Hebrew word of the week: Miriam


Thanks to Miriam, Moses’ sister, the prophetess and singer-dancer, as well as Mary, the mother of Jesus in the New Testament, this name (with its varieties) is one of the most common in the world. The name’s origin seems to be Egyptian, meaning “wished-for child,” derived from myr (“beloved”) or mr (“love”).

More traditional explanations (as by Rashi) include the Hebrew mar (“bitter”) or meri (“rebellion”), signifying the bitter slavery in Egypt and the wish to rebel.

Variations of the name include Maryam (Greek-Christian; Arabic-Islamic), Maria (Latin), Maliah (Hawaiian), Mary (English, Christian, but occasionally Jewish, as well), Mira/Miri/Mimi (Israeli), Mirele (Yiddish) and combinations such as Marianna, Mary Kay, etc. Even Mayim (best known for actress Mayim Bialik) is a variant of Miriam.

Yona Sabar is a professor of Hebrew and Aramaic in the department of Near Eastern Languages & Cultures at UCLA.

Four questions of Miriam


The name “Miriam” stems from the Hebrew word for “bitter” (mar), and Miriam has every right to feel that way. 

“Miriam who?” you might ask?

My point exactly.

I’m talking about the biblical Israelite heroine and prophetess, without whom Moses never would have been born and the Israelites would not have escaped Egypt, nor would they have survived 40 years in the desert. Miriam played an integral role in the story of Exodus, yet she’s all but ignored during Passover, the holiday that commemorates the Exodus. It’s not surprising, in a way; while Miriam’s feats, as depicted in the Torah and the Talmud, make her a woman worth celebrating, she is slighted, punished, ignored and underestimated for much of her life.   

In keeping with Passover’s emphasis on groupings of fours, I have compiled four questions (and answers) about Miriam’s life that reveal her courage, her spirit and her central role in the Exodus. You are encouraged to drink four glasses of Manischewitz as you read them. Or, better yet, ask a child (or four) to chant them aloud.

Did Miriam really save the Jewish people? 

Yes, and at the age of 6, no less. 

While one root of Miriam’s name is “bitter,” the other is the Hebrew word for “rebellion” (“meri”), and Miriam more than lived up to her name. According to the Talmud, Miriam was about 6 years old when Pharaoh commanded that all Israelite baby boys be killed at birth. In response to Pharaoh’s decree, Miriam’s father, Amram, divorced his wife, Yocheved, because he couldn’t bear the possibility of having a son who would be killed. Amram was the gadol hador — the most learned Jew of his generation in Egypt — and all of the Israelite men followed his lead and divorced their wives as well.

Miriam boldly rebuked her father for this action, saying: “Your act is worse than Pharaoh’s! He decreed that only male children not be permitted to live, but you decreed the same fate for both male and female children! … It is uncertain whether or not Pharaoh’s decree will be fulfilled. However, there is no doubt that your decree will indeed be fulfilled.” Amram’s decree that men divorce their wives would have led to the extinction of the Jewish people. Further, Miriam revealed a prophecy: that her mother would give birth to a son who would redeem the Israelites from bondage and lead them to freedom.

And Amram, the most learned and respected Jew of his generation, accepted his young daughter’s advice and acted accordingly. He remarried Yocheved, and all the other Israelite men remarried their respective wives. A little while later, a son was born: Moses.

When Yocheved could conceal Moses no longer, it was Miriam who kept watch as Moses was set adrift on the Nile in his basket. And when Pharaoh’s daughter retrieved Moses from the water, it was Miriam who boldly and cleverly offered to arrange for a Hebrew wet nurse to take care of the infant. In this way, Miriam arranged for Moses to be brought back to his mother, Yocheved, who nursed and raised her son.

And so, at the young age of 6, Miriam saved the Jewish people.

Did Miriam really choose music over food?

Yes. Who needs leavened bread when you’ve got tambourines?

We are told that we eat matzah on Passover because the Israelites were in such a hurry to leave Egypt that they didn’t even have time to let their bread rise before they departed. This might suggest that they were all caught unawares, but really, leavened bread was less of a priority than a full percussion band. Miriam knew the Exodus was coming — she had prophesied it — and she prepared for it not by telling the Israelites to stockpile bread, but rather by telling them to make tambourines and drums. Then, after the Israelites successfully crossed the Red Sea, she took out her tambourine and led the women in song and dance — a song you might recognize as the “Mi Chamocha.”

