7 Haiku for Parsha Beshalach – Just like at Universal Studios

If only they had
stopped and asked for directions.
Less than forty years.

Tough choice: Succumb to
approaching Egyptians or
walk into the sea.

Walls of water, and
a cloud pillar protects us
from the swords behind.

Egyptians think the
space between water walls is
for them too. It’s not.

One of our oldest
traditions began in the
desert – complaining.

Manna encased in
layers morning dew. A
sandwich from Heaven.

If your parents said
not to talk to rocks, you should
refer them to God.

Los Angeles poet Rick Lupert created a the Poetry Super Highway (an online publication and resource for poets), and hosted the Cobalt Cafe weekly poetry reading for almost 21 years. He’s authored 20 collections of poetry, including “I’m a Jew, Are You” (Jewish themed poems) and “Feeding Holy Cats” (Poetry written while a staff member on the first Birthright Israel trip), and most recently “Donut Famine” (Rothco Press, December 2016) and edited the anthologies “Ekphrastia Gone Wild”, “A Poet’s Haggadah”, and “The Night Goes on All Night.” He writes the daily web comic “Cat and Banana” with fellow Los Angeles poet Brendan Constantine. He’s widely published and reads his poetry wherever they let him.

How the Bible plays out in hospital intensive care units

In this week's parsha, V'zot ha-Brakhah, we read about the farewell blessing of Moses to the Israelites.  At 120 years of age, Moses views the land that God promised to Abraham and his descendents.  The Israelites will proceed to inhabit this land of milk and honey, but Moses will not.  Moses must die in the land of Moab just short of leading his people into the promised land.  Moses died “al pi adonai,” meaning that Moses died “at the command of the Lord.”

The Rabbis examined why Moses required the Lord's command to die.  In the words of Elie Wesel, retelling the Rabbis' analysis, “When Moses learned that his hour had come, he refused to accept it.  He wanted to go in living — though he was old and tired of wandering and fighting and being constantly tormented by this unhappy and flighty people he was leading across the desert.”  According to the Rabbis, Moses then haggled with God to continue to live, composing prayers, putting on sackcloth, calling on others for support and arguing “Don't you trust me?….Have I not proven my worth?”  God would not back down.  Wesel notes that after being advised by an angel to accept God's decree, Moses should have graciously heeded the sage advice.  But Moses would not and began to bargain according to Wesel:

We went on refusing to die, pleading, crying for another day, another hour, as would any common mortal….So great was his despair that he  declared himself ready to renounce his human condition in exchange for a few more days of life:  'Master of the Universe, he implored, let me live like an animal who feeds on grass, who drinks spring water and is content to watch the days come and go.  God refused.  Man is not an animal; he must live as a human or not at all. 

The Rabbis understood humans' unwillingness to give up life.  But they also understood that all humans must die.  The struggle to survive is innate in each of us, yet we need to learn that this strong impulse must be accede to a greater force.  The Rabbis recognized that humans would be willing to trade one's most precious attribute, humanity, to prolong life, if even for a brief time.  They projected that even Moses, the powerful and great leader of the Israelites, would be willing to give up cognizance of the nature of the world, recognizing others and being part of the human race just to eek out another day.

The Rabbis never could have imagined, but this battle plays itself out daily in intensive care units around the globe.  Man, imbued with the divine spirit, has developed medical advancements that rescue those with failing hearts, lungs, bowels and livers.  People who have experienced “sudden death” are hurriedly hooked up to blood-pumping, oxygenating, continuously detoxifying remarkable machines by amazing clinicians.  Some of these people miraculously walk out of the hospital to continue a renewed life.  But for many, these ventilators, artificial hearts and kidney machines cannot restore humanity. Instead, these machines and feeding tubes and medications yield broken bodies that cannot interact, cannot carry swallow or taste, cannot recognize loved ones.  Many suffer while maintained alive.

A study of critical care physicians at one Southern California hospital system found that more than one in ten patients receiving treatment in their hospitals' intensive care units were receiving treatments that would not benefit the patient in a meaningful way.  These treatments usually would keep a patient alive, albeit briefly for most, but not in a fashion befitting a human.  Many of these patients were comatose with no chance of improving, others could never survive outside of an intensive care unit, but medical technology with tubes and drips and endless effort could keep them precariously balanced between life and death in a room full of machines.  The physicians surveyed in this study, many deeply wounded by the experience, indicated that they should not be providing these critical care treatments.  But they were compelled to do so by families who could not let go, families who were willing to preserve life for an extra day or perhaps several despite the state of their loved one, the suffering and the cost.

The Rabbis, nearly two millennia ago, when herbs and leaches constituted the best medical care had to offer, recognized that man was not served by succumbing to the basic instinct to preserve life at any cost.  We can learn today that it is humanity that we must strive to preserve at all times.  And that there is sometimes a need to say “no, it is time to die.”

Dr. Neil S. Wenger is professor of medicine in the Division of General Internal Medicine at UCLA and a consulting researcher at RAND. He is director of the UCLA Healthcare Ethics Center and is chair of the Ethics Committee at the UCLA Medical Center.

Black, white and nameless: Parashat Beha’alotecha (Numbers 8:1-12:16)

And Miriam spoke, and Aaron, against Moses because of the Cushite woman whom he had married: For he had married a Cushite woman” (Numbers 12:1).

Of the one woman, we know much; of the other, we know very little. 

Of Miriam, the prophetess, we are familiar with her deeds in Egypt and her song by the sea. We know her parents, Yocheved and Amram, and her brothers, Moses our teacher, and Aaron the High Priest. Of their likeness in Jewish history, none compare.

In the wilderness, no family was held in higher regard, and to the best of our knowledge, no woman was held in higher esteem. Upon Miriam’s death, we are told that the Congregation immediately thirsted for water (Numbers 20:1-2). The Talmud remarks that it was on account of Miriam’s righteousness that water flowed from the rock all those years in the wilderness (Taanith 9a).

In contrast, who is this other, “Cushite,” woman Moses reportedly has taken for a wife? She has no name, no family, no back story. However does she find herself in the camp of Israel and married to Moses, of all men? 

The first-century Jewish historian Josephus, perhaps to impress his Roman audience, records in his “Antiquities of the Jews” that in Moses’ younger years — as Prince of Egypt — he led a military campaign through the land of Ethiopia, and there took an Ethiopian princess, Tharbis, as his first wife. But if such a tradition about Moses existed in Israel’s collective memory — passed on orally outside the biblical canon — it likely would have found its way into early rabbinic texts such as the Midrash or Targum. No such text exists, making Josephus’ claim highly suspect. 

Slightly less implausible is an attempt to identify this Cushite woman with Moses’ Midianite wife, Tzippora, daughter of Yitro (see Rashi). But this raises difficulties. The Torah states twice in one verse (in case we doubted it) that Moses married a “Cushite woman.” Cush in the Bible begins in Ethiopia (below Egypt) and continues southward into Africa, quite a distance from the Midianite settlements in the Jordan-Arabia region. Imagine mistaking Sacramento for San Diego, or a Londoner for a Parisian.    

The simplest explanation, and the most credible, is that Moses took a second wife. We do not know the why or the when; and of the woman herself, we know little beyond her nationality. But perhaps half the lesson may be derived from the impoverished description of her personality, for it lays bare a stark difference in status and power between herself and Miriam.

How much more awful is the slander when a great woman such as Miriam, esteemed for her accomplishments and privileged by her familial bonds, criticizes a seeming “nobody,” an unnamed outsider from a distant and foreign land. With no blood ties to the Jewish people, or known accomplishments, her importance is derived from her husband. Without intrinsic worth, she is flippantly dismissed as Moses’ Cushite wife. 

The Torah does not detail what Miriam, and to some lesser extent Aaron, found bothersome about Moses and his wife. Perhaps Moses was neglecting his husbandly duties of intimacy with his beloved, or so claims Rashi. Perhaps Miriam and Aaron thought Moses’ Cushite wife to be unattractive; so writes Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra. More likely, Miriam thought it wrong that Moses should marry a foreigner instead of taking an Israelite wife. That Tzippora had been a foreigner could be forgiven, for at the time, Moses was living far from his brethren in Egypt when he took her as his wife. But later in the wilderness, among the Children of Israel, certainly Moses could have found a more fitting Israelite bride (Shadal).

Far more remarkable is what Miriam’s punishment says about her crime, for the Bible always metes out justice measure for measure. Miriam is publicly humiliated. First, Miriam’s skin turns flaky white by her having contracted tza’arat, the biblical skin disease. Second, she is shut outside the Israelite camp for seven days. In the Torah’s words, her personal shame was like that of a daughter whose “father spits before her face” in disgust (Numbers 12:14).

But how does this reprimand fit her offense? 

Conceivably, if Miriam used the term “Cushite” as a racial slur referring to skin color, it may be thought quite just that Miriam’s skin turned a sickly white color in rebuke. Additionally, if “Cushite” was used to convey the foreignness of Moses’ wife, it is fitting that Miriam is in turn made to feel the outsider as she is set apart outside the camp.  

Thus, in an instant, Miriam, an insider, comes to know the difficult predicament of being an alien — a predicament she should never have forgotten considering Israel’s sojourn in Egypt. 

What an apt lesson for minding the social divide between privileged and underprivileged, between those in the center and those on the fringes. After all, what an Israelite can suffer in Egypt, an Ethiopian can suffer in Israel. In God’s eyes, she who was superior today can become subordinate tomorrow, and vice versa. If Miriam can succumb to forgetfulness and pride, prejudice and xenophobia, we’d do well to doubly guard our words and deeds.

Rabbi Yehuda Hausman is the spiritual leader of the The Shul on Duxbury, an independent Orthodox minyan. He is a teacher at the Academy for Jewish Religion, CA, and a lecturer at American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies. He writes about the weekly parasha on his blog, rabbihausman.com.

Cartoon: Shavuot Tablets

God Goes Hollywood in Exodus: Gods and Kings

Spoiler alert: Morgan Freeman does not play God in Exodus: Gods and Kings.  And this is only one of the many courageous risks that director Ridley Scott took in bringing the story of Moses to life in the just released movie. Instead of trying to depict the literal text of the Bible as we saw in the 10 Commandments with Charlton Heston, Ridley Scott does midrash-Hollywood style.

For those of you that have read the Bible and for those of you that have it in your ibooks queue, what you may not know is that it does not read like Gone Girl. There are a lot of gaps, duplications and conflicting stories in the ancient text. Since the 2nd century AD rabbis have added Midrash -commentaries, stories and interpretations- to try and fill in the gaps and make sense of these teachings. These midrashim have become essential to the body of work known as the Jewish tradition because they bring the stories to life and make them applicable to our modern lives.

Exodus: Gods and Kings is Midrash in the year 2014. The movie was clearly trying to answer some of the unanswered questions of the Moses story:

  • What was the relationship between the brothers in the palace growing up? Were they competitive or were they close?  
  • How did Moses talk to God? Was he delusional? Did he have visions? Did he see angels?
  • How did the Red Sea part? Was it truly miraculous, or was it just low tide that day?

I am not a movie critic so I did not evaluate Exodus: Gods and Kings for its entertainment value. I haven’t devoted my life to studying Judaism to be entertained. Some of the teachings are very troubling, and at times have left me angry and confused.  The reason I became a rabbi is that I believe if I am willing to wrestle with the texts even the problematic ones, the tradition will guide me to live a more moral and meaningful life. 

