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.”
Slave to the Omer – why counting makes us free
We are in the midst of counting the Omer – a commandment to count the days and weeks from the second day of Pesach until Shavuot.
Interestingly, the very first commandment we perform, marking our transition from slavery to freedom, is to count time, to count days.
Why is this? Rabbi JB Soloveitchik, in his essay, “Sacred and Profane”, offers a profound insight, as follows:
“The basic criterion which distinguishes free man from slave is the kind of relationship each has with time and its experience. Bondage is identical with passive intuition and reception of an empty, formal time stream.
“When the Jews were delivered from the Egyptian oppression and Moses rose to undertake the almost impossible task of metamorphosing a tribe of slaves into a nation of priests, he was told by G-d that the path leading from the holiday of Pesach to Shavuot, from initial liberation to consummate freedom, leads through the medium of time. The commandment of sefirah was entrusted to the Jew; the wondrous test of counting 49 successive days was put to him. These 49 days must be whole. If one day is missed, the act of numeration is invalidated.
“A slave who is capable of appreciating each day, of grasping its meaning and worth, of weaving every thread of time into a glorious fabric, quantitatively stretching over the period of seven weeks but qualitatively forming the warp and woof of centuries of change, is eligible for Torah. He has achieved freedom.”
A slave owns no time of her/his own. Every second of life is owned by a master, and therefore a slave can have no concept of responsibility because they have no ultimate choice of action. A slave may “choose” to go for a walk at 17:00 on Friday only to have that choice countermanded by the master at 16:59. Inevitably, a slave has no concept of their own time, their ability to choose to act in one way at a particular time, and to take responsibility for those actions in the fullest sense of the word.
So, the Jews needed to learn to own time, to feel its contours and use it so that they could learn responsibility.
One of the signs of real maturity is this time-responsibility awareness – just think of a child saying they will clean up their room “later”. Children lack a sense of true responsibility because they feel that there is always an infinite “later”, a period in which every wrong can be righted, every desire fulfilled, every mistake corrected.
A free adult recognises that they own a very limited amount of time, and that the gift of freedom is the choice of how to use that time. The burden of that self-same freedom is the responsibility for the consequences of that choice.
Finding faith in the hippo
This week’s parsha details the laws of kashrus. The Torah makes a brave statement by enumerating the one and only animal that has split hooves but doesn’t chew the cud. It’s a “brave” statement, because if a human being wrote the Torah, how would they know that the pig is the only one on the “face of the planet” with this characteristic?
Moses was born in Egypt, spent some time as a fugitive in Ethiopia, and died somewhere near modern-day Jordan. If we presume that he was the author of the Five Books without any divine inspiration, and he sucked the whole thing out of his left thumb, then how could he be so confident that there wasn’t a marsupial or wallaby in the furthermost corners of the planet that didn’t have at least one of these characteristics? This was almost 3 000 years before anyone even knew there was an Australia. If he was inventing the whole religion, he would have taken the more prudent course of being rather vague. He wouldn’t have blatantly listed the only four exceptions “from all the animals on the earth”.
With this great piece of Torah veracity in my mind, my faith was shaken when, on a trip to London’s Natural History Museum, (I know, it’s a pretty nerdy thing to do), I discovered that there was a hoofed animal, classified by zoology, that seemed to be an exception “overlooked” by the Torah – the hippo. It’s classified as an “ungulate”, a split-hoofed animal without a ruminant stomach that isn’t listed in the Torah as another exception!
I thought about this problem for a while, and then the solution came to me. Why should we allow zoology to dictate the classification of animals? The more I thought about it, the more I realised that hippos don’t have hooves like a pig or cow, they have toes (like camels). I know it’s more fancy to talk about ungulates, phylum, and genus. It even makes us look clever, but if we are really honest with ourselves, we won’t let zoological classifications stand in the way of our emunah in Hashem and His Torah.
Let’s start talking about Pesach
For the past few weeks, my family and I have been doing something really special. We’ve been getting together every Sunday night, sitting around the table, and going through the Pesach Haggadah.
It’s just me, Gina, and our children – our eldest, Mordi, his wife Avigayil, and Levi, Shayna, and youngest Azi. We have supper together, and then we get stuck into the Haggadah, discussing, debating, sharing as a family, covering everything from the four sons, the four questions and the ten plagues, to matzah, maror, and the four cups of wine.
It has been a truly memorable experience. We started this family tradition a few months ago, setting aside the Sunday night slot to connect as a family and share Torah ideas. It’s an open forum, a space for every member of the family to express their thoughts, ideas, and opinions. We’ve covered the Rambam’s 13 Principles of Faith and the weekly parsha, and now, most recently, the Haggadah.
Going through the Haggadah, which tells the story of the Jewish people and goes to the very heart of who we are as Jews, has been particularly special. We’ve fine-tuned our understanding of the story, and gained so many new insights and ideas. Just as importantly, we’ve grown closer as a family, and feel more connected to each other and Hashem. Now, as we head towards Pesach, we all feel that this is going to be a dramatically different seder experience. Our mindset is different.
The Pesach seder is perhaps the formative Jewish experience. The seders we had as kids seem to stay with us. Even as we grow older, we recollect them fondly and vividly. It’s so much more than a ceremony, a procession of rituals, it’s the rich soil in which our families and our very Jewish identity are formed.
Of course, as we grow older, there’s the temptation, given how familiar the story is, to slip into autopilot on seder night. But if we prepare, we can avoid this and enter the seder charged with inspiration and filled with rich new perspectives. In doing so, we can transform it into an incredibly powerful spiritual and emotional experience that changes us, that truly frees us from our tired routines and habits and brings us closer to one another, to G-d, and to our true selves. A rebirth in the deepest sense.
That’s why I would like to call on all of us to start these meaningful family conversations in preparation for Pesach, to discuss the ideas and themes and get a deeper understanding of the seder itself. Of course, we need to prepare our homes – cleaning and cooking are incredibly important because they help us to fulfil all the mitzvot of this special chag and ensure we have a proper, kosher Pesach. But the seder, too, needs preparation, and the more we prepare for it, the greater the experience is going to be.
There’s something that can help you get the process started. My family and I were so excited and inspired by our Sunday night learning sessions, we decided to record our Haggadah discussions. We’ve turned these recordings into a special Pesach series, called The Goldstein Family Podcast, which you can access via my website or wherever you get your podcasts. The sessions have been cut and edited into eight episodes ranging from 10 to 30 minutes each to make them as accessible as possible.
There’s not much time left before Pesach, but I would like to encourage you to devote some time to preparing for the seder, and our podcast can be a good place to start. Even just a couple of hours can make all the difference to your seder.
Especially at this time, after a year of being battered by a pandemic, we need the healing, the meaning, and the deep inspiration of the seder more than ever – the message of faith in Hashem, connection to generations past, the sense of rootedness it gives us in an uncertain world.
Let’s take this opportunity to prepare so that we can connect with the ancient words of the Haggadah – with the great origin story of our people – in ways we’ve never done before.
Gina and I wish you all a chag kasher v’same’ach – a beautiful Pesach – and deeply meaningful, enriching seders.
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