This is the first time Miriam is identified by name in the Torah. The story of Miriam’s rebellion against her father comes from the Talmud; up until this point in Exodus, we’ve heard only of an unnamed sister who kept watch over Moses on the Nile. Even here, however, Miriam’s relationship to Moses is not made explicit, and she is not connected to or identified as the unnamed sister who kept watch over Moses on the Nile. The Torah relates, “Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand, and then all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels.”

Aaron’s sister? Why not Aaron and Moses’ sister? Why, especially now, in the moments after  Moses’ greatest triumph as leader of the Jewish people? The Talmud contends that it is because Miriam’s major prophesy — that her mother would give birth to a son who would redeem Israel — took place before Moses’ birth, when she was the sister of only Aaron.  

Miriam’s song is notable not only because it provides the occasion for naming her, but also because the very activity she engaged in — singing and dancing in public — came to be banned by Orthodox Jews. Today, Orthodox women are not allowed to sing the “Mi Chamocha” — in synagogue or on the seashore or anywhere men might hear them, because Orthodox Judaism prohibits women from singing (and dancing, and wearing clothing that reveals their skin) in public because it might arouse men and distract them from their religious pursuits. It’s a distressingly contemporary issue: In January, an Israeli teenage girl was suspended from school because she appeared — and sang — on Israel’s version of the American TV show “The Voice.” 

 

What did Miriam do to deserve being struck with leprosy? 

She stood up to Moses, and was a woman.

In Deuteronomy, Miriam speaks out again, but this time she’s punished for it. 

This time, the object of her criticism is not her father, but her brother Moses. Still, the subject is the same: wives and conjugal obligations. 

Miriam learns that Moses has been neglecting his wife Zipporah: He has not had relations with her since he began communicating with God, and is behaving as though being a prophet means that the only person he’s beholden to is God. Miriam discusses the issue with Aaron, and they are in agreement: They reason that although they, too, are prophets, they haven’t distanced themselves from interpersonal relationships the way Moses has, and perhaps Moses ought to take a lesson from them.

The Torah relates that Miriam and Aaron questioned, “Is it but through Moses alone that the Lord has spoken? Has He not spoken to us as well?” God reacts swiftly: He calls a meeting with the three siblings, during which he chastises Miriam and Aaron for thinking that they are as important or close to God as Moses is, and informs them that he favors Moses over them. And, as punishment, Miriam is struck with leprosy.

Only Miriam. Not Aaron. Why is Miriam the one punished, when both Aaron and Miriam issued the same criticism? Some rabbis reasoned that it’s because Miriam initiated the conversation. Others reason that it’s because Aaron was the high priest, and a physical affliction would prevent him from doing his job. Either way, Miriam gets the short end of the stick.

Interestingly, although Miriam advocates the importance of conjugal and familial responsibilities and speaks out on behalf of wives and mothers, in the Torah, she is neither a wife nor a mother herself — a striking act of nonconformity. In the Talmud, the rabbis “fix” that “problem.” The Talmud claims that Miriam was married to Caleb, and with him, she gave birth to Hur, who valiantly tried to prevent the building of the Golden Calf. Later generation descendants of Miriam include Bezalel, the chief artisan of the Tabernacle, and King David. But Caleb and Miriam’s names never appear together in the Torah. Multiple women are identified as Caleb’s wife — none of them named Miriam. In one passage, Caleb’s wife is identified as being named Ephrath. In another passage, his wife is named Azubah. The Talmud says that Ephrath and Azubah are other names for Miriam. And, in yet another passage, someone named Ashur is said to have had two wives, Helah and Naarah. The Talmud identifies Ashur as Caleb and says that Helah and Naarah are both Miriam. 

Did anyone appreciate her gifts? 

Yes, but mostly after she died. Figures. 

During their 40 years of wandering in the desert, the Israelites were sustained by manna and water from a rock well that accompanied them on their travels. The Talmud identifies it as “Miriam’s Well.” 

Its water is said to have the taste of milk, wine and honey, the same flavors attributed in the Torah, therefore connecting the well not just with physical nourishment but also with spiritual nourishment.