There is a teaching in Judaism that when we pray, God speaks to us; but when we study, we speak to God. Last Thursday I ran to the first showing of Exodus at 8 pm* because I wanted to study the midrash of our time. I wasn’t looking to come out of the movie and say; “Those plagues were amazing” (even though they were!). Rather I wanted Exodus: Gods and Kings to challenge me, to force me to think, and to help me continue the ongoing conversation of my tradition with all people of all religions and backgrounds.

Ridley Scott, Steven Zaillian, Christian Bale and every single person (including all the extras) involved in the making of that movie and bringing it to the world stage- Yasher Koach which means “Kudos to you” for reminding us that the Bible is still the most compelling book of all time.  

*IPIC Theaters releases movies the night before at 8 pm if you want to get a first glimpse.

Are Jews losing their story?

As we look back on the triumphs and failures of the past year, let’s reflect on one of the perennial shortfalls of the Jewish world — how we consistently overlook the importance of teaching the extraordinary story of the Jewish people. 

When I say “the story of the Jewish people,” I don’t mean biblical stories like Moses splitting the Red Sea or modern stories like the tragedy of the Holocaust or the miracle of Israel. Those are obviously important, and we hear about them often.

What I’m referring to instead are the fascinating stories of the “in-between” period — the 18 centuries of Diaspora history between the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. and the beginning of the Holocaust. When’s the last time we heard any of those stories?

Seriously, where did those 1,869 years go? How did they become the big, black hole of mainstream Jewish learning? 

Try this test: Ask any bar or bat mitzvah kids if they know the story of their ancestors. Ask a Persian kid if she knows the epic story of Persian Jews. Do the same with Polish Jews, South African Jews, Moroccan Jews, German Jews, Iraqi Jews, Russian Jews and so on. Then ask the grownups the same question.

Chances are you’ll find that few Jews today know their own history. This shouldn’t surprise us. Compared to other items on the Jewish agenda, the story of pre-Holocaust Diaspora Jewry is simply not a priority.

This is a shame. As historian Deborah Lipstadt writes, “Those who do not know from whence they have come often have a hard time knowing where they are or where they are going.” Yes, we come from our patriarchs Avraham, Yitzchak and Yaacov, but we also come from a long line of bubbes and zaydes.

It’s one thing to hear legendary stories about King David slaying Goliath during biblical times, but it’s quite another to hear about your great-great-grandfather David who studied kabbalah in Marrakesh.

The story of Diaspora Jewry is history with a family name — it’s a history we can feel and touch and own in a personal way. For too many Jews, though, it’s also a history full of mystery.

Where did our ancestors go after the trauma of losing the Second Temple? How did they split up? How did they forge a Jewish tradition without their holy Temple? 

Why did Maimonides study with Muslim philosophers? What ignited Reform Judaism? How did the Chasidic movement start, and why was it so vehemently opposed?

How did anti-Semitism come about and unfold over time? How did Jews adapt to their surroundings? 

Perhaps most important, how did Diaspora Jewry contribute to their adopted societies?

We’re always talking about building Jewish pride. What better way to do that than to teach our people the amazing Jewish contributions to humanity?

It’s sad to think that so few Jewish kids today are learning about the great Jewish scientists, artists, social activists, philosophers, musicians, rabbis, poets and writers who for centuries made such a mark on their world. 

Our Diaspora ancestors didn’t have the epic drama of our biblical heroes, or the tragic drama of Shoah victims, or the triumphant drama of Israeli pioneers. Maybe that’s why we’ve had a tendency to overlook them. But these ancestors are the resilient, unsung heroes who persevered and kept the Jewish flame alive for 18 long centuries.

Teaching our history need not conflict with teaching Jewish tradition or talmudic discourse. On the contrary, history provides a narrative context that enhances appreciation for that very tradition and discourse. History also enhances our humanity by shining an honest and candid light on our communal conflicts.

What about the critique that “history is boring”? Well, is it any more “boring” than any other subject? As historian and former Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren once said to me, when you turn history into “story,” you make it a lot more interesting. Any Hollywood screenwriter will tell you that what makes the industry tick is the power of the story. We may be the people of the book, but are we not also the people of the stories?

It’s understandable that the horror of the Holocaust and the subsequent miracle of Israel have dominated our collective memory. If the Shoah represents the deepest darkness and Israel the brightest light, they both conspired to overshadow the formative journey that preceded them.

But, as much as the Holocaust and Israel are defining Jewish moments, they are the culmination of 18 eventful centuries that have shaped who we have become as a people, a nation and a culture.

We are blessed to be living in a generation where those 18 centuries of Jewish history can be felt right here in America, where Jews from around the world have gathered to create a phenomenal diversity. 

Just look around your own communities. See all the different countries and cultures that are represented, and imagine all the stories. How sad it would be to let those stories go. How great it would be to rescue them and share them with one another.

My wish for the New Year is that our schools, synagogues and outreach groups reignite the flame of Diaspora history. After all, how can we ask our people to continue the great Jewish journey if we skip over 1,869 incredible years?

David Suissa is president of TRIBE Media Corp./Jewish Journal and can be reached at davids@jewishjournal.com.

On Shavuot, reconsidering the origins of the Torah

Is the Torah true? 

The story itself is pure Hollywood (and yes, there have been a few movies): God sends a messenger to free a group of slaves from the superpower of the time, Egypt. When Pharaoh says no, plagues rain down from heaven until he finally relents. The slaves leave in the middle of the night; the Egyptians, suffering from liberator’s remorse, chase after them. The sea splits, the Jews walk through victorious, and the pursuing Egyptian army is annihilated. 

But that’s just the opening act. The Exodus is a prelude for the most important moment in human history, the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, the event we commemorate this week with the observance of the holiday of Shavuot.

But who says it really happened? In response to this classic question, which has been around for ages, some have theorized that the story was created 2,500 years ago during the Babylonian exile. Jewish refugees living after the destruction of the First Temple wanted keep the Jewish people unified in the Diaspora. They weaved the legends of the beginnings of Jewish people and created the biblical narrative. Others suggest that there were multiple authors, or that the Five Books of Moses were given on Sinai but the oral tradition was a human creation over time. 

It was this very question that King Bulan, who ruled Khazaria in the late eighth century, put to a rabbi he invited to teach Judaism to his nation. Eventually, he and many of his subjects converted to Judaism. For almost two centuries, Khazaria was a primarily Jewish kingdom located in Southern Russia near Rostov-on-Don. It was destroyed by an invasion of the Rus from Kiev in the late 10th century. 

According to Rabbi Yehuda Halevi, the 11th century Spanish-Jewish scholar and poet who recounts this conversation in his epic on Jewish philosophy, the Kuzari, the rabbi told King Bulan that there is a profound difference between core beliefs of Judaism and the other monotheistic religions. Both Christianity and Islam are the product of one man convincing others of a prophecy and events he personally experienced. The birth of Judaism, by contrast, was a collective experience: There were 600,000 males between the ages of 20 and 60 present at Sinai. All told, some 2 1/2 million people witnessed and participated in these events. They told their children, who told their children, who told their children about the Exodus and the giving of the Torah. 

It is this collective memory that is passed down through the generations, and this is why the historical narrative of the Jews of Yemen and the Jews of Poland is the same. Separated by thousands of miles, they both tell the same story that has reached down through the generations, of momentous events that transformed the Jewish people and all of mankind. 

What the rabbi told the King of the Khazars over 1,300 years ago is that the Torah has passed the test of history. The proof we have for any event, the landing on the moon, that George Washington was the first President of the United States, is the same.  

Millions of people witnessed the event, they testified to that fact, and they told the story to the next generation. Accepting the fact that the Torah was given to the Jewish people by God is not an issue of faith — we have faith for things we cannot explain. That God gave the Torah to the Jews is a historical reality. Other historical validation does exist: Ancient scrolls of the Torah and prophets that are more than 2,000 years old, archaeology in Israel that time and again corroborates the Biblical narrative. And the greatest proof of all: the test of history. 

Believing that the Torah was given at Sinai is no different than accepting the fact that Caesar ruled Rome or that Aristotle was a great philosopher. The reason we hesitate to accept the historical proof of the Torah is that it obligates us to follow its teachings.

Today, all other ancient peoples have faded to oblivion, but the Jewish people are a living, breathing entity. We can find remains of the Persians, the Greeks, even the ancient Canaanites in museums and archeological digs. The Jewish people are a vibrant reality carrying on the traditions of their ancestors. On Shavuot, they will gather in synagogues to recall the momentous event when heavens touched earth on Mount Sinai more than three millennia ago.

Rabbi David Eliezrie is president of the Rabbinical Council of Orange County & Long Beach. He can be reached at rabbi@ocjewish.com.

The covenant of the calf: Parashat Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11-34:35)

If the word of God, engraved in stone, can crumble as easily as bread; if God’s voice, chiseled in rock, can shatter like a pitched dinner plate; if the children of Israel can cast off their heavenly covenant with a casualness not unlike the unclasping of an earring or a necklace; if it is all so easily dismissed, what chance is there for loyalty and faith, when weighed against the allure of a pot of gold, or the lustrous aura of a gilded calf? 

The narrative of the molten calf is unique in its plethora of vivid images. Moses and God, high upon the mountain, are engaged in august discourse, while far below, the restless people dance their way from anxiety to frivolity, from fear to wretched faithlessness. Somehow, Aaron becomes a harassed sort-of baby-sitter, longing for the sound of an engine in the driveway, his ear tilted in the hope of the sound of jingling keys outside the door, all while the children run amok.  

First they want gods to lead them. Perhaps, Aaron wonders, they will settle for a single graven calf. The people desire sacrifices; perhaps the “construction of an altar” will provide some delay. They wish for merriment, so Aaron declares a night vigil, a final interlude for the people to reconsider or Moses to return and intercede: “Tomorrow, a feast to the Lord,” he says (Exodus 32:1-6).  We know what ensues.

However, there is no image more vivid than Moses’ reaction as he spies his people making sport of all that he holds dear: “And it was when he neared the camp and saw the calf and the dancing, Moses’ anger burned, he threw the tablets from his hands and smashed them beneath the mountain” (Exodus 32:19).

We have journeyed with Moses, our teacher, as he led Israel from slavery to freedom, from the dry bed of the Red Sea to the sloping mount of Revelation. His defeat now is palpable. There is wrath in his eyes, rage on his face. It is as if he has found some stranger in bed with his spouse. What use are words when the pain is physical? The covenant has already been smashed to pieces.

But quite possibly, wittingly or otherwise, Moses conveyed in rage what could not be conveyed in thunder and lightning, in the great columns of smoke and flame that accompanied the giving of the Ten Commandments. Perhaps what was missing in the fireworks was an essential lesson about the meaning of loyalty. In the moment when Moses’ anger mirrored God’s anger, the children of Israel began to see the thunder anew. Partnerships, covenants, trust … they flow both ways. The voice of God could only be engraved in stone, but it is the image of Moses’ burning rage that gets chiseled in Israel’s heart.  

The verse that follows compounds the lesson: “Moses took the calf that they had made, burned it with fire, ground it to fine-powder, scattered it over the water and made the Israelites drink it” (Exodus 32:20).

