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Let’s fill Miriam’s cup




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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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.

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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.

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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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