When Miriam dies in the Book of Numbers, at the start of the 40th year of wandering, the water from the well dries up, and the Israelites are left without water. It is only after her death that the Israelites fully understand that Miriam is to thank for keeping them alive — for providing them with the water necessary for their survival in the desert. They rally together and plead with Moses and Aaron to renew the well’s waters — otherwise they will die. Moses and Aaron pray to God for guidance, and God tells Moses to take his rod, gather the Israelites into an assembly and speak to the rock to request its waters. But Moses does not heed God’s orders: Instead of using words (as Miriam, the gifted linguist, did), Moses takes his rod and strikes the rock. Nothing happens. So what does Moses do? He again strikes the rock with his rod. This time, water comes gushing forth, and the Israelites are able to quench their thirst. But directly afterward, Moses and Aaron receive the ultimate punishment: God rebukes them for not heeding his orders (he said speak to the rock, not hit it with your stick!) and informs them that because they have not been sufficiently faithful, after all this wandering, they will not be permitted to enter the Promised Land after all. 

In the late 1980s, a Boston Rosh Chodesh group inaugurated a new Passover seder ritual to honor Miriam: Miriam’s Cup, a cup of water, intended to symbolize the life-giving waters of Miriam’s Well.

Although I appreciate the sentiment, I have to ask: Really? A cup of water? Miriam deserves more than that. Elijah gets a glass of wine and a ceremonial opening of the door — and he hasn’t shown up to a seder yet! 

In the context of an evening when we are each commanded to drink four glasses of wine, and we enjoy a large spread of foods, a single cup of water pales in comparative significance. 

As opposed to setting aside and designating a cup of water in her honor, why not discuss how water is the primary component of absolutely everything on the seder table? Without water, there would be no food. There would be no people, no us. Similarly, without Miriam, there would be no Moses, and there would be no free Jews. There would be no us.

So it stands to reason that Miriam deserves a central role in the Passover seder. A role more central, and more vocal, than a cup of water.

To start with, how about a song?  

VIDEO: History will be made in Beijing


Director Oren Kaplan (Miriam & Shoshana hardcore gangstas) offers this 60-second ‘commercial’ for the 2008 Beijing Olympics

Calendar Girls Picks and Clicks July 26-August 1 — Rothman, Pressman live


SAT | JULY 26

(LIVE MUSIC)

First there was the mischievous musical duo of Miriam and Shoshana, who rocked YouTube and the Jewish community with their (un)orthodox rhymes. Now there’s the real-life Jewish musicians Chana Rothman and Stephanie Pressman, who offer Jewish soul instead of Jewish satire and inspire audience participation, not ” target=”_blank”>http://www.myspace.com/chanarothman; ” target=”_blank”>http://templebethdavid.org.

(THEATER)

Set in the tumultuous time of World War II, “Lost in Yonkers” manages to capture the ideals of that moment in history — the importance of family, love and survival — infused with humor. Called Neil Simon’s best play, “Yonkers” is a coming-of-age story within a dysfunctional family, focused on two young boys left by their father to live with their grandmother and aunt following the death of their mother. Sat. 8 p.m. Through Aug. 28. $20-$22. Reuben Cordova Theatre, 241 Moreno Drive, Beverly Hills. (310) 364-0535. ” target=”_blank”>https://www.plays411.net.

SUN | JULY 27

(DINNER PARTY)

Beverly Hills, Beethoven and Mozart are on the menu at this sizzlin’ summer soiree, where three virtuoso musicians will pluck their strings for ” target=”_blank”>http://www.americancinematheque.com.

(NATURE HIKE)

The Jewish Outdoor Adventures crew can help get you off the couch today. Enjoy breathtaking views as you and your fellow nature buffs conquer the seven-mile hike on Mount Islip — the San Gabriel Mountains’ pride and joy. Get out of your pajamas, turn off those summer reality TV shows that have been piling up on your Tivo and get some fresh air! Sun. 10:10 a.m. Pacific Crest Trail. Various carpools are available; call for more information. (310) 926-1344. JewishOutdoor@yahoo.com. Sam@jewishventuracounty.org.