Moses appears to want Israel to “taste” what it has done. His people must ingest the concoction and savor its distastefulness. In this way, they may come to appreciate the foulness of the whole affair. Many commentators wonder: From what source was this water drawn? Some, including Torah translator and interpreter Robert Alter, suggest this was the water that Moses “miraculously provided for the people, which would be a compounding of irony.”

In a different vein, the 12th century rabbi, Abraham Ibn Ezra, points to Deuteronomy 9:21 where Moses states that he took the grounded dust of the calf and flung it into “the stream that came down from the mountain.” This was hardly any old wadi, it was the very stream that swept down from Sinai and sustained the camp.

Faithfulness has little meaning without some awareness of the repercussions of faithlessness: how disloyalty dissolves the bond of trust, how it pollutes the waters of love — human and divine. Faith is no paltry thing, because the memory of broken faith endures forever. Stone tablets shatter, and God’s voice is lost in the wind; perhaps more than anything else, it was the Golden Calf that sealed the covenant.

Rabbi Yehuda Hausman is the spiritual leader of The Shul on Duxbury, an independent Orthodox minyan. He is a teacher at the Academy for Jewish Religion, CA, and a lecturer at American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinical Studies. He writes about the weekly parasha on his blog, rabbihausman.com.

Nelson Mandela: The Moses of South Africa

Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Rabbi Marvin Hier meets with Pope Francis

In a private audience with Pope Francis on Oct. 24, Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center (SWC), urged the leader of the Catholic Church to confront the evil that exists in the world, even while praying and working for peace.

“Evil existed during the time of Moses as it did in Jesus’ time and as it does in our own time,” Hier told Pope Francis, according to a transcript of his remarks.

Hier, who brought with him 62 SWC trustees and supporters to the meeting in the papal residence in Vatican City on Thursday, called the meeting “an extraordinary event.”

“We need non-Jews as friends,” Hier told the Journal on Oct. 25. “It matters to us that a pope who is the spiritual leader of 1 billion Christians should hear our concerns.”

Speaking to the Journal from Rome, Hier said he had considered limiting his remarks on Thursday to the subject of “human relations,” but ultimately decided against it.

[Related: Francis pledges to further Jewish-Catholic dialogue]

“International issues are weighing on every Jewish home,” Hier said. “People are saying to themselves ‘What’s going to be with Iran?’ ‘Will there be peace with the Palestinians?’ And anti-Semitism is everywhere in Europe — so it was impossible just to make this just sort of a schmooze, talking about human relations and not to talk about the greater concerns of the Jewish community.”

Hier’s remarks were heavy with citations from traditional Jewish texts and did not make explicit mention of either Iran or the Palestinians. But coming at a time of increasing engagement by the United States and other Western powers in the Middle East, Hier’s message was still rather clear.

“[P]eace, like a doctor’s prescription, works only if one is willing to make lifestyle changes, diet, exercise, but there are millions of people who ignore their doctor’s advice,” he said.

So while the world must be open to the possibility of peace, it must also remember its failure to stand up to Hitler in the 1930s, and recognize that, in Hier’s words, “There are some nations who can’t compromise.”

Pope Francis, who addressed the group in Italian, condemned “any form of anti-Semitism,” and broadened that condemnation to include all manner of intolerance.

“When any minority is persecuted and marginalized on account of its religious beliefs or ethnic origin, the good of society as a whole is placed in danger, and we must all consider ourselves affected,” Pope Francis said, according to the Official Vatican Network. “I think with particular sadness of the suffering, marginalization and real persecution experienced by many Christians in various countries throughout the world. Let us unite our strengths to promote a culture of encounter, of mutual respect, understanding and forgiveness.”

The 62-person delegation — the largest Jewish group to meet Pope Francis to date, Hier said — included two Holocaust survivors, a handful of Christians, and one Muslim, Mohamed Alabbar, the chairman of Emaar Properties, the Emirati company that built the world’s tallest building, the Burj Khalifa in Dubai.

This was Hier’s fourth meeting with a sitting pope — he met twice with Pope John Paul II during his pontificate and once with Pope Benedict, in 2005. Hier said that Thursday’s meeting was initially scheduled as a meeting with Pope Benedict, who resigned the papacy in February of this year.

Pope Francis kept the arrangement, and Hier marveled at the differences in character between the current pontiff and his predecessors.

“He has the uncanny ability, when he is talking to a person, the rest of the world does not exist,” said Hier, describing what he saw as he introduced each member of his delegation to Pope Francis. “I did not find that in the other three audiences, even though Pope John Paul II was perhaps one of the greatest popes in the history of the church.”

Remember to forgive yourself

Every year on Yom Kippur, Jews in synagogues all over the world engage in a communal chest-beating during the Vidui, to repent, symbolically, for our collective sins. But what about the sin of being too hard on ourselves? As the High Holy Days approach once again, it seems logical to wonder why it is always so much easier to forgive others than ourselves. 

Self-affliction, fasting and other forms of self-sacrifice and abstinence are not particularly Jewish notions. That is why we don’t devote more than one day of the year to acknowledging our sins. Judaism teaches that God is a forgiving God. Much more so, it seems, than we ourselves can be. Since when does anyone need an excuse to beat up on oneself? We are all too familiar with our critical voice — the inner critic who is always willing to offer negative comparisons. Regrets. Should haves and not good enough. The refusal to accept that we are all flawed, imperfect and unique. 

I know that I am not alone in my self-flagellation. We are all our own worst enemies. However, it turns out that our mental health may depend on our ability to forgive ourselves. Stanford University has begun research into exploring how forgiveness can enhance health and relationships and even prevent disease. As well as depression. Resentment. You get the idea.

As a therapist, I am so often present for extraordinary compassion among people. In my therapy groups, the clients are unfailingly, unconditionally supportive and unstinting toward one another. But when it comes to their own struggles or small triumphs, they minimize their own progress or condemn themselves in harsh and unforgiving terms. 

In “Overcoming Life’s Disappointments,” Harold Kushner writes about biblical figures often consumed by powerful, unsavory, yet all-too-human emotions. In one example, he wonders about Moses’ uncharacteristically unsympathetic behavior toward Aaron when the “strange fire” at the dedication of the Tabernacle consumes Aaron’s two sons. 

It may have been that Moses was jealous of Aaron for having sons to carry on his legacy as well as the time to devote to his family, while Moses was consumed by his role to be able to have any time to experience ordinary life. The Bible is full of such descriptions of so-called “bad” emotions. Sibling rivalry. Jealousy. Uncontrollable anger. Sexual exploits. If our patriarchs experienced such varied and stormy emotions and were still forgiven by God, why do we try so hard to avoid or deny them? 

When we choose to listen to our critical voice, it allows us to avoid “feeling the feelings.” If we felt that we could tolerate the psychic pain, we may actually find that this would lead to greater expansiveness — the freedom to feel genuine regret, acknowledge our losses and move forward with greater awareness of our limitations. 

Instead, it is often more comfortable to stay stuck. If we take the risk to forgive ourselves, the next step would be to move forward in our lives while also becoming aware of the unconscious choices that we have made. It can be easier to isolate or disconnect ourselves from reality than to have to negotiate all of the disappointments and unrealized dreams that arise when we decide to live in the present moment. 

Like any discipline, becoming aware of, and changing our thoughts takes constant, mindful practice. And lots of gratitude for what does exist in our lives. 

Rabbi Naomi Levy offers a prayer for “When We Are Too Hard on Ourselves” in her book, “Talking to God, Personal Prayers For Times of Joy, Sadness, Struggle, and Celebration”: “Teach me how to love myself, God. I am so critical of myself. … I accept shortcomings in others, but I am so unforgiving of myself. … Teach me how to enjoy my life. … Show me how to embrace the person that I am. … Soften my heart. … Fill me with the capacity to treasure my life. Thank you, God, for creating me as I am.”

Shanah Tovah.

Roni Susan Blau, LCSW, is a psychotherapist who treats individuals, couples and groups. Her private practice is located in Santa Monica and she can be reached at roniblausw@gmail.com.

Letters to the Editor: Nelson Mandela, Israel, settlements

Mandela Just a Man, Not Another Moses

I realize that Americans love heroes, and journalists love to serve them up, but Nelson Mandela as another Moses (“Mandela/Moses,” June 28)? 

Unlike Moses, Mandela could go to Israel any time he wanted, although Jews may not enter Muslim countries, including those that comprise most of Israel’s neighbors. Those countries, you may recall, threatened to drive Israel into the sea, and in 1967, attempted to do just that in yet another attempted genocide against our people, which no country on earth, including the United States, has ever tried to prevent. Has Mandela ever spoken against the ban of Jews in Muslim countries? Has he ever spoken in our support, other than to recognize that Jews were the backbone of the civil rights movement?

How sad that so many American Jews still lionize themselves as champions of civil rights, while creating idols out of people who attack Israel, the survival of which, as history should have taught by now, is essential to the prevention of our genocide.

Charles Wintner via e-mail

Smoke Screen of a Different Sort?

In the tinder box of the world, with its death and suffering of millions of people from successive wars, revolts and bombings of both Israeli and Arab towns and cities, Mr. Suissa wants people to be more offended — more emotional (“Jews Should Get Offended,” June 21). Is he serious? This was his response to a remark from Mr. Abbas in which Jews should have been mentioned but were not mentioned, and he extrapolates the error of omission into a blood libel. Must we really struggle with all our might to inflame ethnic strife on the matter of changing the status quo of a 60-year arrangement on holy sites? Could this be Mr. Suissa’s way of distracting us from the greater issues of settlements, occupation and the urgency of Palestinian human rights?  

Rick Chertoff, Sherman Oaks

David Suissa responds: Mr. Chertoff refuses to be offended by the fact that, as I wrote in my article, our Palestinian “peace partner” brazenly and publicly denies any Jewish connection to Jerusalem. I have nothing else to add.

Israel Should Not Abandon Old City

David Myers does not believe that Israel’s public diplomacy, or hasbara, is inadequate. But Myers could have provided no greater proof of that inadequacy than his op-ed (“The Re-’birth’ of Hope,” June 21). Myers has, somehow, come to believe that Israel’s occupation of Judea and Samaria is the cause of the obloquy and hatred that one finds in the media, on campus, and in BDS and related activism.

The “occupation” was the result of a war that was forced upon Israel by Jordan. Before Jordan’s attack and even after, Israel entreated Jordan to refrain from hostilities. Jordan ignored Israel’s entreaties, and Israel won a decisive victory that placed it in control of its ancient patrimony, Judea and Samaria. From that point until today, were Israel to have abandoned that land, as Myers evidently believes it should have, it would have ceded the land to its mortal enemies. What rational actor would have done that? Would Myers have been so foolish as to have done that? 

Of course, Myers never explains why justice requires Israel’s withdrawal from the Old City of Jerusalem, from which the Jews were expelled in 1948. Why would any decent person believe that justice requires the vindication of Jordan’s “ethnic cleansing” of Jerusalem? 

Chip Bronson and Stephanie London, Beverly Hills  

The Truth About Settlements

Arthur Cohn’s article is full of simplifications and distortions, which unfortunately take the place of serious, informed discussion among vast numbers of American Jews (“The Truth About Settlements,” June 28). One can be skeptical of the immediate prospects of negotiations without the need to resort to talking points such as his.

