Mother’ s Day

Mother’s Day

by

Howard Adelman

Dedicated to Ariella, who loves Yehuda Amichai in the original Hebrew,  

and my forthcoming great grandchild whom she carries in her swelling belly

 

At Torah study this past Saturday, Rabbi Mark Shapiro, visiting from Springfield, Massachusetts, where he had been rabbi at Sinai Temple, reintroduced me to the poetry of Yehuda Amichai, whom I had not read for years. Yehuda was reborn when he arrived in Palestine at the age of twelve, the same year my older brother, Al, was born. Like my brother, Yehuda died seventeen years ago.

As it turned out, Mark Shapiro was from Toronto, had once been an associate rabbi at my synagogue (1977-1982) when I was not a member, had studied intellectual history at York University when I taught there, and, most surprising of all to me, his father was Dr. Bernie Shapiro, head of Mount Sinai Hospital’s radiology (now called “Imaging”) Department where I worked when I lived in the hospital as a medical student.

One of the stanzas we read was the following third one from the poem, “My Parents’ Motel”:

My mother was a prophet and didn’t know it,
Not like Miriam the Prophetess dancing with
cymbals and tambourines,
not like Deborah who sat under the palm tree
and judged the people,
not like Hulda who foretold the future,
but my own private prophet, silent and stubborn,
I am obliged to fulfill everything she said
and I’m running out of lifetime.
My mother was a prophet when she taught me
the do’s and don’ts of everyday, paper verses
for one use only: You’ll be sorry,
you‘ll be exhausted, that will do you good,
you‘ll feel
like a new person, you’ll really love it, you
won’t be able to, you won’t like that,
you‘ll never manage
to close It, I knew you wouldn’t remember,
wouldn’t
forget give take rest, yes you can you can.
And when my mother died, all her little
predictions came together
In one big prophecy that will last
until the Vision of the End of Days.

(translation from the Hebrew by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld)

What kind of prophet did Amichai envisage his mother to be? He contrasted her with Miriam, Deborah and Hulda. I begin by comparing her to Mary Ball Washington, the mother of George Washington, the first president of the United States.  In the Saturday Washington Post, Gregory Schneider wrote an article entitled, “The mother who made George Washington – and made him miserable.” (12 May 2017) The article begins with a tale as good as can be found anywhere in the Mishna about a visit George made to his mother when she was eighty years old. In just a few lines, we grasp the core of their relationship that makes it sound like one taken out of a Seinfeld episode.

George: Guess what? They want me to be president.

Mom: I’m dying.

George, flustered: Well, as soon as I get settled in New York, I’ll come back and …

Mom: This is the last time you’ll ever see me. But go, do your job. That’s more important.

Schneider described the relationship of George and Mary. George was very attached to his mother who hectored him as her son rolled his eyes at what she said. Evidently, when George was elected president and when he and Martha went to give her the news in Fredericksburg, Mary informed her eldest son that she was deathly ill. George knew his mother; he called her bluff and insisted that, in light of her announced impending death, he could not accept the position of president. Mary reputedly responded: “Go and fulfill the high destiny which Heaven has foreordained you to fill. Go, knowing that you go with a Mother’s and Heaven’s blessings!” Mary was not a prophet like Yehuda Amichai’s mother; God was. She, Mary, would suffer just so her son could serve out heaven’s promise.

When George was away in 1755 fighting alongside the French, and the battle was going poorly, his mother sent him a letter asking her son to send a servant – and some butter. George wrote her back stating that he was in no position to do either. Mary was subsequently portrayed by historians as a controlling shrew who tried to use George’s status to get money for herself from the government. George, in contrast to Donald Trump, was appalled. He intervened to inform the government that his mother had been very well provided for – he had bought her a house and helped administer her estate.

