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D’var Torah B’ha’alot’kha

Dr. Judith Kates


D’var Torah B'ha'alotkha 2018.pdf

Summertime brings us every year in our cycle of Torah readings to a difficult place called in Hebrew “midbar” which I’ll translate as ‘wilderness.’ The entire book of the Torah read in synagogue through these lovely months called reassuringly the book of Numbers in English, has a more ominous name in Hebrew- sefer b’midbar- the book in the wilderness. Playing on that name, the great, contemporary Torah scholar, Avivah Zornberg, calls her book of interpretation of sefer b’midbar- Bewilderments- with good reason. As we move through the narratives, we find ourselves starting on what looks like a clear, direct journey to a place of promise and satisfaction, full of hope and energy, only to find ourselves struggling, enduring hunger and thirst, fear, confusion and disappointment, truly bewildered. Instead of traveling, we’re wandering, losing ourselves, even losing our lives. At such times, as we know only too well, people long for guidance, yet find it hard to trust in leaders, often criticizing, voicing bitterly felt complaints, even rebelling against authority altogether.

If we have recollections of this book of Torah, most of us think of endless complaints about lack of water and food and disputes with Moses and Aaron about their failure to provide. It seems that life in the desert entails two central experiences: hunger and thirst. But, as feminist scholar Ilana Pardes suggests, the constant repetition of those cries of thirst and hunger stands for a sharp and primary sense of loss. The inner reality expressed in the despairing cries for water and food is a longing for something essential that is missing, a sense of being nurtured, of being held securely by a trustworthy presence that can be relied upon to recognize need and find ways to fulfill it.

The Children of Israel wept and said: Who will give us meat to eat?
We recall the fish that we used to eat in Egypt for free,
The cucumbers, the watermelons,
the green-leeks, the onions, and the garlic
But now, our throats are dry; there is nothing at all
Except for the mahn (in front of) our eyes!
(Num 11:4-6)

This cry, one among many, is not about a boring menu. Left high and dry in uncharted territory, the people imagine Egypt, the place they left, as the longed-for flesh of an absent mother. Like a child torn from the sweet milk of the breast, the collective voice expresses both rage and anxiety by demanding what seems impossible.

Moses’ despairing response to this outcry reveals what underlies the people’s demand. The Torah tells us that the people’s weeping and nostalgic memory of Egypt angers God and that Moses too saw it as “rah” –bad. Turning to God, HE turns on God, crying “lamah harei-otah l’avdekha”- why have you done bad, done ill to your servant? Why have I not found favor in your eyes?

What is so bad for Moses? God has, he says, demanded too much and not given enough to God’s leader of the people.

You have placed the burden of this entire people on me.
Did I myself conceive this entire people,
Or did I myself give-birth to it,
That you should say to me,
Carry it in your bosom
Like a nursing-parent carries a suckling-child
To the soil about which you swore to their fathers?
I am not able, myself alone, to carry this entire people,
For it is too heavy for me!
If thus you deal with me, pray kill me, yes, kill me,
If I have found favor in your eyes,
So that I do not have to see my wretchedness- in Hebrew ra-ati ,what is so bad for me!
(Num 11: 11- 15)

Moses gives voice to the shared sense that the wandering nation in the wilderness is like a vulnerable suckling who needs to be nursed and carried in the bosom in order to survive. But if the people over and over again express to their male leaders their overwhelming sense of abandonment and need, Moses here seems to imply that God, who did conceive and give birth to the nation and thus is responsible for its well-being, has not been very successful in fulfilling its needs. God has not managed to provide the children of Israel with much-needed maternal nurturing. How can a merely human Moses be capable of serving them as ‘omen’, nursing parent? Moses articulates both his and the people’s desperate longing for a metaphorical ‘bosom’ to provide, as Ilana Pardes puts it, “the essential warmth and support throughout the long and turbulent journey to the Promised Land.”

God does provide support for Moshe in the form of shared leadership:

Gather for Me seventy men of the elders of Israel of whom you know that they are the elders of the people and its overseers and you shall take them to the Tent of Meeting and they shall station themselves there with you.