I’ll just cite two:

1. Areas such as Har Choma, the area of disputed new building, were never part of the Holy City of Jerusalem. In fact, Har Choma is south of Kibbutz Ramat Rachel, which is administratively part of the Mateh Yehuda Regional Council, not part of Jerusalem even by today’s definitions.

2. Beyond all the convoluted arguments about settlements and the justified pessimism of current policies lies one fact. The only reason for 600,000 Jews inhabiting the vast majority of area over the Green Line is clear: to make it less likely Israel will ever withdraw. I’ll leave it to others to define “obstacle.”

If people like Mr. Cohn were truly concerned about the security of Israelis at a time when they are facing increased taxes and cuts of educational and welfare services, he would be asking: Where is the money to preserve these services, reduce the heavy tax burden and provide for the long term economic security of Israelis?

Lawrence Weinman, Los Angeles

Weeklong event explores Judaism and wellness

When Rabbi Laura Geller learned that her father had Alzheimer’s disease, she struggled with the news. He was only in his 70s, after all, and it was painful for her to watch the man who had raised her — who she said had been “important and powerful and wonderful” in her life — lose his ability to perform daily tasks. 

For solace, she turned not to a doctor, a psychologist or any other health care professional. Instead, she found her coping strategy in the pages of the Talmud. 

Geller recalled the story of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments. Both sets of tablets — those that Moses smashed when he saw the Israelites worshipping the golden calf, and the second set he received as a replacement — were placed in the ark for safekeeping. Why keep the broken set? Rabbinical commentary says they represent the broken among us, the sick, those who have forgotten the Torah. They, too, remain sacred. 

The story gave Geller strength as she cared for her father. She now tells it to her congregants at Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills so they can draw meaning from it. 

“The fact that we have this anecdote in the Talmud shows that in a text that old, they were wrestling with the same issues we are,” Geller said. “Because we’re part of this larger community — one that exists across generations — there’s a sense of accumulated wisdom. Other people have walked these paths. Maybe we’ll handle them in different ways, but we’re not alone.”

That’s the idea behind Jewish Wisdom and Wellness: A Week of Learning, a wide-ranging conference to be held next week at venues across Los Angeles and elsewhere in Southern California. Organized jointly by the Kalsman Institute on Judaism and Health of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) and Cedars-Sinai, the event is designed to draw thousands of local Jews together to explore the question: What does Judaism have to say about living a whole and healthy life?

Participants can sign up for more than 60 lectures, workshops and classes April 21-27 taking place at synagogues and Jewish institutions around the city. Topics will include yoga, elder care, sexual health and meditation, among many others, and will involve a combination of text study, conversation and movement. Nearly all sessions are free and open to the public. 

What attendees might find, said Joel Kushner, interim director of the Kalsman Institute, is that Judaism offers a surprising volume of guidance on wellness, healing and living with gusto.

“Our purpose is to raise the dialogue of Judaism and healing in the community and show everyone that we have all these resources,” Kushner said. “So many people turn outside of Judaism for their spiritual practice, when really, we have it in our tradition — it’s just about accessing it. We’re trying to take what’s already there and share that with Jewish L.A.”

Audiences might be ready to listen. A recent surge of interest in Jewish spirituality has given rise to an explosion of Jewish yoga and meditation groups, and the study of Kabbalah has been luring Jews seeking spirituality for years. On top of that, the immutable human need for healing is heightened during times of economic crisis, Kushner said, leading people to lean on faith — and on one another. 

Jewish Wisdom and Wellness: A Week of Learning was a year and a half in the making. Cedars-Sinai had worked with the Kalsman Institute to expand its spiritual care program, now headed by Rabbi Jason Weiner, and the two institutions sought another way to keep collaborating. 

Jonathan Schreiber, director of community engagement at Cedars-Sinai, and Michele Prince, then-director of the Kalsman Institute, decided to co-sponsor a conference that probed the connection between Judaism and health. But they knew the event would hardly register on the radars of far-flung Angelenos if they organized it the traditional way. 

“We thought, ‘If we want to turn that idea on its head, let’s contact hundreds of people and turn this into a topic that’s discussed throughout the L.A. area,” Schreiber said. 

So he and Prince asked congregations, academic institutions and nonprofits to propose programs they would like to host under the umbrella of religion and wellness, then provided micro-grants of $250 to $500 to about 40 participating organizations to cover their costs. The result is a crowd-sourced symposium inclusive of all ages, all denominations and Jews on both sides of the 405. 

“We know in L.A. it’s sometimes hard to get people to come to an event because there’s so much competition for attention,” said Prince, a social worker who now is the executive director of Our House Grief Support Center. “Instead of asking people to come to us, we wanted to catalyze projects happening in every corner of L.A.”

The week will kick off with a panel discussion at Cedars-Sinai, moderated by Rob Eshman, publisher and editor-in-chief of the Jewish Journal, on the power of Judaism to carry those in crisis through trying times. Those participating in the panel are Geller; Valley Beth Shalom’s Rabbi Ed Feinstein; Rabbi Naomi Levy of Nashuva; and Rabbi Abner Weiss of Westwood Village Synagogue.

Other offerings across the city include a workshop on Jewish-flavored art therapy, a healing drum circle, chevra kadisha training in Jewish burial practices, a discussion on food justice and Jewish tai chi. 

“In Hebrew, there’s a connection between ‘wholeness,’ ‘healing’ and ‘holiness,’ ” Weiss said. “We didn’t borrow that concept from the mystics of the East. From Maimonides to Nachmanides, there are very strong psychosomatic elements in the Jewish tradition.”

Art exhibits at HUC-JIR’s Jack H. Skirball Campus near USC and Shulamit Gallery in Venice will explore the connection between healing and painting, sculpture and photography. A closing concert at Leo Baeck Temple will celebrate the music of Debbie Friedman, whose tune for the healing prayer, “Mi Shebeirach,” is sung by congregations everywhere. 

Kushner hopes participants come away scratching their heads — in a good way. 

“You might go, ‘I didn’t know Judaism had so much to offer.’ ”

For more information about Jewish Wisdom and Wellness: A Week of Learning, visit this article at jewishjournal.com.

The chametz within

Rejoice! Spring has arrived, and Pesach is here. The time of our liberation is at hand. The Exodus from our narrow straits is re-enacted once more.

To be sure, Pesach is about history — the story of the children of Israel leaving the oppression of Egypt, freed into the wilderness of Sinai.

But Pesach is far more than a retelling of history. 

Pesach is the holiday that teaches us to rid ourselves of the dross in our lives. It is the holiday of the eradication of chametz — the fermenting element needed for dough to rise. Get rid of the yeast and our daily bread becomes the food of angels, a vehicle for holy ascent.

This chametz exists within each of us. It is the ingredient that causes anger to bubble up, resentment to arise, prejudice to form. Chametz is both the cause and the result of the accumulation of stubbornly held opinions, ancient slights and long-held grudges. 

Chametz wraps around our souls and our hearts like linen around a mummy, preserving for eternity all the anguish within. Chametz wraps and wraps around our souls until the eternal light that shines within us is dimmed, dulled and can no longer be seen. 

We are commanded to find the chametz within us, gather it and burn it. This is the true meaning of a burnt offering; an offering that is a pleasing scent unto God. This is the offering we give those we love when we attempt to purge ourselves from past transgressions: “See how much I love you,” we say. “I’m cleaning house. I’m getting rid of all that displeases you, and I’m doing so for you, as a sign of my love.” 

Notice how we are not asked to gather the very best in us as an offering, but rather the very worst in us. This is key. This is the ikar — the main point.

The second verse in the book of Leviticus says: “Speak to the children of Israel, and say to them: When a person brings from you a sacrifice to the Lord; from the animal, from the cattle or from the flock you shall bring your sacrifice.”

How are we to understand this statement? Is this a simple, straightforward instruction about the species to be sacrificed, or is there something deeper being addressed? Obviously, the Torah means what it says and must be understood that way. But if that was all the Torah was addressing, I believe it would have faded away into the dust of history ages ago.

Chasidic teaching instructs us to look at the wording and see that what we are really being asked to bring near to God is the animal, the beast within us. We are being asked to offer up the material, physical, earthbound element within us, our neshamah behemit — our beastly soul.

All of us, hopefully, have qualities we are pleased with and would love for others to notice. But we also have qualities we work hard to transform, subdue or even eradicate. Most of the time we wish those qualities would simply evaporate and disappear from within us.

The Torah commands us to bring our least desirable qualities as an offering, not because they are beautiful and pleasing, but rather because they represent our deepest, most painful struggle. We are, after all, Yisrael — those who will struggle with God — and it is within that struggle that our redemption is found. It is the very struggle with our inner demons, our worst angels, that ennobles us and raises us up higher than even angels can aspire to ascend. 

It is that coarse, material soul within us, the twin sister of our Godly soul, that bears the sweetest fruits of our labor; that is why we are asked to offer it up as a token of our love.

The chametz we carry within us year-round is the expression of that beastly soul; it is the Pharaoh within us, yearning to mummify all that is sweet, precious and pure within us, and cast us into the darkness of Egypt’s penultimate plague.

So let us clean house, demummify spiritually and physically. Let us burn the chametz of our anger and hurt, our pride and our prejudice. But let us remember this: It is only because of our chametz that we struggle and grow; it is only because of our beastly, material soul that we rise higher and higher as we labor to transform ourselves into better human beings. Clean, gather and burn the chametz, but leave a little trace of it somewhere deep inside so that next Pesach can be as joyous a festival as this one; so that next Pesach can offer us as meaningful a struggle for liberation as our past festivals have offered.

A joyous, happy and clean Pesach to all. 

The Bronfmans’ New Haggadah

Cover of the newly released "Bronfman Haggadah."Cover of the newly released “Bronfman Haggadah.”

For Passover this year, Rizzoli has just released “The Bronfman Haggadah,” written by the businessman, philanthropist and Jewish community leader Edgar Bronfman Sr., illustrated by artist Jan Aronson, who is also Bronfman’s wife. Unlike other haggadot, this version includes the role of Moses in the story of the Exodus (read Bronfman Exodus Story on page 19). In his introduction, Bronfman suggests that the omission from the traditional telling may be because the rabbis who wrote the early haggadot “viewed Moses as a dangerous hero — one who could easily upset the religious hierarchy.” On the occasion of the book’s release, Bronfman and Aronson talked about why and how they created the book, rethinking the role of the haggadah to tell, in their own way, the tale of Jewish Exodus and liberation. The following is an edited version of that conversation:

Tom Teicholz: Why a new haggadah?

Edgar Bronfman: What I think should be done in the 21st century [is] to have a haggadah that teaches young children what Judaism is all about. And I think it’s all there in the Passover story — if you know how to tell it properly. What I’ve done is written a haggadah that I think children today can relate to — and not just on Passover.

TT: How is this haggadah different from all other haggadot?

