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.”
The never-ending voice
And Charlton Heston came down from Mount Sinai and gave us the ten commandments. Oops! Sorry, make that Moses. And he was carrying the tablets with the Big 10, repeated this week in Deuteronomy as part of Moses’ review of the past 40 years. He describes how G-d spoke those words in a mighty voice that didn’t end.
Rashi writes that Moses is contrasting G-d’s voice with human voices. The finite voice of a human being, even a Pavarotti, will fade and falter. It cannot go on forever. But the voice of the Almighty didn’t end, didn’t weaken. It remained strong throughout.
Is this all the great prophet had to teach us about the voice of G-d? That it was a powerful baritone? Is the greatness of the Infinite One, that he didn’t suffer from shortness of breath, that He didn’t need a few puffs of Ventolin? Is this a meaningful motivation for the Jews to accept the Torah?
Moses was the greatest of all prophets. He foresaw what no other prophet could see. Perhaps he saw his people becoming caught up in the civilization of ancient Greece, in the beauty, culture, philosophy, and art of the day. And they might question, “Is Torah still relevant?”
Perhaps he foresaw Jews empowered by the industrial revolution, where they might have thought Torah to be somewhat backward. Or maybe it was during the Russian Revolution, where faith and religion were deemed to be absolutely primitive.
Maybe Moses saw our own generation, with space shuttles and satellites, teleprompters and technology. And he saw young people questioning whether the good book still spoke to them.
And so, Moses tells us that the voice that thundered from Sinai was no ordinary voice. This was a voice that wasn’t only powerful at the time, it didn’t end. And it still rings out, still resonates, and speaks to each of us in every generation and every part of the world.
Revolutions come and go, but revelation is eternal. The voice of Sinai continues to proclaim eternal truths that never become passé or irrelevant. Honour your parents, revere them, look after them in their old age. Live moral lives, don’t tamper with the sacred fibre of family life. Dedicate one day every week, and keep that day holy. Stop the madness. Turn your back on the rat race, and rediscover your humanity and your children. Don’t be guilty of greed, envy, dishonesty, or corruption.
Are these ideas and values dated? Are these commandments tired or irrelevant? On the contrary. They speak to us now as perhaps never before.
Does anyone know this today better than us South Africans?
The G-dly voice has lost none of its strength, none of its majesty. The mortal voice of man declines and fades into oblivion. Politicians and spin-doctors come and go, but the heavenly sound reverberates down the ages.
Moses knew what he was saying. Torah is truth, and truth is forever. The voice of G-d shall never be stilled.
Memory versus history
Devarim is the parsha associated with Tisha B’Av, the Jewish national day of mourning. After Shabbos, we will recall the destruction of our holy temple nearly 2 000 years ago.
But why remember? The world cannot understand why we go on about the Holocaust, and that was less than 80 years ago! For more than 19 centuries, we have been remembering and observing this event, and it has become the saddest day in our calendar. Why? Why not let bygones be bygones? It’s history. What was, was. Why keep revisiting old and painful visions?
They say that Napoleon was once passing through the Jewish ghetto in Paris, and heard sounds of crying and wailing emanating from a synagogue. He stopped to ask what the lament was about. He was told that the Jews were remembering the destruction of their Temple. “When did it happen?” asked the emperor. “Some 1 700 years ago,” was the answer. Whereupon Napoleon stated with conviction that a people who never forgot their past would be destined to forever have a future.
Elie Wiesel famously once said that Jews have never had history. We have memory. History can become a book, a museum, and forgotten antiquities. Memory is alive, memories reverberate, and memory guarantees our future.
Even amidst the ruins, we refused to forget. The first temple was destroyed by the Babylonians. As they led the Jews into captivity, they sat down and wept. “By the rivers of Babylon, we sat and wept remembering Zion.” What did they cry of? Their lost wealth, homes, and businesses? No. They cried for Zion and Jerusalem. “If I forget thee ‘O Jerusalem, let my right hand lose its cunning.” They were not weeping for themselves or their lost liberties but for the heavenly city and holy temple. Amidst the bondage, they aspired to rebuild, amidst the ruins, they dreamt of returning.
And because we refused to forget Jerusalem, we did return. And because we refused to accept defeat or accept our exile as a historical fait accompli, we have rebuilt proud Jewish communities the world over, while our victors have been vanquished by time. Today, there are no more Babylonians, and the people who now live in Rome aren’t the Romans who destroyed the second temple. Those nations became history while we, inspired by memory, emerged revitalised and regenerated and forever it will be true that am Yisrael chai (the people of Israel live).
Only if we refuse to forget can we hope to rebuild one day. Indeed, the Talmud assures us, “Whosoever mourns for Jerusalem, will merit to witness her rejoicing.” We dare not forget. We need to observe our national day of mourning this Saturday night and Sunday. Forego the movies and the restaurants. Sit down on a low seat to mourn with your people; and perhaps even more importantly, to remember. And, please G-d, He will restore those glorious days and rebuild His own everlasting house soon.
Exile is a state of being
In parshas Massei, the Torah traces our journey in the desert by listing all 42 camps that we passed through. This is a forerunner for Jewish history. Even the most superficial knowledge of Jewish history reveals that a large chunk of it has been spent in exile. Under the nations of the world, the Jewish people suffered immensely. How are we meant to understand this? There are four main points to appreciate.
Chazal tell us that the Jewish people are so beloved by Hashem, that when they were sent into exile for their sins, Hashem accompanied them. The greatest demonstration of His love is the fact that the Jewish people have survived almost 2 000 years of persecution and numerous attempts to annihilate us. So great is this miracle, it surpasses the collective miracles of the exodus of Egypt and our wandering in the desert and in the land of Israel.
Second, when the Jews wandered in the wilderness for 40 years, their survival was supernatural – they were wholly dependent on Hashem. He rained down bread from the sky, provided a well of water, and protected us with seven miraculous clouds. This was the education needed to sear into our consciousness the perspective that Hashem is the source of everything, and we must strive to fulfil His will.
Land, prosperity, and institutions of statehood were put at the Jewish people’s disposal not as goals in themselves, but as a means for the fulfilment of the Torah. When Jews lost sight of their true purpose and began to emulate the ideals of the nations around them, worshipping wealth and prosperity, they were deprived of those things that they had begun to worship, leaving their land with only the Torah to guide them.
Exile was meant, first and foremost, to benefit and perfect us. The Jewish people witnessed powerful empires disappear while we endured, devoid of might and majesty, but loyal to Hashem. How many times have Jews been offered a doorway to earthly pleasure and security if only they renounce their loyalty to G-d? How many times did Jews scorn the lure of wealth and pleasure and even sacrificed their most precious treasures in this world – their wives, children, brothers and sisters – for Hashem?
Chazal tell us that a third benefit of exile was to inspire conversion. Indeed, there have been many great converts in our history.
Fourth, the Jewish people were scattered throughout the world for our protection. If we were all under the jurisdiction of one ruler, he would attempt to destroy us all.
Exile isn’t just banishment from Israel. Exile is a state of being that also applies to individuals. Every person experiences tranquil periods when he finds it easy to learn Torah and pray with concentration. Yet when times are hard, he struggles. It’s specifically at these times that he mustn’t become empty of Torah and prayer, rather, he must strive to sanctify “desert” periods.
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