen, you rebels, shall we get water for you out of this rock?" 11 And Moses raised his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod. Out came copious water, and the community and their beasts drank.
Moses does indeed produce water from the rock, but instead of "ordering the rock" as God instructed, Moses "struck the rock twice with his rod." Moses seems to have lost his composure . . . and I think we are given a glimpse of the very human Moses in this moment.
Moses is usually very conscientious about following God's instruction to the letter: in Moses' approach to the Israelites, in his approaches to Pharoah, in the management of the plagues and in orchestrating the Israelite departure from Egypt, Moses did not put his "personal spin" on anything explicitly described by God.
But in this moment, Moses strikes, rather than instructs, the rock that will produce water.
I see Moses in mourning for his sister, Miriam, in this moment: in his grief and in the anger over his loss (an emotion many of us experience after the death of a loved one), in the intensity of having to lead while still mourning, Moses strikes out. The circumstances of this incident could only have deepened his grief: his sister, Miriam, who watched over him when he was consigned to water as an infant; his sister, Miriam, who provided water for the people in the wilderness . . . it is due to her death that he must now produce water himself: he strikes out in grief and anger instead of maintaining his facade of measured, precise leader and obedient servant of God.
Perhaps if Moses were permitted the seven days of shiva which wraps us in an embracing cocoon of family, friends and community when we mourn, he would have been spared his outburst of grief. The wisdom of our tradition, guiding us to put aside even the most pressing professional obligations, abdicating our control of logistics while family, friends and community cook and clean for us . . . all of this is the tangible expression of the insight afforded to us by this moment of Torah: we need time to mourn, to contemplate our loss before we return to the pressing world of work and responsibilty. Even as he mourns and suffers, Moses is our teacher.
It is the organizing principle of Judaism that the roots of all that we believe, all that we understand about how the world works, all that we observe are to be found in the Torah. It is, therefore, a bit baffling, that one of the central enterprises of Jewish communal and individual practice sees so little expression in the Torah. This enterprise is, of course, prayer.
Most of the communication we do witness in the Torah is very personal . . . God in relevatory conversation with Abraham or Rebekah or Moses delivers a message and the human involved responds as he or she will, in a personal, not formulaic, manner.
When we humans pray, our prayers, whether personal or communal, express our thanks to God, our appreciation of God's unique role in our lives, or requests for divine help and support. Over the centuries, our communal Jewish prayer has become bound by both halachic (Jewish legal) and traditional (minhag/custom) criteria. When we pray as individuals, of course, we either turn to the inspiring words of the siddur/prayer book or we pray spontaneously from our own hearts and minds.
Moses' relationship with God, even among all the others to whom God expressed individual revelations, is unique. God and Moshe are intimates. They huddle in the Tent of Meeting with no one else around and confer about the people they are leading together through the wilderness. But in public, Moses conveys God's wishes, expectations, teachings to the people.
And then, in a unique moment, in this week's parashah, Moshe is moved to prayer. His sister, Miriam, (and his brother Aaron, as well) has defied Moses' own stature in the community and Moses' choice of a wife as well, and God has stricken Miriam with leprosy as a punishment for her public defiance. (For rather technical reasons relating to his role as High Priest, Aaron is spared)
Perhaps disturbed by the inequity of the punishment meted out to his sister, perhaps understanding the source of his siblings' frustrations, perhaps secure in his role and relationship with God, we sense no defensiveness in Moses. His sole response is the Torah's first prayer for healing:
אל נא רפא נא לה Eil na, r'fa na lah: Please God, Please heal her.
With these five words, Moses has introduced a whole new aspect of God's intervention in human affairs: God heals. These five words have inspired and supported . . . and, yes, disappointed, our people for millenia. We rejoice when our prayers for healing are "heard." When the ill recover. We are confused, bereft, angry when our ill do not recover . . . why was our prayer not "heard?!"
We may, along with the rabbinic sages of our preceding generations, contend that with the demise of the age of prophecy the dynamic of communication between humans and God changed forever. We are a generation that is not privileged to attain the intimacy with God that informed Moses' life. Therefore, we should not expect our prayers to be answered the same way his was.
But then, as we move forward in the Torah, we will see that one of Moses' most passionate pleas to God will not be "heard." Moses will not be allowed into the Land after all, but is expected to resign himself to dying in the wilderness.
Even Moses' prayers are not always "heard."
There is comfort and hope in Moses' prayer to God: אל נא רפא נא לה, Please God, Please heal her. When matters of life and death are out of our hands, we have no place to turn but to God, the Source of Life. When Moses stood and uttered his prayer on behalf of his rebellious sister, he could not know, could not assume, what God's response would be. When we utter our words of prayer for healing, we stand, as did Moses, not knowing whether our loved one will be healed or will be taken from us. But Moses, in his short prayer, has shown us how to hope, has provided us with one more action we can take on behalf of those we love.
And then, we, like Moses, are left with the knowledge that we are but human . . .
Parashat B'shallach Torah Reading: Exodus 13:17-17:16
The poetic readings in Exodus, our Torah reading, and in the Haftarah (the week's prophetic passage from the book of Judges) give the character to this unique Shabbat of Shabbat Shirah, the Sabbath of Poetry/Song (the same word in Hebrew).
One of the threads of these texts which is the varied role that women play in these two passages:
In the Sh'mot/Exodus passage, b'nei yisrael, the Israelites, are touched by God in the redemptive moment at the Sea of Reeds. The escaping Israelite slaves are caught between the Sea and the pursuing Egyptian army. The waters part, the Israelites pass through the Sea on dry land and the waters close over the Egyptian soldiers, chariots and horses. When the Israelites come to the realization that they have escaped slavery and the Egyptian army and that God has reached out to them in their most terrifying moment, they sing "the song at the sea," "shirat hayam."
I will sing to the Lord, mighty in majestic triumph.
Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.
Adonay is my strength and my might; God is my deliverance.
And Miriam is described as picking up a tambourine and leading the women in song. A spiritual leader inspiring everyone to give voice to their praise and gratitude.
In our haftarah, the judge, Deborah, summons the military leader Barak and conveys God command to bring forces against the Canaanite general, Sisera. Barak agrees only on the condition that Deborah accompany him on the campaign. As events unfold, Sisera is executed by Yael, a woman of a neighboring people (the Kenites) who sedates the general with warm milk and then drives a tent stake through his head (not a PG rated book, Judges!).
What is so fascinating is the variety of leadership roles these three women represent:
Miriam is the spiritual leader
Deborah is the political leader
Yael is the courageous warrior
A few millenia later, there are still a number of significant glass ceilings left for women to break through. It is a fascinating tension that the tradition that so lauded these three strong women has also discouraged women's leadership and participation in public venues. In the last forty years, much has happened in the Jewish world to change this . . . and many women are once again appreciated as leaders in a variety of roles, religious, political and even military, in the Jewish world.
Miriam, Deborah and Yael would be proud.
Rabbi Amy Levin
has been Torat Yisrael's rabbi since the summer of 2004 and serves as President of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Rhode Island.