EB: It’s different in a number of ways. First, and this was my wife’s idea: Why do you want to feed Elijah after you’ve finished your meal? If Elijah represents the poor of the world, then surely you should let him in to share the meal with you. Young people will learn that feeding the poor — that’s very Jewish. The second thing that’s different, very much different, is I don’t talk about the four children; I talk about the four different kinds of Jews there are in this world and how we have to have open arms to all of them to bring them back into our fold. The third thing that’s different, I don’t stop at the Red Sea and I don’t call it the Red Sea. I call it the Sea of Reeds — a shallow part of the Red Sea that the Jews crossed without thinking, but that when the Egyptians with their chariots and their armor came, they sunk. That put the Jews on the other side of the Red Sea. No one’s chasing them now. And they’re free. Free to do anything and everything, and that becomes chaos. So Moses leads them to Mount Sinai and gives them the Ten Commandments, and this the Jews accept because they can’t stand the chaos either. And that’s where I end [the narrative], rather than at the Red Sea.

TT: You mention the four types of Jews (the wise, rebellious, simple and indifferent). Who do you see as the audience for this haggadah?

EB: I see the audience for this haggadah as the young people who have not left Judaism but are not affiliated. … Hopefully this revives some interest — just like a Birthright trip to Israel revives interest in Judaism.

TT: Throughout your life, you’ve set yourself the task of very large projects, whether it’s running Seagram’s or leading the World Jewish Congress or addressing the third phase of life. Why did you, at this point in your life, decide to tackle one holiday, one night, one meal?

EB: I think Passover is the most important of the Jewish holidays. … [It’s] the night we became a people. … I think all the elements of Judaism are encapsulated in this story. … [Also], when children come to the table at Passover, they are happy … that’s a good time to teach them a little Judaism.

Jan Aronson and husband Edgar Bronfman in 2011. Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for HBO

TT: Ms. Aronson, tell me a little about your artistic journey with this project.

Jan Aronson: With this particular project a couple of things happened that were unique in my career. Number one, I was able to do a lot of research into how I wanted the imagery to cohere with the history of certain aspects of the haggadah. [For example,] I thought it would be interesting to put in a biblical map, which is not something I’ve ever seen in a haggadah. … I added the map [to] put some interesting context and historical references that we are talking about in a visual form. …

My work is very painterly. … This gave me an opportunity to branch out and do other things with my work that I’d never had the opportunity to do. I was also able to draw on some of the skills that I had but hadn’t used in a long time. It was a chance to play and have a good time with patterns and imagery and go outside the box with certain illustrations.

TT: Did working on these illustrations give you any deeper insight into the haggadah?

JA: I thought a lot about which concepts I wanted to illustrate. The ones that were very important to me [from] a spiritual, metaphysical and also ethical standpoint were the ones I was drawn to. [For example,] the burning bush in my concept … [occurs at] sunrise while [Moses] is meditating on his life. … The sun is rising and the color is coming through the shrubbery of the desert. He decides to go back and deal with what he left in Egypt as well as meet his brother, whom he had never met. …

TT: On a lighter note, this haggadah does not make the seder shorter.

EB: My idea was not to make it short. My idea was to make it so that when you were finished with it, you had really done the seder and you had squeezed out a lot of knowledge of Judaism from it.

TT: You left songs for the end rather than integrate them in the seder. Any reason for that?

EB: I think singing is fun, but the [songs] don’t have much to say much Jewishly. … Well, at the end you’ve had your fourth glass of wine, you’re kind of relaxed. It’s fun to sing. If the children have gone to bed by then, we don’t care. What I care about is what we can teach them up until the time of the dinner.

TT: You introduce quotes from Frederick Douglass, [Ralph Waldo] Emerson and Marge Piercy as part of your seder.

EB: My rabbis.

TT: Your rabbis. To that point, this struck me as a secularist haggadah. The magic of faith doesn’t seem to play as great a role.

EB: The magic tricks and all that are good storytelling. I’m not sure it all happened, and I don’t think it teaches very much.

TT: As I read it, there is one omission in your haggadah, and please correct me if I missed it. We are commanded at the seder to feel as if we were slaves in Egypt. For me, the great contribution of Judaism to the world is first, monotheism and the notion of a living God that is not embodied in literal idols and is an abstract concept; and second, this commandment at the seder that speaks to empathy, one of the greatest features of the Jewish faith. But you don’t mention this commandment.

EB: [As to the contributions of Judaism to the world] I say a little more [about this] at the end, where the [Israelites] are all fighting and killing each other. It’s chaotic. Then Moses gives them the Ten Commandments. By accepting the Ten Commandments, they become God’s people. I want to leave it at that … because it’s impossible for most people to really imagine themselves as “this is the night we were freed from Egypt.” That’s a stretch. Nice words, but it doesn’t mean very much.

TT: Each of you has worked for many years in your separate spheres. Can you talk about working together?

EB: For me, that was a joy. What I did was I asked my wife if she would illustrate the haggadah. She said, “But I’m not an illustrator.” I said, “I want someone who’s fresh, and not encumbered.” I know my wife is bright and smart, and I know what a great artist she is [and that with her participation], I’m going to go from what I know is a good haggadah to a great one, by having it become beautiful.

JA: I had the opportunity of a lifetime. Number one, to collaborate with my husband, whom I adore and I respect, on a project that he already had worked five years to perfect … and he said, “Here, just take it and fly with it” — it was a tremendous opportunity and a lot, a lot of fun. I had total freedom, and when I would go into Edgar’s office and show him one of the paintings I had done. … He was always really happy with it. So it was a wonderful collaboration in a very special way.

TT: On that note, let me say: Hag Sameach.

EB & JA: Hag Sameach to you, too.

Tracker Pixel for Entry A version of this article appeared in print.

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?  

What do I think about Zionism as a Turkish Muslim?

For the last couple of years — and especially the last couple of days — my Jewish friends all over the world have expressed their concern whether anti-Semitism is on the rise in Turkey. First of all Turkey has a population over 70 million. There is a great deal of diversity and plurality in Turkey. There can be some isolated events, individual statements but comments to present Turkey as a country becoming antisemitic are misleading and does not have any grounds whatsoever. Israelis and our Jewish brothers and sisters in general should not be concerned at all because there is no question of Turks' hating Israel or Jews in general, God forbid.

The Zionist conception of the devout Jewish people, who wish to live in peace and security in Israel alongside Muslims, seeking peace and wishing to worship in the lands of their forefathers and engaging in business is perfectly normal from an Islamic perspective. In that sense, as a Muslim I support Zionism. I fully back the devout Jewish people living in peace and security in their own lands, remembering God, worshiping in their synagogues and engaging in science and trade in their own land.

What is not well-known is that the Zionist belief held by a devout Jew and based on the Torah does not in any way conflict with the Koran. What is more, the Jews’ living in that region is indicated in the Koran, in which it is revealed that God has settled the Children of Israel on it:

“Remember Moses said to his people: 'O my people! Call in remembrance the favour of Allah unto you, when He produced prophets among you, made you kings, and gave you what He had not given to any other among the peoples. O my people! Enter the Holy Land which Allah hath assigned unto you, and turn not back ignominiously, for then will ye be overthrown, to your own ruin.'” (Koran, 5:20-21)

It is also revealed in the Koran that the Jews are a blessed people from the line of the Prophet Abraham and descended from the worthy prophets of God. There is no doubt that the Jews' efforts to migrate and build a homeland for themselves wherever they desire in the world is a most lawful demand. For that reason, it is the Jews' most natural right to wish to live in their own holy lands. Their ancestors lie buried in these lands, which are of the greatest significance to them. Indeed, God reveals in the Koran that He has settled the Jews in those lands they live in:

“We settled the Children of Israel in a beautiful dwelling-place, and provided for them sustenance of the best: it was after knowledge had been granted to them, that they fell into schisms. Verily Allah will judge between them as to the schisms amongst them, on the Day of Judgment.” (Koran, 10:93)

In another verse God says referring to Jerusalem:

“And remember We said: 'Enter this town, and eat of the plenty therein as ye wish; but enter the gate with humility, in posture and in words, and We shall forgive you your faults and increase (the portion of) those who do good.'” (Koran, 2:58)

And there are other verses of the Koran that indicate the right of Jews to dwell on the Holy Land:

“They say, 'If we follow the guidance with you, we shall be forcibly uprooted from our land.' Have We not established a safe haven for them to which produce of every kind is brought, provision direct from Us? But most of them do not know it.” (Koran, 28:57)

“And We said unto the Children of Israel after him: Dwell in the land; but when the promise of the Hereafter cometh to pass We shall bring you as a crowd gathered out of various nations.” (Koran, 17:104)

As revealed in the verses, God has settled the Jews in these lands, and Jews have the right to live freely on those lands, as do Muslims and Christians. This is also a promise of God for Jews to gather them in the Holy Land, only with the conditions realized. The words of the Torah state that God would only realize His Promise to the Jews on the condition that they love Him and obey Him:

“And when you and your children return to the Lord your God and obey Him with all your heart and with all your soul according to everything I command you today then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and have compassion on you and gather you again from all the nations where He scattered you. Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the Lord your God will gather you and bring you back. He will bring you to the land that belonged to your fathers…” (Deuteronomy, 30:2-5)

I also would like to point out my thoughts concerning the remarks attributed to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan's that appeared in the international media. As it happens in all ideologies, people can impart different meanings to ideologies, faiths they practice or talk about. So sometimes it is important how people interpret things or what people understand, and carry into effect with those ideas.

The word Zionism also has several very different meanings. It would be misleading to bundle them altogether and automatically assume the Prime Minister Erdogan intended them all. The word Zionism is associated with the connection of the Children of Israel with the Holy Land as well as Biblical commandments that are required to be performed there. The word is also associated with the search of a community tied, together by a common religious and cultural heritage, for a homeland free from persecution. Lastly, the word is associated with the specific political and strategic policy decisions of various administrations of the State of Israel, which is often anti-religious.

In the first two usages, the word Zionism is used only in the positive, constructive sense, that is, the building of a nation. It does not imply any criticism or condemnation of any other group whatsoever, so it is definitely not in the same category as Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. In addition, juxtaposing Zionism with racism does not have basis in these two understandings of the term because racism cannot be tolerated in this Torah binded Zionism:

“You shall not oppress a stranger, since you yourselves know the feelings of a stranger, for you also were strangers in the land of Egypt.” (Exodus 23:9)

So I see it as particularly crucial for our Prime Minister Erdogan to make a clarification and explain that he is not against the concept of Zionism which represents the Jewish people's right to establish a state in Israel. But I find it important that he clarifies his intention and be specific about what he is being critical about rather than proscribing all the rights of Jews. And I would humbly ask him to discriminate what kind of Zionism he sees as a threat, or at least explain that he is referring to an understanding which represents a cruel version that is far away from the moral virtue that Judaism teaches. I am sure that he will offer a new explanation so that our Israeli brothers and sisters will feel comfortable about.

As a side note; in the wide-spread political arena of the whole Middle East, being opposed to Zionism, opposed to Israel and opposed to Freemasonry is a classical right-wing statement. In other words, when a person makes statements against these subjects, then he gains political power. If he is a writer or a leader of a religious group, then his position is strengthened. Therefore, someone who is anti-Masonic, anti-Zionist and anti-Jewish is strengthened on the right. But I have to advocate the truth. My conscience will not permit the defamation and accusation of someone who has not committed a crime, a member of the People of the Book. That is incompatible with my religious belief. I do not say things so that some other people will approve of them or simply like what I have to say.