TUE | JULY 29

(ART)

Allow yourself to be dazzled as six painters, who also happen to have been friends since the ’80s, come together to showcase their talent in “Personal Views.” Although they are all graduates of the Art Center in Pasadena, no two artists’ works are the same; they range from expressionism to cityscape, realism to iconic art. Curator and participating artist Pnina Ben Daniel described the work as “seductive and professional.” At the Finegood Gallery. Tue. 10 a.m.-9 p.m. (Mon.-Thu.), 10 a.m.-5 p.m. (Fri.), 11 a.m.-5 p.m. (Sun.). Through Aug. 10. Free. Bernard Milken Community Center, Finegood Art Gallery, 22622 Vanowen St., West Hills. (818) 464-3218.

WED | JULY 30

(ART)

Political, provocative and controversial, Russian-born artist Roman Genn was dubbed “the attack dog that [William F.] Buckley unleashed upon humanity” by the New York Review of Books. The political cartoonist and contributing editor to ” target=”_blank”>http://www.alpertjcc.org.

THU | JULY 31

(COMEDY)

You can never hear too many Jewish jokes, can you? Here’s a good one: What do you call steaks ordered by 10 Jews? A filet minyan. Get it? Well, get more when ATID’s young Jew-pros head to the “Kosher Comedy” fest at the Laugh Factory. The monthly series features some of Los Angeles’s best-known Jewish comedians who want to prove that their schtick don’t stink. If they don’t get you grinnin’ from ear to ear, there are always Woody Allen flicks at Blockbuster. Thu. 7 p.m. (VIP reception), 8 p.m. (show). $20, plus two-drink minimum. Laugh Factory, 8001 W. Sunset Blvd., Los Angeles. (323) 656-1336 ext. 1. info@chaicenter.org.

The voice of wisdom


Just like that, she was gone.

With no forewarning, Parashat Chukat tells us “Miriam died there and was buried there” (Numbers 20:1). “She died with a Divine kiss,” the Talmud says, and with that one kiss, the sole female voice in the Israelite camp was gone.

Who was Miriam? She is the only woman in the Torah who bears the title “Neviah” — prophetess. So who was she?

We first meet her anonymously, without any proper name. She is referred to as “his sister,” that is, the older sister of a little boy whose mother hid him in a basket on the Nile River. Once the mother placed the baby in the basket, “His sister stationed herself at a distance, to learn what would befall him” (Exodus 2:4). When Pharaoh’s daughter discovers the basket with the crying baby, “His sister said to Pharaoh’s daughter: ‘ Shall I go and get you a Hebrew nurse to suckle the child for you?'” (Exodus 2:7) Miriam is first described as a loving and caring sister, who saw to it that her baby brother Moses was protected and cared for.

We next encounter Miriam on the banks of the Red Sea, following the Song at the Sea. It is there that we first learn her name and title: “Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister…” (Exodus 15:20). It is strange, the Talmud remarks, that she is referred to as “Aaron’s sister”: “Was she only the sister of Aaron and not the sister of Moses?” Through this question, the Talmud actually probes a deeper question: Why was Miriam accorded the spiritual title of “prophetess”? Rabbi Nachman taught in the name of Rav, that Miriam was referred to as “the prophetess, Aaron’s sister,” because at the moment in her life when she first experienced prophecy, Aaron was her only brother. This takes us back the early period of the Israelite enslavement, when Miriam is said to have predicted: “My mother is destined to bear a son who will save Israel” (Seder Olam 3, Megilla 14a). When Moses was born, the Talmud says, the whole house was filled with light, a divine indication that Miriam’s prediction was in fact a prophecy.

At the Red Sea, Miriam the prophetess organized the first spiritual gathering for Israelite women. Miriam “took a timbrel in her hand, and all of the women went out after her in dance with timbrels, and Miriam chanted for them: Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously” (Exodus 15:20-21). Miriam’s song and dance was, according to Rabbenu Bahya, a “direct address and praise to the Shekhina,” the feminine side of God. Miriam the prophetess was the first feminine voice to directly address the God of Israel.

Miriam’s next episode is more controversial. Miriam “spoke against Moses, because of the Cushite woman he had married” (Numbers 12:1). What happened to her younger brother that Miriam criticized him? He had now become Moses the devoted “Man of God,” and it was on this that Miriam had a critique. In becoming a prophet and “Man of God,” Rashi says, Moses first separated from and then ultimately divorced his wife, the “Cushite Woman” (understood by Rashi to be Zipporah). Miriam expressed disappointment at her younger brother’s abandonment of his wife, with an underlying critique of the concept of holiness achieved at the expense of a normal family life. God punishes Miriam, afflicting her with leprosy. How did the Israelite camp feel about Miriam’s words and her subsequently being “shut out of the camp for seven days”? The fact that the Torah tells us “the people did not march on until Miriam was readmitted” (Numbers 12:15) is a strong indication that the community understood the need for her powerful presence. Without her, they lacked the sensitive voice of a woman.

