In tribute to modern-day Miriams
At the heart of the story of Exodus lies the bond between sister and brother. Indeed, “Miriam nurtured Moshe and Moshe, later in life, prayed for her healing. It’s a beautiful relationship,” says Rebbetzin Tamar Taback.
“At the age of seven, Miriam had a prophecy that her mother would give birth to the redeemer of her people. She nurtured that prophecy, trusted it, and did her part all the way through,” says Taback, the world-renowned founder of Nexus, a school of Torah study for women.
“When Moses was born, her father celebrated Miriam’s prophecy coming to fruition. However, circumstances in Egypt became so dangerous for the Jewish people, that the family elected to send Moses down the river in the bassinet to try and save his life. Now, her father rebuked her prophecy.
“Of course, Moses was well on his way towards fulfilling it, for he would soon be found by Pharaoh’s daughter. Her father could see only on the surface of the disaster; Miriam had the capacity to dig deep into the reservoir of faith and keep on believing.”
As such, Taback says, “Miriam embodies the symbol of the well: when the earth is dry and parched, you don’t see anything. The well is from deep within the earth; it’s a hidden reservoir.”
“This is the secret of Miriam. Even when the situation is dire and the earth parched, she is able to send a bucket, a cord into the deep wells of her soul, her emunah, her invigorating hope and capacity to see beyond the immediate constraints to a future.”
To Dr Franklin Kessler, his sister, Vivian Anstey, is the embodiment of a modern-day Miriam. Six years ago, she donated her kidney to him.
“My sister and I were very close from early on. So, when she decided that she wanted to donate one of her kidneys to me to improve my quality of life – actually to save my life – that relationship became even closer.”
Anstey, too, remembers a close childhood, growing up together in Bellville, Cape Town, with Kessler, who is three years older than her.
Even when he made aliyah about 30 years ago, they remained strongly connected and in constant contact as her brother continued to experience kidney deterioration.
Then a few years ago, he told her that his condition had reached the point that he would have to go on dialysis or find a donor.
Although he didn’t ask for her help, Anstey decided that that she would research the possibility of being a match.
“In retrospect, I realise that even entertaining the idea clinched the deal right there,” Anstey says.
A turning point in understanding this was when she had a conversation with a friend who is a doctor. “The first comment he made to me was, ‘Do you realise that your brother will be living with a life sentence?’ Not a death sentence, a life sentence, which basically meant that my decision would influence his life.”
It made her realise that, “I wouldn’t have been able to live with myself watching him struggle being a doctor himself and having to go onto dialysis a couple of hours every single day of his life.
“The pain and suffering that he would have gone through and which I would have endured as a bystander, wasn’t an option. Being a sister, I had a sense of responsibility.”
Anstey was also motivated by the Jewish teaching that the question regarding organ donation of this kind is no longer whether one should offer one’s assistance, but the risk of doing so.
“‘Am I my ‘brother’s keeper’? The reality is that if families are close and there’s a connection, then, yes.”
Anstey underwent numerous tests, and it emerged that “many of the prerequisites aligned”.
She made plans to go to Israel to undergo the procedure with her brother. The operation was a success.
She remembers how after the operation, the hospital wanted their families to be involved in the recovery; so with two extra mattresses, she and her brother, along with his son and her husband, all stayed in the ward together.
Since then, her brother’s health has improved remarkably. “He started on about 30 to 35 pills a day. Now he visits for check-ups once a year, and is fully back to work. It’s an absolute blessing.”
For Kessler, Vivian is the core of this blessing.
“I feel like I’m carrying with me a part of an angel that is my sister. That sums up every aspect of her character and her giving nature. I’m thankful to her, and full of love for her,” he says.