The Jews are the People of the Book, whom God created and praised for their good attributes and criticized for their errors, just in the same way He talks about Muslims. I as a Muslim believe that Jews must be able to live by their own faith and to live as they wish in their own country. God says in the Koran that the Jews exist, and it is perfectly normal for them to live in Israel. And thus, I want both the Palestinians and the Israelis to live fraternally in a friendly and amicable manner in the region in wealth and abundance.

Sinem Tezyapar is a political and religious commentator from Turkey, and an executive producer at A9 TV. She is also the spokesperson of a prominent international interfaith organization. To reach her, visit http://www.facebook.com/sinemtezyapar or follow her on Twitter @SinemTezyapar

Are you awake?: Parashat Vaera (Exodus 6:2-9:35)

There is an old midrash to explain how Moshe discovered his Jewish identity and woke up to his calling as a teacher and prophet. Yocheved, Moshe’s mother, used to sing him lullabies and feed him familiar foods. As she weaned him and led him into the embrace of his surrogate family, the sounds, tastes and smells of his childhood were pushed deep into the recesses of his subconscious. It was when he walked among the Israelites that the sounds of those lullabies and the smells of those familiar foods awakened his Jewish consciousness, launching him on a journey toward the ultimate awareness of YHVH. 

Moshe was asleep for those years as Prince of Egypt. We may even say his indifference was an escape from the world outside the doors of his home — one aflame with injustice and oppression. As Moshe becomes aware of his true identity and stands up to the injustice of an oppressive taskmaster, his pampered and comfortable existence in Pharaoh’s palace is shattered.

We can all relate to moments like this in our own lives, moments when the thresholds of our understanding and expectations of the world around us are breached with new awareness, sometimes enabling us to discover new truths or bringing us back to our core identity; an act of remembering truths we once knew and have seemingly forgotten.

We are in slumber states for most of our week. To be awake is to cut through the pages of the newspaper, beyond the incessant attention of presidential debates, impending threats internationally and locally, to find the truths of our lives and keep us focused on our true purpose. It’s what should call us to greater action and response toward the threats of dignity for Jewish women in Israel, and the sobering reminder that there are more than 1 million people in our Los Angeles community who are undernourished and impoverished. 

This is the power of memory. Active memory is the capacity to awaken us from our existential slumber, to shatter our beliefs that the rhythms of daily responsibilities and our busyness make up our life’s purpose. Memory links us to greater truths — truths that make us uncomfortable and truths that soften us and bring us assurance that we matter in the lives of others. “Everybody needs his memories,” author Saul Bellow writes. “They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door.” 

In “Moonwalking With Einstein,” Joshua Foer chronicles his 2006 journey to the USA Memory Championship. The most interesting technique we learn from the book is constructing what is called a memory palace. The trick is to visualize a building, perhaps your childhood home or other home that is most familiar to you, and to imaginatively place facts, numbers and details around the house. Using your imagination and creating new associations with ones that are already deeply rooted in your memory, you simultaneously construct a method to remember significant amounts of information and nurture healthy brain development by creating new neural pathways. 

As I read the book, I could not help but relate this technique and its wisdom to our study of the Torah. Perhaps our Torah is one collective memory palace, a cultural and historical edifice of truths that we use to bring familiarity and new understanding to our lives. To read Torah this way is to see how the details, laden with thousands of years of history, is both an awakening to our core identity and an opportunity to build new information and new wisdom into our collective memory as a people, as Jews. The message of Moshe, if not the entire Jewish text tradition, is that we all have the capacity and responsibility to wake up and act in the world for goodness.

In this week’s parasha, we meet a Pharaoh who represents the antithesis to memory. His heart is hardened after each plague as if to say he forgets the awesome power the God of Israel displays time and again. Moshe stands as Pharaoh’s opposite here. He lives in Pharaoh’s palace until he wakes up. It is his determination and resilience to construct a new identity for himself and the Israelites that define redemption. It is through his memory that the bridge between slumber and wakefulness is secured.

Joshua Hoffman is a rabbi with Valley Beth Shalom, a Conservative congregation in Encino.

Humility vs. humiliation

For much of his life, Rabbi Elijah Schochet disliked the idiom “God willing,” an expression used by people trying to convey that their lives are subject to God’s discretion.

After Schochet was diagnosed with cancer and underwent a series of treatments at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, his thinking about “God willing” changed. He began to use the phrase much more, he said, after struggling against a disease that humbled him.

“Humility is a quality that Judaism emphasizes to an extraordinary degree,” said Schochet, a professor of Talmud at the Academy of Jewish Religion, California (AJRCA), speaking during the panel discussion “Humility and Humiliation,” at AJRCA on Nov. 26.

Organized by ARJCA, a transdenominational and pluralistic rabbinic school in Los Angeles, the discussion featured renowned scholars from each of the Abrahamic traditions speaking on the importance of humility and of avoiding humiliation in their respective religions.

Joining Schochet were Kathleen Greider, professor of practical theology, spiritual care and counseling at the Claremont School of Theology, and Ozgur Koca, an adjunct professor at Bayan Claremont, an Islamic graduate school of Claremont Lincoln University.

Tamar Frankiel, provost at AJRCA, moderated.

During the 90-minute event, the scholars pointed out how each of their leaders –— Moses, Jesus and Muhammad — was known for humility. They also addressed the need for repentance when their religions hurt others through humiliating acts.

Schochet spoke of Moses as Judaism’s “reluctant prophet,” who exemplified humility. He also discussed how words and insults can be used to humiliate and how it’s easy to overlook instances of humiliation, citing a passage in the Talmud that says if one asks an employee of a store about a product he or she has no intention of buying, that person is guilty of humiliating the employee.

Greider emphasized humility as a foundational virtue in Christianity, but acknowledged instances of Christian involvement in humiliation, such as Christians’ participation in acts of genocide and instances of imperialistic Evangelism and abuse within the Christian community.

Meanwhile, Koca spoke of the belief within Islam that “everything good in our life is coming from that source” that is God.

The event kicked off AJRCA’s “Voices of Wisdom” speaker series. The series’ next installment takes place on Jan. 24. The Claremont School of Theology and Bayan Claremont co-sponsored. To view the Nov. 26 discussion in its entirety, visit ClaremontLincoln.org.

Circumcise your hearts

Consider the artichoke for a moment. It is an odd but instructive vegetable. An artichoke is prickly and surrounded by an armor of leaves protecting the soft center, the heart of the food. Boiling or steaming it loosens the protective leaves, permitting you to pick them off one by one, unwrapping the delicious gift that lies inside.

Each leaf contains a hint, a sampling of the delicious center. But even if you combined all of the tastes provided by all of the leaves on an artichoke, it would never equal the delicate green heart; only by cutting or pulling away its protective layers can one get to the treasure that lies within.

In this week’s Torah portion, the Israelites are instructed by Moses to circumcise their hearts in service to God. Specifically, they are instructed to “cut away the thickening around their hearts and stiffen their necks no more” (Deuteronomy 10:16). It is a powerful and direct statement made by Moses to the people. At first thought it appears horrific; Israel knows what circumcision is, and you can well imagine that every male in the assembled crowd quickly adjusted their gaze, if not their stance, at just the mention of the word. Rest assured — even back then they knew Moses was speaking in metaphor.

Biblical psychology localizes feelings and emotions in the body, and points to the heart as the organ of comprehension — thus an uncircumcised heart is a closed mind. (Think of the ring ceremony at a Jewish wedding where the rings are placed on the right index finger with a vein directly connected to the heart.)

The prophet Jeremiah even provides an example of this concept. A farmer does not plant an untilled field that weeds have overtaken and the topsoil of which is hard as stone. To make the soil productive, he plows it and rids it of weeds. So it is with human beings; the human heart and mind must be cleared of harmful growth and made receptive. Only then can ideas strike root and grow. Much like you can’t eat an artichoke till you have pealed away its hard shell, so too the Torah tells us that the heart and mind cannot undertake acts of justice and mercy until the defensive layers we build around it are cut away and broken down.

It’s not an easy thing to take down one’s own defenses, certainly when those defenses have been built over years of confrontation and hurt feelings. You build a wall to keep things out, but it just as often has the negative effect of keeping things in. Our lives are really not all that different from those of our biblical ancestors; life-styles might differ, but the basic truths of human nature and social interaction are as true in the Torah as they are today.

Our ancestors encountered a world where they were slaves to a tyrant; we may work in a job with our own taskmasters and pharaohs. In biblical times, such a situation caused Israel to be untrusting, stiff necked, hard of heart. Is the same not true for many of us? Have we not built our defenses against character assassination and image degradation so high as to harden our hearts to anyone who has even the potential to show us ill will?

For a time Israel did not want to accept the Torah because they didn’t trust that anyone, far be it God, would look with favor upon them. It took 10 plagues and the parting of the Red Sea to convince the Children of Israel to open their hearts and minds to Torah, and even then Moses was compelled to command them again in this week’s parasha not to rebuild those defenses, those walls that prevented them from letting God into their lives.

When an artichoke blossoms it is the heart that grows first; the leaves come after to protect the delicate treasure. Likewise with the field in which it is planted; sure, after years of planting and harvesting it becomes resistant to growth, and if left dormant for a season it develops its own defense against those who would seek to assault it. But the treasure is always there — behind the leaves of the artichoke, under the stone-like topsoil of a field, inside the thickened walls we build around our heart.

Our tradition teaches that one of the many purposes of the covenant between God and the Jewish people is to elevate the human experience to help us find, recognize and create holiness in our lives and those we touch.

Anything that prevents this, our parasha instructs us, must be cut away and removed so that the treasure that lies inside can be receptive once again. This week entertain a new idea, embrace an old but now distant friend, rekindle relationships long dormant with those we love and have loved, let the words of Torah, the teachings of Judaism once again be a sign upon our hands, set them as a seal upon our hearts.

Dan Moskovitz is a rabbi at Temple Judea, a Reform congregation in Tarzana. Visit his blog at jewishjournal.com/iRabbi.

Rhyme and Reason: Parshat Chukat (Numbers 19:1-22:1)

This week’s portion bears one of the Torah’s great enigmas. What exactly did Moshe Rabbeinu do that prompted God to bar him from crossing the Jordan into Israel?

What was the infraction?

Most students are taught that Moshe’s misfeasance was that he hit the boulder even though God told him only to speak to it. If Moshe and Aaron only had spoken to the boulder, the witnessing nation would have been overwhelmed by the miracle of an inanimate rock obeying, responding dutifully by providing ample water for 3 million people. Under that theory, proffered in the midrash Tanchuma and popularized for all by the premier Torah commentator, Rashi, Moshe diminished the awe by hitting the boulder. A thoroughbred runs faster at Churchill Downs when hit than when its jockey coos soft urging words. Presumably, a boulder responds to hitting, too. Thus, Moshe diminished the miracle.

Yet many of our greatest Torah commentators, including Rashi’s most prominent contemporaries, disagree with Rashi’s take — and with each other in deciphering this puzzle. First, they ask, is it less miraculous when hitting a boulder prompts it to give water? (Can you do that?) Indeed, in Exodus 17:5-6, the people also had complained of thirst, and God told Moshe to take his staff and strike a boulder. The water then miraculously flowed, quenching the nation copacetically. Besides, if God did not want the boulder hit, why did He tell Moshe to take his staff — a command virtually synonymous with Divine expectation that the staff actuate the miracle?