This brings us to Miriam’s sudden death. The lone prophetess of Israel dies, and in the very next verse, “The community was without water” (Numbers 20:2). The Talmud teaches: “Water is likened to Torah.” The impact of Miriam’s death was the drying of Miriam’s Well — a Well of Torah that had drenched the community with what Proverbs calls “Torat Imekha — “The Torah of your Mother.” The Israelites lost the sensitive, feminine voice of Torah — the voice that not only foresaw the birth of a savior but also instinctively protected him, the voice that sensually sang and danced to the Shekhina, and the voice that risked punishment by reminding the Israelites that spirituality is as much about family as it is about God.

Miriam did not speak often, but when she did, she mirrored the closing lines of the “Woman of Valor” poem, chanted every Erev Shabbat around the table: “She opens her mouth with wisdom, and the Torah of kindness is on her tongue.”

Miriam reminded her brother Moses, and all of us, that “Torah” is a lot more than just a “Holy Scroll.”

Daniel Bouskila is rabbi of Sephardic Temple Tifereth Israel.

Mourning Miriam


Moshe was one of a kind. “None ever rose again like Moshe.”

At the same time, in very powerful ways, Moshe and Miriam were two of a kind.

Their personalities
and passions overlapped generously. And despite being separated over decades during Moshe’s extended sojourn in Midian, their destinies and their souls remained intertwined. When one of them left this world, the other descended into grief-stricken crisis.

It’s not just that Miriam — and Miriam alone — watched over 3-month-old Moshe as he lay among the bulrushes on the Nile. It’s that (as the text and the Midrash co-mingle) Miriam was the first of the two siblings to boldly confront authority, and to fight for the preservation of her people. When, under the boot of Egyptian oppression, her father Amram publicly declared his intention to desist from having any further children, it was Miriam who forcefully objected.

“Father, you are worse than Pharaoh,” she said. “For Pharaoh declared death only upon the Israelite boys who would be born. But you have pronounced sentence upon both the boys and the girls.”

Amram accepted his daughter’s critique, and Moshe was born shortly thereafter. She prophesied that this baby would be the redeemer of Israel. When the baby was left in the water, she stood guard both over him and over the dream of freedom.

The impression that Moshe and Miriam were mirrors of one another is conveyed unmistakably at the very moment that the dream of freedom is realized. With the Egyptian horsemen at the bottom of the sea, Moshe leads the men of Israel in song, as Miriam leads the women. “I will sing to God for He has acted mightily” is the refrain they each inspire.

Later, when Miriam is stricken with tzara’at (often translated as “leprosy”), Aaron pleads with Moshe that he pray for her. According to the standard translation, Aaron pleads, “Let her not be as one who is dead … with half her flesh eaten away.”

But the medieval sage Rashbam (a grandson of Rashi’s), realized that the pronouns in Aaron’s sentence are not necessarily female. In fact, he says, they are male. And Aaron is pleading with Moshe to pray for Miriam’s recovery so that he — Moshe — not be as one half of whose flesh is eaten away. For Aaron saw and understood that Moshe and Miriam were in many ways two halves of a whole, with lives and passions that were overlapping and interlocked. If Miriam dies, Moshe would be half-dead himself.

All of this helps explain the astonishing and tragic turn of events described in today’s parsha. When the well in the desert runs dry, and God instructs Moshe to speak to the rock and elicit its waters, Moshe furiously lashes out against the people for their rebelliousness, strikes the rock with his staff, and incurs the Divine punishment of being barred from the land. What accounts for Moshe’s fury?

Rashi, deeply rooted in the Midrash, points out that the event immediately prior to the water crisis is the death of Miriam. For 40 years a particular rock had traveled with the people and, in Miriam’s merit, miraculously gave forth water. With Miriam’s death, the rock dried up, rolled away and found its place within the anonymity of the thousands of rocks in the desert. God’s command to Moshe that he “speak to the rock” set Moshe off on the seemingly impossible mission to locate that old familiar rock. The people grew weary and said, “What difference does it make from which rock you bring forth water?” Are not all rocks the same for God?