Reflecting on the Torah lessons drawn from Miriam’s life, Taback says, “Miriam teaches us to have an expansive perspective: a big mind and a big heart. Although her name comes from the Hebrew root letters for the word ‘bitter’, this is in fact a celebration of her attribute to turn the bitterest of times into those of hope, knowing that through the powers of compassion and faith, all in fact will be revealed as sweet in the end. It’s the deepest level of transformation.”
The relationship between Raelene Tradonsky and her brother, Cecil Shapiro, is a tribute to finding the sweetest joy in connection.
Shapiro is physically and mentally disabled. Growing up together in Johannesburg, Tradonsky’s memories are of a very close bond. “Where I went, my brother went. We shared everything. I didn’t know any different. I thought it was a privilege.
“I literally brushed my brother’s teeth every single night until I moved out of home when I got married. Cecil was just such an enormous part of my life.”
Tradonsky says her parents were fiercely dedicated to her and her brother. They ensured that Shapiro received the affection and nurture of his family at all times. “My father used to say to me, even when I was a little girl and didn’t quite understand, that ‘Cecil is our responsibility; he isn’t yours’. He never laid guilt on me. That allowed me to do what I do with love. It wasn’t a sense of burden or responsibility.”
She is indebted to the Chevrah Kadisha and Selwyn Segal, where Shapiro now lives, for the love and care he has been given. She even previously served as treasurer in support of their work.
While her father passed away some time ago, her mother died only recently of COVID-19. It’s a loss that has made her connection to Shapiro feel even more poignant. Time spent together, even when bringing him his favourite treats of biltong, cold drinks, Flings, and popcorn, brings equal joy to them as siblings.
“I love speaking to him, as much as he loves speaking to me. It calms me,” Tradonsky says. His experiences have shown her the “simplicity of life, but also the reality of life”.
Over time, she has come to realise the gift that she has been given by her experience of being Shapiro’s sister. While for many, there’s an element of discomfort when going to a place like Selwyn Segal, for her it’s different. “It just comes naturally to me to be able to talk, hug, and love them because it’s all I have known. It gives me empathy and a sense of compassion.”
She says her parents’ example taught her that “if you can get siblings to love each other, then your job as a parent is done. Not just in our case, but even between siblings with different personalities. It’s about tolerance, acceptance, and mostly just loving the person for who and what they are, not necessarily what you want them to be.”
The deep sense of love between the two is evident in Shapiro as well. When it comes to talking about Tradonsky, he simply declares, “I love her very much. She is my sister, my only sister.”
Mother nature’s gifts
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks said, “The name of our parsha seems to embody a paradox. It’s called ‘Chayei Sarah’ [The Life of Sarah], but it begins with the death of Sarah. What’s more, it records the death of Abraham. Why is a parsha about death called life? The answer, it seems, is that death and how we face it is a commentary on life and how we live it.”
Abraham knew that everything that happened to him, even the bad things, were part of the journey which G-d had sent him and Sarah on, and he had the faith to walk through the valley of the shadow of death fearing no evil, knowing that G-d was with him.
I see and feel profound meaning in this paradox. Sarah’s social status – and its impact on the future of her family and people – was so great, it only increased after her passing.
Sarah, our mother, our matriarch, the mother of Klal Yisrael (the Jewish people), was quite the “modern” woman. She led her life with clear vision and purpose. She had the courage to follow her convictions, no matter how progressive they were at the time. She was a role model for women of her era, as well as becoming a role model for the modern woman of the 21st century.
We can’t forget that we live in a world of duality, of light and dark, hot and cold, male and female. Sarah knew that according to well-established laws, neither side of that duality was more important than the other. In fact, they were really different degrees of the same thing – and in truth, light couldn’t exist without darkness, neither could men exist without women – and vice versa.
We often get so caught up in our own lives that we seldom pay attention to the power of mother nature. Let’s take a simple example of one mistakenly cutting oneself while preparing dinner for the family. The wound bleeds. Perhaps we run some water over it, or apply some pressure, and shortly thereafter, we leave it alone. What does mother nature do? She moves according to well-established laws, laws that are firmly in the direction of healing, and the wound begins to heal on its own. It’s only when we interfere with mother nature that things tend to go wrong. Left to her own devices, we are generally in good hands.