His mother was formidable and sent shafts of fear into the souls of his cousins. But she also worked hard and long to secure the well-being of her four boys and her daughter, but especially her eldest son. Some insist that she was truly kind. If Yehuda Amichai’s mother was a prophet who did not know it, a private prophet, silent and stubborn, Mary denied any abilities at prophecy while executing strong control over her son’s destiny. She had once predicted that George would suffer grievously if he became a soldier. She was wrong. He did not. He thrived as a military officer. Mary was also much more of a public figure, much more vocal in her claims on her son, but eventually bent “graciously” to a higher power.

While Yehuda Amichai felt “obliged to fulfill everything” his mother said, George only nominally accepted the obligation to do so. His form of acceptance undermined his mother’s ability to control him and his need to submit to her wishes. Amichai never developed or mustered the skills to escape his mother’s tight embrace and her haunting presence. Was this because she was a petty prophet but knew it not, while Mary Washington claimed no powers of prophecy, but always credited a higher power to predict great things? If Mary feared her son’s death, Yehuda’s mother feared that her son would become exhausted. Her cautions were all small, even petty. Mary’s were always grand and melodramatic.

But Yehuda would write, as George did not and could not, “when my mother died, all her little predictions came together in one big prophecy that will last until the vision of the end of days.” For God’s hand imitated that of his mother, “God’s hand in the world/ like my mother’s hand in the guts of the slaughtered chicken/ on Sabbath eve.”

Yehuda’s mother died on Shavuot, the last day of counting the Omer, forty-nine days or seven weeks after the second night of Passover. Shavuot commemorates the harvest as well as the giving of the law in the Torah as commanded in this past week’s portion – Leviticus 23:15-16. Yehuda has lived his life in anticipation of the revelation of the legal code, only to confront his mother’s death. He has spent a lifetime rolling the rock back uphill, a Jewish Sisyphus who must constantly give witness both to the effort and the disappointment just as he was reaching the pinnacle. For Yehuda, his mother’s death always signified the lost battles for the future.

What then was that big prophecy that he inherited? Yehuda wrote, “My Mother on Her Sickbed,”

My mother on her sickbed with the lightness
and hollowness of a person
Who has already said goodbye at an airport
In the beautiful and quiet area
Between parting and takeoff.

My mother on her sickbed.
All she had in her life is now
Like empty bottles in front of the door
That will show once more with colored labels
What filled them with joy and sadness.

Her last words, Take the flowers out of the room,
She said seven days before her death,
Then she closed herself for seven days,
Like the seven days of mourning.

But even her death created in her room
A warm hominess
With her sleeping face and the cup with its teaspoon
And the towel and the book and the glasses,
And her hand on the blanket, the same
hand that felt my forehead, in childhood.

Even in the end, there were the small instructions, but the directions had a much larger meaning. Mary Washington would use her allegedly coming death to try to blackmail her son, and, ironically, teach him the diplomatic skills of an artful dodger. Yehuda’s mother continued her retreat from the world to leave a warm and cozy space for her son. As a result, Yehuda always held his mother close, though she had none of the enormous stature of Mary Washington. He wrote another poem called, “My Mother Once Told Me.”

MY MOTHER ONCE TOLD ME

Not to sleep with flowers in the room..
Since then I have not slept with flowers.
I sleep alone, without them.

There were many flowers.
But I’ve never had enough time.
And persons I love are already pushing themselves
Away from my life, like boats
Away from the shore.

My mother said
Not to sleep with flowers.
You won’t sleep.
You won’t sleep, mother of my childhood.

The bannister I clung to.
When they dragged me off to school
Is long since burnt.
But my hands, clinging
Remain
Clinging

(translated by Assia Gutmann)

If Mary thought she was a prophet, but was not, Yehuda’s mother was a prophet but knew not. She focused on the small things, the small matters, including the belief that flowers left in the room of a sick patient would kill that patient by sucking all the oxygen out of the room. Yehuda’s mother always wanted to ensure her son had lots of oxygen. Mary Washington demanded that her son bring back oxygen to fill her room.