The people were right. But Moshe lost his temper. Not because God couldn’t bring water out of any rock that He wished. Not because the people weren’t legitimately thirsty. But because Moshe was heartbroken over the loss of his sister. And he didn’t want to find just any rock. He wanted to find her rock. To feel her presence, to be comforted over her death. Moshe’s fury wasn’t born of anger. It was born of grief.

We all encounter people who are sometimes angry. Often these angry people are those whom we care about deeply, and we are hurt by their anger. The story of Moshe and Miriam reminds us that anger is often not really anger that we are witnessing, rather an expression of grief over the loss of something important — a relationship, a belief, a hope, a dream. Each of us experiences loss differently. But we all need the same kind of understanding and patience from our friends. Even Moshe needed some.


Yosef Kanefsky is the rabbi of B’nai David-Judea Congregation, a Modern Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson neighborhood.

Please God, heal her now


In shuls across the world this Shabbat we will hear five short, simple Hebrew words: El na, refah na lah (Please God, heal her now).

Our prayers are never more heartfelt than when we ask for intervention in the process of sickness and death. God, we are saying, we acknowledge that the control and the timing are ultimately yours. We will provide the doctors and the medicine, the care and the concern, but the ultimate timing is Yours.

Please be gracious. Please.

Once a month we include a special healing service as part of our Saturday morning Torah service at the Malibu Jewish Center and Synagogue. We form a healing circle, first stating the names of all our loved ones who are ill.

“El na, refah na lah,” we chant, “Please God, heal her now.”

Our focus then turns to the personal. We take out the Torah scroll, and pass it around the room, all the while continuing to chant the five words of this week’s portion. Some enter the circle while holding the Torah, receiving the energy of the group, while others quietly complete a silent prayer for their healing while holding on to the Tree of Life. There is no magic, no miracle cure involved. It is merely a formalized way for us to acknowledge the support of the community, and our own vulnerability. It is prayer.

Often, the question is asked, “Does prayer work?” If the proof of the efficacy of prayer is that no one remains ill or, God forbid, dies, then prayer is clearly a bust. Despite the studies of numerous healing groups on the power of prayer, no one can report that prayer defeats death. With proper medication, good support and much “luck,” some will heal from an illness, others will not.

The Hebrew word “na” in our formula for healing means “please.” It takes up two of our five words. Please. It’s all we can ask.

So why do we pray? On one hand, we seek and provide community support for the one who is ill. The misheberach list each week, which asks for the blessing of healing to be bestowed on ill members of the community and all of those who suffer, alerts us to the needs of those around us. In the recitation of healing prayers, there is no need to detail the challenges facing each person mentioned, only their names. It is up to the rest of us to complete the mitzvah of “bikkur cholim,” visiting the sick, in our own timing and our own ways.

For the ill person who prays, prayer provides a direct engagement with the Source of All Being. We can only struggle through the essential questions of why me? Why now? Yet, in the process of prayer, we begin to appreciate and understand the larger perspectives of life and death, and the gratitude for every moment that we enjoy in this life that has been granted to us.

Like Moses, we pray to hold on to life, to be able to fulfill our goals to the end. Please God, please, is all that we can say. Should death occur, the first response of the living must be, baruch dayan ha emet, or blessed is the true Judge. But up until that final moment, we are to beg, wheedle, plead for God’s mercy — and often our very engagement with life will prolong and improve the time we spend on this earth.

Can there be healing even if a person dies? There are those who speak of “healing unto death,” and the process of prayer that opens the lines of communication between the ill person, their inner circle, and the Holy One. To die healed, or consciously, is to heal the wounded relationships of one’s life before passing. It takes tremendous effort but can be done.

Last spring, I was honored by a connection to a young woman who consciously met with, and healed, the relationships with all of the key players in her life before her eventual death. The wounds of mother-daughter, sister-to-sister, even old loves were pursued with conscious love and forgiveness. She healed and entered death in peace. I pray to have the courage to do the same.

It is patently not fair when a young person dies of cancer, no matter what their state of healing. Our Torah portion, in Numbers 12, tells a story that is riddled with inequities. Miriam and Aaron speak against Moses “because of the Cushite woman he married.”

They are also jealous of Moses’ power and position.

“Has the Lord spoken only through Moses?” they say.