We should do all that we can to uplift those around us to see the same light we see, and then allow mother nature (through the womb of time) to do what she does best. Let’s not be consumed by trying to sweep the darkness out of the dark room. Let’s be like Sarah, and turn our attention to the light, reach out, and switch it on. We must know that we have received a gift from our ancestors, and pass those gifts down, l’dor vador (from generation to generation) through the generations of mothers following Sarah.
Our sages teach of the obligation of every Jew to ask, “When will my actions reach those of our illustrious patriarchs and matriarchs?” We see the prototype of kindness at the beginning of this week’s Torah reading, when Abraham and Sarah display remarkable hospitality towards three strangers travelling through the desert. Abraham bows down to each of them, and presents a more elaborate banquet than Bill Gates served this week at his daughter’s wedding – each guest received his own tongue. Why was this necessary? One tongue would have been sufficient. Why does Abraham go to such lengths to make each of the guests feel like a king? What motivated Abraham’s behaviour?
The Midrash describes Abraham’s meeting with Sheim, the son of Noach. Abraham asks Sheim, “What did you and your family do for the year you were in the Ark?” Sheim answers, “We were all involved with the kindness of feeding the animals 24/7”. Abraham realised that the foundation of the new world G-d was starting was kindness – olam chesed yibaneh (the world is built on kindness). Hashem’s training for the people who would build this new world was constant acts of kindness.
Abraham reasoned that if Hashem valued the kindness done to animals in the Ark, how much more so would he value it when the kindness was done to human beings who are created betzelem elokim (with a spark of the divine). Avraham clearly saw the fingerprints of the creator in the world. He saw the spark of Hashem in himself, and he was then able to see the spark of Hashem in others. Only those who recognise their own G-dly soul will recognise it in the human beings around them. Avraham and Sarah’s kindness wasn’t simply to help those less fortunate than themselves, they saw the divine spark in every human being, and they treated their guests like royalty, impressing upon them their own self-worth and uniqueness. Their kindness was designed to uplift people, to raise them up to recognise their inner greatness.
This is different to how most of us see others. We usually have zero tolerance for those who are slightly different to us in any way. We need to follow the example of our patriarchs and matriarchs in doing true acts of kindness by seeing G-d’s presence in the world, identifying the divine spark in ourselves, and recognising it in others.
In the brave steps of Abraham
In this week’s Torah portion, Lech Lecha, we read about the first Jew, Avraham, who resisted the tide of paganism, idolatry, and immorality. Society had moved away from monotheism and Avraham’s beliefs were ridiculed. However, Avraham stayed the course and in spite of great personal risk and at the cost of ostracism from his family, he spread the belief in one G-d.
The portion opens with G-d giving Avraham a direct command to travel out of his homeland and away from his family in order to spread his newfound message. G-d’s command to Avraham in this verse can additionally be seen as a command to us to leave the comfort of our insular lives and venture out to the world at large to transform it into a G-dly place.
While we may be satisfied by staying within the safe confines of the Judaism that we have grown up with, it’s no recipe for growth. G-d therefore tells us that if we enter the real world, our full inner potential will be realised, and our true, best selves will come to the fore.
Fighting the prevailing attitudes of the day has never been easy, but as Jews, we can be reassured that our forefathers have travelled this path before us. The Midrash teaches that “the actions of the fathers are a signpost for the children”. Another translation of the word siman or “signpost” is “empowerment”, and the Midrash teaches us that by risking their lives to spread the belief in one G-d, our forefathers made it easier for us to follow their example.
At this time of year, when we have hopefully been inspired by a month of festivals and are thinking about moving forward in our Judaism, we can be confident that we are following the advice of tried and tested authorities all the way back to Avraham.
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