So what was Moshe’s bad?

Rav Avraham Ibn Ezra believes Moshe let the mass complaining get him flustered, breaking his prophetic concentration, resulting in a temporary failure when trying initially to implement the miracle by properly hitting. People saw nothing had happened. Having lost focus, Moshe needed to recapture his concentration, requiring his hitting the boulder a second time. That diminished the miracle.

Rambam (Maimonides), by contrast, discerns a rare temper outburst. Moshe, the most humble of people, seemingly lost his temper, according to Rambam, when he called the people “rebels.” Inasmuch as Moshe’s every action and word was that of teacher and role model, his anger — if Rambam perceives accurately here — would have taught that God does not want to be bothered when there is no water in the desert. But that was not God’s message. Rambam believes Moshe reversed a teachable moment into a wrong lesson.

Ramban (Nachmanides) disagrees. First, Aaron never lost his temper; yet God decreed against him, too. Besides, the people indeed were angering God; therefore, some tough talk from Moshe was appropriate. Accordingly, Ramban prefers Rabbeinu Chananel’s interpretation that Moshe erred in his wording of the rhetorical question he posed: “What? From this boulder shall we bring forth water for you?” It was not “we” who would be bringing forth water. It was God. Moreover, Ramban observes that, if Moshe and Aaron had proceeded with proper Divine focus and equanimity, only one tap of the boulder would have effectuated the miracle, but they instead needed to hit twice because a quietly controlled anger caused Moshe briefly to lose his Divine focus at the first strike.

So which is it? What, then, did Moshe and Aaron do that was wrong? Maybe God worded the Torah’s presentation cryptically to teach that, really, it is none of our business. These were our greatest leaders ever. The burden of leadership exposes individuals to public scrutiny. Fear of public scrutiny deters many great people from assuming leadership, often leaving mediocrities to take the reins. Maybe God wanted to assure us that there was rhyme and reason in His ending their lives on the Jordan’s eastern bank, on Holy Land that would be parceled to more than two tribes. Maybe He barred them in part so a new leader could lead a new generation into freedom in our own land. Maybe in part because, as leaders of the Exodus from Egypt, somehow it would not be fitting for these two leaders to enter.

God conceived the rhyme. They understood the reason. And perhaps it is none of our business other than to know that none of us is perfect, we all are held to individually tailored standards, and we should let our leaders live their lives without our holding them to subjective expectations that God would not countenance.

Rabbi Dov Fischer, adjunct professor of law at Loyola Law School, is rabbi of Young Israel of Orange County. He blogs at rabbidov.com.

Moses, media piracy and the MPAA

If only people understood why they shouldn’t do it, then they wouldn’t do it.

That was the message of the ” target=”_hplink”>report, published by the authoritative Social Science Research Council, came out just a couple of weeks before Chris Dodd’s speech.  “Does Education Work?” is the title of one of its sections.  Here’s the answer:

“We see no evidence that this knowledge [that file sharing of copyrighted material is piracy] will have any impact on practices.  We see no real ‘education’ of the consumer to be done…. Efforts to stigmatize piracy have failed…. Although education is generally presented as a long-term investment in counteracting these attitudes, the lack of evidence for their effectiveness is striking.”

Not only is there no evidence that education has been building a stronger “culture of intellectual property.”  There’s also little evidence that enforcement works.  Splashy raids haven’t reduced piracy.  Two weeks ago the judge in a lawsuit by13 record companies against LimeWire called their demand for

Calling Moses

Jewish tradition instructs that young children should begin their Jewish education by studying the book of Leviticus. Even a cursory reading of the blood and gore that make up the sacrificial rites described in the third book of the Torah would lead most teachers to conclude that these verses would likely be the beginning of the end for a child’s Jewish education.

I imagine children running screaming from the heder as their teacher describes to them, in detail, how an animal is cut this way and that, its blood sprinkled and splayed upon the altar as a pleasing sacrifice to the Eternal. Granted it was a different time, but just the thought gives me nightmares.

To be fair, the tradition actually gives a reason to start a child with Leviticus. Much of the book concerns itself with the laws of purity, and as the midrash explains, “Children are pure, so let them start their studies there” (Leviticus Rabbah 7:3). Some commentators further explain that we begin with the teaching of sacrifice to remark from the outset that life involves sacrifice. I cannot disagree with the reasoning, but I think there is another, more child-friendly reason to introduce our children to the words of Leviticus — although I would start with just one word, the very first word, Vayikra.

In this week’s portion, Moses stands outside the Tent of Meeting that the Israelites were commanded to build in the last chapters of Exodus. God’s presence fills the tent. Moses, in awe and reverence, remains outside, along with all 600,000 Israelites, waiting to see what happens next, not daring to enter until summoned. The portion therefore begins, “And God called [unto] Moses and spoke to him from the Tent of Meeting” (Leviticus 1:1). The great Torah commentator Rashi teaches that it was necessary for God to call out to Moses because he was outside the tent and God was inside — pragmatically God had to raise his voice to be heard. And so, “Vayikra” — “And God called out [to Moses].”

The last letter of Vayikra is alef, and in the Torah it is written smaller than all the other letters of the word — about half the size. Why?

Imagine you are standing with 600,000 people and a voice booms forth from the heavens calling your name. The first time you hear it, I imagine you would be overcome with terror. But if this is a regular occurrence for you, your reaction might be one of self-importance and arrogance. “The boss needs me again. Sorry guys, gotta go — seems he just can’t run the world without me.” But not Moses; he is humble in the face of all the attention.

How does a tiny alef teach us this? First, the word alef by itself means “to teach,” and it is written in such a way that we can see it as both part of the word and separate from it.

But the deeper lesson is to remind us that Moses saw himself as small, like the aleph — he did not read his own press. Moses does not feel inflated because God calls him. If anything, Moses is humbled that God singles him out in front of everyone. Remember, it was only two weeks ago in our reading that Moses’ humility saved the Jewish people. After the incident with the Golden Calf, God offers to destroy the Children of Israel and find a new people for Moses to lead, but Moses turns God down.

Rashi points out that Moses argues to God that if the Israelites could not survive by the merit of our ancestors Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, they would never be able to survive by the merit of Moses alone. He says, “If a chair of three legs cannot survive God’s anger, a chair of one leg will stand no chance.”

Maybe we should indeed begin a child’s Jewish education with “Vayikra” — not for the blood and gore, but for the example of humility that Moses provides.

Children so often become the center of attention — they need parenting and guidance, they can’t drive, they need help with schoolwork. That is appropriate and necessary. But just because we make them the center of our world — in an effort to build them into citizens and menschen, and simply because we love them — that doesn’t mean they should think the world revolves around them. Moses was God’s “go-to guy,” and even he knew to wait to be called instead of busting into the Tent of Meeting and demanding an audience. A little alef teaches a big lesson about humility. If Moses, for whom seas part and bushes burn, can be patient and wait to be called on, then so can our children — indeed, so can we all.

Dan Moskovitz is a rabbi at Temple Judea (templejudea.com), a Reform congregation in Tarzana.

Restoring Moses

It isn’t nice to say, but if I were hanging out in the desert with my friends — all excited about moving in to a land of milk, honey and great falafel — and an old man with a stutter insisted on “speaking into our ears” a weird doom and gloom poem, my likely remark would be: “That dude’s got issues.”

Had Moses been able to see a psychologist, imagine the intake sheet:

  • Abandonment issues stemming from parental desertion during early infancy;
  • Subconscious association between water and maternal rejection;
  • Repressed resentment toward stepfather;
  • Recurring identity crisis;
  • Homicidal tendencies;
  • Fear of ridicule due to speech impediment and unconventional spiritual practices;
  • Suspicion of women concurrent with post-traumatic stress disorder (note: subject was circumcised in adulthood … by his wife);
  • Propensity toward introversion (subject at one point spent 40 days alone on a mountain) and anorexia (without eating);
  • Physical insecurity (subject was forced to hide unusual physical radiance with a veil for social acceptance);
  • Severe authority and individuation issues.

It’s remarkable that despite a lifetime of personality-disordering circumstances, Moses maintained his composure as the conduit of God’s word and directive for as long as he did. Only in this last parsha of his life does he begin to go a little meshuggeh.

Into the ears of every member of the congregation of Israel, as well as the sky, Moses insists upon the words “of [his] mouth: “My doctrine shall drop as the rain/my speech shall distill as the dew/as the small rain upon the tender grass/and as the showers upon the herb. For I will proclaim the name of the Lord” (Deuteronomy 32:2-3).

My doctrine; my speech; I will proclaim. This pessimistic prose distinguishes the wounded ego of a man that has consumed the inspired soul of a prophet. His Ha’azinu (literally, “give ear to”) demonstrates how base and mundane his consciousness has become; he is infinitely distant from harnessing the receptivity of listening to the still, small voice of God. Instead, he projects the blaring violence of his own unrequited rage onto the ears of physical world, shouting, “The blemish of His sons/they are a perverse and crooked generation … they shall be sucked empty by hunger, and devoured with burning heat” (Deuteronomy 32:5, 24).

This self-centered diatribe seals his fate: To die before entering the land that he devoted his life to promise.

“God spoke to Moses that same day, saying … behold the land of Canaan, which I give to the children of Israel for possession … because you transgressed against me among [them] … at the waters of merivot [bitterness] in Kadesh … because you sanctified me not in the midst of the children of Israel. For you shall see the land before you, but you will not go there into the land” (Deuteronomy 32:48-52).

I can empathize with Moses’ uncontrollable urge to hit a rock and shout back at the unremitting kvetchfest of dissatisfied Yids. There was a time in my career when a congregant’s complaint that I didn’t pronounce their second cousin once removed’s last name correctly at the oneg could send me blubbering to my shrink. (A therapist would surely seek to reassure Moses that he was still lovable.)

Meanwhile, God’s response to His best employee’s outburst while drawing water from a rock is punishment by unrequited death?

But we must consider: Perhaps God tests against the shortcomings of an individual solely according to their distinct potential.

Not only did Moses lose his temper before the people, disobeying God’s instructions and producing waters of merivot for them to drink, but he never learned the lesson. He never returned to himself, nor to God; rather, he got lost in the noise of his own transgression.

Calvin Coolidge said, “No man ever listened himself out of a job.” Had Moses been able to take, rather than deliver, the command to lend an ear; if he had stopped imposing the vibration of his utterances on water, or questioned the nightmare of false blame disguised as prophecy he was so consumed with articulating; if he had finally realized his only job was to surrender the burden of shouldering faith and understanding of the sanctity of God to the people — he would have been the promise he imagined to be distant from the place he stood.

Alas, he was too injured to listen to anyone in the end, thus the peace that his lifetime of devotion ought to have rendered him remains our responsibility to restore. We are the children who inherited the promise. We are the Israelites in whose midst God must be sanctified. We are the redeemers; the ones whose words of blessing can sweeten the most bitter of waters and whose courage to listen in silence will amplify the gentle whisper of Truth on the wind.

Let us return him to wholeness through fulfilling in our lives what he failed to do in his own. Let us believe in the sustenance we have been promised and provided by the Eternal One. Let us declare and then quietly revel in our deliverance with faith and devotion to the Rock from which miracles stream endlessly forth.