God overhears, and calls them into the front office, along with Moses: “Come out you three to the tent of meeting.”

God chastises Aaron and Miriam, and when the cloud of God’s glory withdraws from the tent, Miriam is stricken with snow-white scales. Not fair! What about Aaron? He was gossiping, too — gossip seen by later sages as the source of her illness. Why only Miriam?

We ask this question every time one person gets cancer and another does not.

There is no fairness, no quid quo pro. All we can do is step up, pray and ask the Source of healing for mercy. Aaron does exactly that saying, “Let her be not as one dead,” and Moses cries out to the Lord, saying “Please God, heal her.”

Miriam is shut out of the camp for one week to heal. But she is not abandoned.

She is but prayed for by her family and community, and perhaps she, too, prays to the God of Mercy. Likewise, we do not turn our backs on those who are ill among us, nor do we despair in illness, no matter how unfair the situation may seem.

Together, we unite, and we pray for those who are ailing with those five words that resound through time, a gift of this Torah portion. El na, refah na la.

Please God, heal her now. May it be so.

Judith HaLevy is rabbi of Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue.

Miriam Mystery


Like all women, Miriam is a complex human being, whom I cannot fully understand. In this week’s portion she dies suddenly, leaving me as puzzled as I have always been with her role as a leader.

I am left with many unanswered questions. Why is she the only woman in the Torah called a prophetess? The rabbis teach that because she knew that her younger brother Moses would be Israel’s liberator she saves him from the Nile. A beautiful thought. Yet something seems to be missing. Unlike the prophetesses Hulda or Deborah, no one ever approaches Miriam for counsel. Which makes me wonder whether there were other unrecorded stories of her prophesy, other untold tales that circulated among the women about her unique wisdom, insight or strength, lost in the oral chain of tradition.

Even her 15 minutes of fame was truncated and unoriginal. Once the Jews cross the Sea of Reeds we read, "Then Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a timbrel in her hand and all the women went out after her in dance with timbrels. And Miriam chanted for them: ‘Sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously; Horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.’" (Exodus 15:20-21) Here Miriam repeats, almost word for word, the beginning of Moses’ song. What else did she sing? How was her prophetic message any different? Perhaps it was in the way she moved, in her dance. Was it that her body spoke louder than her words? Was Miriam’s dance the vowels surrounding Moses’ letters?

Why do we never read whether Miriam marries or has children? We first hear about Miriam’s childhood as an unnamed sister in the early life of Moses. As the biblical narrative develops, we learn about Moses’ and Aaron’s marriages and even the names of their children, but silence surrounds Miriam’s home life. Is it because the Torah sensed that being a "super mom" by giving 100 percent to one’s family and another 100 percent at the office (or in the struggle for liberation) is nearly impossible? Is it because in order to justify Miriam’s position as a community leader, the Torah chose to make her asexual? And if these are true, then where does that leave women today who attempt to move between the private and public worlds?

Finally, why is Miriam’s death so sparsely recorded in what amounts to a half a verse? "Then the children of Israel, the whole congregation, came to the desert of Zin in the first month and the people lived in Kadesh and Miriam died there and was buried there. And there was no water for the congregation and they gathered up against Moses and Aaron." (Numbers 20:1-2) Aaron dies later in this portion on a mountain in the full view of the community and Moses dies in a valley before God. In both instances we are told that the entire people mourned for 30 days. But Miriam’s death takes place in a vast, nondescript desert and does not move the Israelites toward a sense of grief. In sharp contrast, we are told that their tears metaphorically dried up in the form of a drought. The Talmud explains that the drought was the drying up of Miriam’s Well, a special source of water due to Miriam’s merit that followed the Jews through the desert on their journeys. It died when Miriam died. If this is true, what was in Miriam’s well? What stories, teachings, wisdom or memories flowed from that female source of sustenance? And why did it end with her death? What kind of leader doesn’t plan for the future?

As Miriam dies I leave this portion feeling a bit empty, unfulfilled and wanting. Like a surviving great-grandchild who hears bits and pieces of her great-grandmother’s life — Richa, the Eastern European town where she was born that no longer exists; the fact that she davened three times a day; the story of how she sold bootleg out of her bathtub on East 76th Street — I have to admit that I really don’t know who Miriam the prophetess was. I don’t know what made her tick or whom she loved. The vacuum calls out to each of us to write, dance and create in Miriam’s memory. Perhaps then her hidden depth will come alive.

