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Let’s fill Miriam’s cup

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Religion

I wrote before Purim about the masks that we wear. Not just the COVID-19 ones, but the permanent ones that hide our true selves. And I wrote about the precarious and fraught position that Esther, the hiding heroine of Purim, found herself in, not just through the Megillah, but beyond.

In so many ways, that fragility remains today. Do you have children or grandchildren in nursery school? Did they dress up this Purim? Did your daughters want to be Esther? Gorgeous! Or is it? When we dress our daughters as Queen Esther, what are we saying to them?

We tell kids that Esther won the beauty pageant (which is already a problem – you want your daughter to aspire to beauty pageants?) But the Megillah tells us that she was trafficked into a prospective-wife-to-the-king competition and then forced to enter a harem to await her chosen night with his majesty. And if she tried to fight against her situation, well, we saw what happened to Vashti.

Yes, she is the heroine of the story, and in spite of her impossible position, she manages to save the Jewish people, but her position (even at the end of the story) remains a fraught one, and G-d forbid any of our daughters should have to walk in her shoes.

Now that Purim is long-past and Pesach is on the doorstep, let’s pause and ask a similar set of questions about your daughters’ and granddaughters’ role models. Who leads your seder, and who cooks the food? Who cleans out the chametz? What do your Pesach gender roles tell your daughters? And your sons?

In your Haggadah reading and telling, do you mention Moses? I’m sure he comes up, even though he’s not even mentioned in the Haggadah (well technically his name does come up once in a drosheh of Rabbi Yossi, but blink and you’d miss it).

Any telling (the mitzvah of the seder is to tell the story, after all, not just to read the Haggadah) will naturally include Moses, the leader, teacher, interpreter of the exodus, and perhaps might make mention of Aaron’s role alongside him.

But do we talk about Miriam at our seder? How often does her name come up at your table on seder night? After all, Miriam, with her brothers is the eldest of the “big three”, a woman who the Torah called a nevia (prophetess) (Ex 15:20) and who the Talmud tells us is one of the seven major female prophets of Israel (BT Megillah 14a).

The prophet, Micah, tells us that G-d sees the three siblings as equally responsible for going out of Egypt. “For I brought you up out of the land of Egypt and redeemed you from the house of slavery, and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam.” (Micah 6:4). After all, there would be no Moses without Miriam. It was she who watched him down the Nile River and negotiated with Pharaoh’s daughter to get Yocheved, his mother, to be his wet-nurse. And it is Miriam Ha-Nevia alongside her more famous brother who leads the Israelites in song and dance after the parting of the Sea of Reeds (Ex 15:20).

It’s none other than Miriam that our tradition understands was responsible for the entire supply of water in the desert as the Israelites wandered through the wilderness. When Miriam dies, the next verse describes the Israelites complaining about a lack of water (Num. 20:1). The Talmud notes that this was because it was only in the merit of Miriam that a miraculous rock followed their journey, providing water for all the twelve tribes (BT Ta’anit 9a).

Why isn’t she discussed and celebrated at Pesach? Is it because she’s a woman? And for that matter, what about Shifrah and Pu’ah, the midwives who courageously saved the Israelite boys from being drowned in the Nile, without whom there would have been no Israelites to free.

In fact, the opening stories of Exodus are all about the courage of women, women who have largely been dropped from the narrative.

So here’s a custom that many have started to include on their seder tables. Decorate a beautiful cup for Miriam and give it a place of honour at the centre of the table. At a suitable moment in the evening, tell a few Miriam tales and explain the midrash that Miriam provided the well of water that sustained the Israelites in their 40-year trek around the Sinai Peninsula.

Ask everyone to pour a little bit of water from their own glasses in turn into Miriam’s cup in celebration of the unsung female heroines of the Exodus, and of women since. As they pour the water, let them name a female ancestor (recent or ancient), who has inspired them.

Declare “Zot kos Miriam, kos mayyim chaim [this is the cup of Miriam, the cup of living waters]” and place it next to Elijah’s cup on the table.

And if yours is the kind of seder that you can take a bit of time to expand and discuss the texts and rituals, why not take time to reflect on the role of women in the world today.

Ask everyone to say how they think we can be part of the process of freeing the world from the slaveries of gender – of trafficking, professional glass ceilings, objectified bodies, and rape and abuse. Those are more worthy questions than, “When do we eat?”

This Pesach, may we commit to raising wise daughters and sons, and may we all come out of it freer.

Chag sameach!

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Religion

Mother nature’s gifts

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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.

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Religion

True kindness

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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.

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Religion

In the brave steps of Abraham

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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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