And I shall come down and speak with you there and I shall hold back some of the spirit that is upon you and place it upon them and they will bear with you the burden of the people and you yourself will not bear it alone.
(Num 11: 16- 17)

But the longing for a lost nurturing presence, for a sense of security, warmth, intimate embrace evoked in this passage by feminine, especially maternal imagery, remains throughout the narrative of the nation’s journey, as it does throughout individual human lives. The Torah tells us a complicated story because it presents the perspectives of God and the people, both parent and child, to use the imagery we’ve been looking at. The children of Israel continue to be disappointed at God’s lack of nurturing and God continually rebukes the people for their lack of trust and insatiable demands. The language of testing shows up on both sides. God tests Israel’s capacity to keep God’s commandments, to grow up, as it were, and the people test God’s vigilance and love.

But I’d like to suggest another way of thinking about the unending discontents and crises of our foundational national story. Let’s think for a moment about the apparent solution to Moses’ personal crisis of confidence - a shared leadership with 70 anashim-men who are elders [ that is respected figures] of the people.” The public sign of their singling out for leadership is that God ‘s presence manifests itself and some of the divine ru’ach- the God-filled spirit that had infused Moshe now was transferred to them, so that they “prophesy”-va’yitnab’u in Hebrew, from the same Hebrew root used to describe Moshe, the na’vi, the prophet. But the language of longing, whether it is the people’s expressions of thirst and hunger or Moshe’s cry of incapacity to nurse a vulnerable child should make us conscious of a glaring absence. Where is the maternal presence suggested by the feminine imagery evoked in Moses’s desperate outcry to God? Where are the women in the response to the crisis of leadership?

In fact, the Bible preserves fragments that remind us of a different human configuration in our wilderness journey, tantalizing hints of the presence of an alternative leader. The prophet Micah, speaking centuries later to a new generation of rebellious, recalcitrant children of Israel, voices God’s own grievance against God’s constantly ungrateful children of Israel:

YHWH has a case against God’s people,
God has a suit against Israel.
My people!
What wrong have I done you?
What hardship have I caused you?
Testify against Me.
In fact,
I brought you up from the land of Egypt,
I redeemed you from the house of bondage,
And I sent before you
Moses, Aaron and Miriam.
(Micah 6: 2-4)

When God summons us to remember the most powerful examples of God’s gracious acts on our behalf, the voice moves immediately from the redemption from Egypt to the leaders and teachers who cared for us on our journey to the promised land. But unlike every other instance of such historical memory in the Tanakh, the voice here identifies not 2, but 3 crucial figures in the wilderness- Moshe, Ahron AND Miriam.

Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aaron, who, like both Moses and Aaron, is called a prophet , explicitly when she leads the women in dance and song at the Sea, is recalled by Micah as a crucial part of God’s gift of leaders for the people. It seems that our national imagination does include a potentially powerful feminine presence. What might that mean? What kind of leader is Miriam? How might her presence respond to the experience of need, deprivation and abandonment so characteristic of the wilderness?

Let’s remember that, since Second Temple times, Miriam has been identified as the unnamed “sister” who watches over Moshe, abandoned and vulnerable on the lethal waters of the river Nile. And even more directly related to the themes of the wilderness, she acts to enable Moshe’s mother to nurse her child. Miriam in the beginning of our story becomes the agent of life-sustaining maternal care. Rabbinic tradition expands this role, identifying her as one of the midwives who saved the lives of male infants threatened by Pharaoh’s death sentence.

But our verse from the prophet Micah refers to Miriam as “going before” the people, that is leading them during their journeying. The rabbis of the Talmud (bTa’anit 9a) understand this verse as telling us that :

Three good leaders stood firm for Israel…Moshe, Ahron and Miriam and three good gifts were given through them: a well, a cloud and manna

Through the merit of these good leaders- and the Hebrew word for leaders here is parnasim from the Hebrew root l’farneis meaning to feed, to provide sustenance- through these good parnasim- Israel was accompanied by a well of water, a cloud of protection- both literal protection from burning sun and symbolically the divine protecting and guiding presence - and the manna for food.