Ritualized Equality


Woven into many Jews’ seders when they sit down to celebrate Passover this year will be a spate of new traditions.

A Miriam’s Cup next to Elijah’s represents the role of the prophetess Miriam in the Exodus and highlights women’s contributions to Jewish culture. A seemingly out-of-place orange on the seder plate represents how women — traditionally thought to have no place in Jewish study — have introduced their voices to Judaism.

Through integrating each of these into our retelling of the Exodus, the voices and perspectives of women are unearthed and brought into the present, where they add to the vitality of contemporary Judaism.

Like them, another relatively recent innovation — the simchat bat, or welcoming ceremony for Jewish baby girls — focuses on the feminine voice and is becoming so widely practiced that it is taking on the weight of tradition.

For centuries, Jewish communities from North Africa to Eastern Europe welcomed their baby girls with a range of customs, though none carried the same sense of religious importance as the commanded brit milah, or ritual circumcision, always has for boys. And as those communities were dispersed into Diaspora or destroyed by anti-Semitism, the customs regarding girls’ births all but died out.

Though the Sephardic community in America still customarily welcomes its new daughters with singing in synagogue and a party, in most American Jewish families little was done, until recently, to recognize the birth of a girl through religious ritual.

Traditionally oriented fathers go to synagogue on the first day that the Torah is read after the birth of a daughter, to name her and ask God to watch over her and help heal his wife. Rarely are the mother and baby present.

Today, in liberal synagogues, the entire family is often called up for an aliyah when family members first return to synagogue on Shabbat. They bless the Torah, and a blessing is said to name the new daughter and offer hope that she will grow into healthy adulthood.

But in recent years, the simchat bat has also been available to Jews wanting to welcome their baby daughters into the covenant and into their families with the same marriage of ritual seriousness and joy as they accord their sons.

The simchat bat (celebration of the daughter) or brit bat (covenant of the daughter), as it is often known, was first created in the early 1970s by Rabbis Sandy Eisenberg Sasso and Dennis Sasso, and, separately, by Rabbi Michael and Sharon Strassfeld. They were connected with the chavurah and Reconstructionist movements, which created the new ritual out of a desire to renew Judaism spiritually and to include the female voice equally.

Since that time, especially during the last five years, welcoming the birth or adoption of baby girls has become a quiet revolution in all sectors of the Jewish community, with Jews from Humanist to Reform to Orthodox welcoming their daughters with rituals they compose and hold at home.

“Thirty years ago nobody even asked the question of whether a girl should have a ceremony,” said Rabbi Nina Cardin, who was involved early on in the creation and dissemination of welcoming ceremonies for girls. Cardin now works as director of Jewish Life for the JCC of Greater Baltimore.

“There is a huge awareness that has developed over a relatively short span of time, and it has bubbled up from the bottom,” Cardin said. “These ceremonies were a very radical expression back then, and nowadays they’re not.”

While the mainstream movements’ rabbis’ manuals today all include brief synagogue-based rituals to welcome girls, a growing number of families are opting to hold a more complex ceremony at home. There they welcome their daughters with rituals as unique as their families.

Adina Kalet and her husband, Mark Schwartz, who belong to a Conservative synagogue and live in Brooklyn with their son and daughter, knew that they would welcome their daughter with a simchat bat after they adopted her from Colombia, at age 4 months, just over a year ago.

“We were eager to celebrate publicly her coming to us, and we’ve always turned to our own traditions as much as we could,” Kalet said. “Even during five years of infertility we looked for Jewish rituals” to help work through it. Having a simchat bat to welcome Sara “just seemed like the natural thing to do,” she said.

Incorporated into Sara’s simchat bat were elements representing her heritage. An aunt sang her a song in Ladino, the language of Spanish-speaking Jews. Kalet and Schwartz dipped Sara’s feet in water, similar to the mikvah in which she had just been immersed to be converted to Judaism, and spoke movingly of their long journey in bringing her into their family.

Kalet also wore a necklace of a gold Colombian fertility goddess, which they had purchased when they went to get Sara.

“To have a ritual way of welcoming her was just so meaningful on so many levels. It helped us focus on the transition from being infertile to having it all be over and having her be with us,” Kalet said. “Plus it was just fun to have a party.”

+