Rabbi Karen Deitsch works as a freelance officiant and lecturer in Los Angeles. She can be reached at karendeitsch@yahoo.com.

Poetry and Taxis

“So much of a writer’s life consists of assumed suffering, rhetorical suffering, that I felt something like relief, even elation, when the doctor told me that I had cancer of the prostate. Suddenly there was in the air a rich sense of crisis, real crisis, yet one that also contained echoes of ideas like the crisis of language, the crisis of literature, or of personality. It seemed to me that my existence, whatever I thought, felt or did, had taken on a kind of meter, as in poetry or in taxis.”

So begins Anatole Broyard’s book, “Intoxicated by My Illness and Other Writings on Life and Death,” a book published posthumously after Broyard died in 1990 from advanced prostate cancer.

I cannot imagine feeling elation when facing cancer, but Broyard’s point haunts me: When we lose sight of death, we let life slip away. When we think we have forever, days fade into weeks and months. Didn’t we just finish Pesach? How is Rosh Hashanah already here again? Another year has slipped away.

Ask yourself, “Was my year lived with poetry?” Or must we wait (hope?) for illness and death to awaken us from a living sleep?

Parshat Vayeilech begins, “Moshe went and spoke these words to all of Israel. He said to them, ‘I am a hundred and twenty years old today; I can no longer go out and come in, for Adonai has said to me, ‘You shall not cross this Jordan'” (Deuteronomy 31:1-2).

Rashi says Moshe knew he only had hours to live: “Today my days and years are complete; on this day I was born, and on this day, I will die.”

Based on the Zohar, Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar teaches that holy people can sense their impending death; they can tell when their souls are leaving their bodies and “visiting” their eventual resting place in the world above.

Knowing that he will die today, what does Moshe do with the last moments of his life? Does he buy a fast camel and feel the wind in his hair? Does he have a fling? No. Moshe goes and speaks to Israel. He tells them God will be with them as they enter the land. He tells them, “Be strong and courageous” (Deuteronomy 31:6), and he summons Joshua in front of all of Israel and tells him the same (Deuteronomy 31:7). Moshe works to place Joshua firmly as his successor knowing his death approaches, knowing they also will need another leader.

The parsha begins, “Moshe went,” and because the Torah does not specify, commentators ask: “Where did Moshe go?”

Nachmanidies answers by picturing Moshe going to the tent of each Israelite to honor them, “like someone who wishes to take leave of his friend and comes to ask permission of him.”

Seforno says he went to comfort Israel about his impending death, so that the joy of the covenant, which they had just entered into with God, would not be diminished. Ever his people’s shepherd, Moshe tends to his flock, comforts them and seeks to lift their spirits, even as the final hours and minutes of his life slip away.

What I find most instructive about all of these stories is that faced with the end of his life, Moshe does what he has always done; he continues to lead the people. Death does not change him because his life has been well lived.

Rosh Hashanah is here again. Was your year lived well? What would you do if, God forbid, you knew you only had a year, or a month, or a week, or a day to live? Would it change you?

After Rabbi Eliezer said, “Repent one day before your death,” his disciples asked him, “Does one know the day he will die?”

Rabbi Eliezer replied, “All the more reason to repent today, lest one die tomorrow” (Shabbat 153a).

Repent today. Change today.

Broyard concluded the opening essay of his book by describing how “[t]he British psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott began an autobiography that he never finished. The first paragraph simply says, ‘I died.’ In the fifth paragraph he writes, ‘Let me see. What was happening when I died? My prayer had been answered. I was alive when I died. That was all I had asked for and I had got it.’ Though he never finished his book, he gave the best reason in the world for writing one, and that’s why I want to write mine — to make sure I’ll be alive when I die.”

Broyard was a writer. Moshe was a leader. Both died living.

Do not wait for illness or death to come. Live with meter, as in poetry or in taxis.

Rabbi Daniel Greyber is the executive director of Camp Ramah in California and the Zimmer Conference Center of the American Jewish University.

How to comfort and be comforted

Consoling people after they’ve suffered a loss, especially when it’s the death of a loved one, is never easy. No matter what we say, we can never bring back the beloved to this world. How often do we sit by the mourner’s side in awkward silence, feeling completely impotent in our inability to remove the pain.

Tisha B’Av is the day that commemorates not only the destruction of the two ancient Temples in Jerusalem, but also all our people’s national tragedies throughout Jewish history. The Shabbat after Tisha B’Av is called Shabbat Nachamu, because we recite the words of the prophet Isaiah (40:1): “Nachamu, nachamu, ami….” (“Be consoled, be consoled, my people….”) There will come a time, the prophet says, that your exile will end, and your future will once again be bright.

The seeming paradox is that on the very same Shabbat we read about the prophet’s consolation in the haftarah, we also read in the Torah portion about Moses’ personal tragedy, which seems to have no consolation. God tells Moses that although he’s faithfully led His people through the desert these past 40 years, and although the Jews are now standing at the very border of the Holy Land, Moses himself will never be allowed entry, and will die and be buried outside of Israel.

How is God’s refusal to Moses consistent with the theme of consolation on this Shabbat of consolation?

Moses was teaching the people a new form of consolation: Know, my brethren, that sometimes the answer will be “no.” Sometimes, God, in his infinite wisdom, must say no to our petitions. We may not understand how this can possibly be good, but I, Moses, assure you that it is ultimately for our benefit.

(Indeed, our sages on this passage go to great lengths to explain why it was in the Jews’ best interests for Moses not to gain entry into the land, which is a discussion that requires a separate essay.)

An additional lesson is contained in Moses’ words: When I asked God to enter the land with you, my brethren, it was because I had just succeeded in my latest mission of defeating those nations just east of the Jordan River. Perhaps, I reasoned, since we are so close to our goal, God will allow me to see it to its final stage and let me enter the land. But alas, even though I was so close, it was not meant to be. Sometimes, it may appear that we are so close to our goals, and then, at the last moment, our hopes are dashed and tragedy strikes.

Devastated though I may be, Moses continued, God did console me with one last wish: He is allowing me to go up to a mountain top where I will at least be able to see all of the Holy Land that you, my disciples, children and brethren, will inherit and enjoy. This, too, is consolation indeed.

In this light, Moses’ tale of tragedy is consistent with the consolation of the prophet. Sometimes, God’s answer must be “no.” But even when it is, God will find a way to give us a glimmer of hope for the future, that life will go on, our people will live on, and there will be a brighter tomorrow.

We have experienced, in our long national history, many misfires of messianic redemption and have heard “no” many times bellowing from heaven. We have witnessed, in our own generation, great hopes for peace in Israel, only to see those hopes dashed to pieces a short time later. But we mustn’t lose sight of the consolation contained therein: God is watching from heaven, and even when the answer is “no,” we are still provided with a vision, with a glimpse of what can yet still be. Imagine when the answer finally will be “yes,” how beautiful that “yes” will be.

There is no such thing as hollow consolation. The answer to one’s prayers might have been “no.” But when the mourner is embraced by his friends and family, when he or she is reassured that no one is ever alone and that life will go on with joy amid the pain, this is truly consolation.

Rabbi N. Daniel Korobkin is rosh kehilla of Yavneh Hebrew Academy and director of synagogue and community services for the Orthodox Union’s West Coast region.

VIDEO: The Ten Commandments according to an ‘action figure’ that speaks

“Best $8 I’ve ever spent,” wrote YouTube videographer urinbextasy

Yes, we know this is a Christian version of the Top Ten Commandments.

Correct priorities

While I was in my synagogue’s office one morning, the phone rang, and I answered. The lady on the other end said, “Hello, may I please speak to the owner?”

I answered, “Certainly, it will be our pleasure to let you talk to him. You have reached The House of God, and the Owner is available at either 6:15 or 7:45 every morning, or during this coming week He can also be reached at 7:45 in the evening.”

“Well in that case I will call back at one of those times,” the lady said.

I responded, “Oh no, you can’t do that because the Owner doesn’t take any telephone calls. You must come in person to see Him if you wish to talk to Him.”

By now the lady was getting a bit frustrated and said, “Excuse me, but why can’t Mr. Gad come to the phone?”

I told her, “Because He only likes a face-to-face conversation.”

It was then she must have realized she hadn’t reached a typical business. “Sir, may I ask what kind of business have I reached?”

“Madam, you have reached a synagogue.”

Her response was most telling. “Oh, in that case I can’t sell you anything. Nothing that I am selling will impress your boss,” she said before hanging up.

This lady’s observation is the theme of a story recounted in this week’s Torah portion.

In Chapter 32, the Torah recounts how the tribes of Reuven and Gad negotiated with Moses to let them settle the Trans-Jordan. Reuven and Gad argued coherently and logically for the land. They noted that this land was originally owned by the defeated Kings of Bashan and the Emorites and was therefore not inhabited by anyone. What were they to do with it? Just let it go unused? It was fertile and well watered, more so than the territory on the other side of the Jordan.

With these facts, they came to Moses and offered what they thought was a reasonable proposition. They had a multitude of cattle, and the Trans-Jordan land was perfect for raising cattle. If they would take possession of it, everyone would benefit. It would enlarge the boundaries of the Jewish state, and it would give more room for the other 10 tribes to divide the land west of the Jordan, creating more prosperity for all involved.

Moses bitterly opposed this idea. He was so incensed with their proposal that he compared their idea to the sin of the scouts who caused the people to be punished with 40 years of wandering in the desert. He was concerned that their proposal would sabotage the entire enterprise of settling the Land of Israel, making the other tribes lose interest in fighting for the land. The argument between Moses and the two tribes only ended when they entered into an agreement that the two tribes would act as the vanguard in capturing the Land of Israel.

But the question remains, what justification did Moses have that allowed him to denounce them so fiercely? How could he compare them to the scouts? Our sages noted that the answer lay in the wording of their proposal. They told Moses, “We will build sheepfolds here for our cattle, and cities for our little ones” (Numbers 32:16). Rashi, the classical medieval commentator, considered this wording and came to the conclusion: “They were concerned for their property more than they were for their sons and daughters, for they put the mention of their livestock ahead of their children.”

What came first in their request? It was the sheepfolds and not the children. It was making money and not building schools and synagogues that took priority. For that reason Moses was upset. He responded by changing the order when he told the two tribes, “Build you cities for your little ones, and folds for your flock; and do that which has gone out of your mouth” (Numbers 32:24).

Rashi explains, “Moses said to them: This is not right. Make that which is essential essential and that which is secondary secondary. First build cities for your children and afterward enclosures for your penning.”

Moses challenged them to realize that their values needed adjusting.

It would be wrong for us to just interpret this story as a moment in biblical history without realizing it resonates with modern man just as it did some 3,500 years ago.

How many of us place our work before our families and all other concerns? One modern ethicist captured the entire issue when he said, “No tombstone ever read, ‘He spent extra hours in the office.'”

At the end of the day the Almighty is impressed with us only when we know how to organize our priorities correctly.

Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.

VIDEO: Duke professor searches for ‘kohanim’ genetic marker

Dr. David B. Goldstein from Duke’s Institute for Genome Sciences and Policy talks about tracking the genetic history of the ancient Jewish priesthood (kohanim) and the Lost Tribe of Israel, the focus of his news book, “Jacob’s Legacy”.

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.