The gift of a well of water, we’re told here came to us through the merit of Miriam and when she died it disappeared. A later midrash (B’midbar Rabba 1:2) refers to the trio of gift-givers as “special tutors”- pedagogim in rabbinic Hebrew- whose gifts of water, food and protective cloud teach us about God’s overflowing generosity in the parched, arid landscape of the wilderness.

Whether conceived as a leader/provider or as teacher, Miriam is fully identified with water, on the riverbank, at the Sea and through the well that wanders through the desert, accompanying the wandering people. The midrash with suggestive imagery tells us that “[this well] was rock-shaped like a kind of bee-hive, and wherever they journeyed it rolled along and came with them.” Miriam becomes a source of sweet water, (there must be honey in this bee-hive). perhaps associated with God’s promise of a land of milk and honey at the end of the journey. But Miriam’s sweet honey from the rock seems more accessible and present, immediately available rather than painfully deferred to a distant future. The midrash asks how we know that the well produced its water through the merit of Miriam and notes that immediately after her death, the Torah’s next verse records the people’s anguish over a complete lack of water. In fact, according to Rashi, the rock of Miriam’s well, now apparently dry and useless, is the very rock that Moshe struck in his anger at the people’s rebellious anguish over his and Aaron’s failure to provide water, losing, through that reaction, their entry into the land.

The figure of Miriam, in contrast, seems to emerge for us as a provider of nurture and support, offering presence, accompaniment for people in need. If we look back at the Torah’s first mention of her name in the book of Exodus, she appears leading the women’s singing and dancing in the Song at the Sea, called a prophet as she throws herself into the ecstatic experience that can characterize those called n’vi’im in the Tanakh. But if we read carefully what is said about her there, we hear that the words of her song differ from Moshe’s in a crucial way. While Moses sings in the singular – ashirah l’adonai“ Let ME sing unto the Lord” , Miriam “sang out to them, [shiru l’adonai] Sing to the Lord” in the plural, calling to the people around her, inspiring and inspiriting them to participate, to sing with her.

In the midrash, even after her death, her presence seems to invigorate her people. The rabbis rely on a fragment of a narrative in the book of Numbers, found in the chapter after Miriam’s death is noted, about a place called Be’er, well, which is identified as the place where God had told Moses and Aaron to gather the people for God to give them water, that is, the rock that Moses struck to make it act as a well of water. And in that place, we’re told, all Israel sang” Spring up, O well- sing to it.” [enu lah]
According to the midrash, “When the standards [under which the tribes journeyed] halted and the tabernacle was set up, that same rock would come and settle down in the court of the Tent of Meeting and …[they] would call, Rise up, oh well and it would rise.” What connects this mention of a well to Miriam, for the rabbis, is the use of the same rare term for singing, from the Hebrew root ayin- nun- heh, in a context of water, here and in the story of Miriam at the sea. [va’ta’an lahem].But there is another connection. Here too we find a word for singing in the plural, an exhortation to the whole people to sing, as they join together to create and celebrate a life-sustaining enterprise.

The rabbis’ imaginative expansions of the biblical fragments about Miriam can help us form an idea of Miriam, not only as the missing feminine presence in the national story of the wilderness, but also as an alternative vision of leadership. She generates inclusion, and a sense of a sustaining divine presence within the life of an empowered people. In addition, in many midrashim, she restores broken family relationships, ensuring birth and renewal. She inspires her people to come together and become active creators of connections to divinely given sources of life.

Her ties to the people reveal themselves dramatically when she too “speaks against” Moshe and also reminds him that he is not the only vehicle of divine presence among the people. God punishes her subversive presumption and she is shut up outside the camp for seven days. But “the people did not journey onward until Miriam was gathered back in.” (Num 12: 15) . The Torah states repeatedly and emphatically that, during the wilderness journey, Israel “would camp by the Lord’s word and by the Lord’s word they would journey onward. (Num 9: 20-23). This is the only exception. It sounds as though the people have taken it upon themselves to wait until they can re-embrace, “ gather in” a specially loved leader. They will not, or cannot, continue their journey without the woman who teaches them the nurturing creativity within their communal life. That sense of the powerful bond between a bewildered people and their n’vi’ah opens up a vision of leadership as essential for us now as it was in the past.

Thu, March 23 2023 1 Nisan 5783