We all have different mothers. We may go somewhere they did not foresee or somewhere they feared and where they did not want you to go. Some worry and fret for their sons. Others worry and fret about their own loss. The latter are divas; the former are tiny song birds.

My mother was not a prophet and knew she was not. She dedicated her life to her three sons and taught us petty dos and don’ts, almost all of which we did not and did. When she was young before she married, she danced with cymbals and tambourines, but unlike Miriam, she was not a prophet. She judged others, but she never sat under a palm tree to dispense her judgments like Deborah. And she never could foretell the future. But she bathed in it and joined her grandchildren in the bathtub. My mother was not a baker like my Aunt Gladys or Yehuda’s mother who “baked the whole world” for him “in little sweet cakes.”

My mother was stubborn in voice but easy in manner. And I escaped the obligation to fulfill her dream and become a doctor. I never learned, and never wanted to learn, whether I broke her heart when I left medical school. Like Yehuda’s mother, my mother worried and fretted the small things, but comfortably ignored any of my larger accomplishments. She never once heard me give a lecture or speech. She was too embarrassed to attend my play, Root Out of Dry Ground.

If George used subterfuge to escape the tight reins of his mother and if Yehuda was always left clinging, even when he became a star in the heavens of poetry, my mother, in spite of her fears, in spite of her dread, in spite of her disappointments, always left space for me and counted on me, as Mary Washington counted on George, but with credit rather than with demands, with loving kindness rather than any meanness of spirit.

Yehuda turned out to be direct and simple, I indirect and dialectical. Yehuda’s poetry is open and hospitable; I sometimes write to drive people away. Yehuda is both passionate and tender; I am passionate but tough. And unlike myself, Yehuda is witty and wry. He translates what he finds into poetry; I find poetry to discover meaning. Yehuda had a father who was his God and against whom he rebelled. My father was a rebel against whom I had no need to revolt so full was I of revulsion. Neither of us are artificers who have learned the arts of the necromancer and the alchemist.

Do we blame or credit our mothers? Where Yehuda Amichai clung to a bannister when they dragged him off to school, my mother clung to me in her arms as she leaned against the bannister on the first floor of her parent’s home where we lived; she cried and wailed at the death of her mother upstairs when I was a year old. I lived “to walk through/the deep ravines between her sobs.” My mother’s eyes danced on their own in spite of her sorrows. Yehuda’s mother’s eyes were sad, “the only ones that could compete” with his father’s eyes “in the ancient Jewish game of heavy eyes sliding into hollows beneath.”

I supported my mother then, when I was one year old. She supported her three sons ever since. And her grandchildren and great grandchildren all know what a great woman       their little bubby was.

Israel and America: Numbers 23 & 24 – Balaam continued

Numbers 23&24 Balaam continued: Israel and America

by

Howard Adelman

It is virtually impossible to binge watch six hours a day for four days in a row, first the Republican Party Convention in Cleveland last week and then the Democratic Party Convention in Philadelphia this week, go to the cottage in between, fulfill one’s day-to-day obligations and appointments as well as write a daily blog. The biggest temptation is to drop the line you have been following and switch to the rich source of material in each of the conventions. I will write about them in more detail, but initially only through a biblical lens.

In my last blog, we were near the end of Chapter 22 of Numbers. The angel of the Lord had just told Balaam: “Go with these men, but the word I will speak to you-that you shall speak.” Balaam went with the messengers of Balak. When Balak greeted Balaam, he also rose up on his high kingly horse and remonstrated Balaam for not coming in response to the previous two summons. Not something likely to endear Balaam to Balak! Balaam then replied: “Behold I have come to you, do I have any power to say anything? The word God puts into my mouth-that I will speak.” I am merely the vehicle for God’s voice, he insists.

After making a sacrifice together, the next morning they went to overlook the encampment of the Israelites, or, at least, part of it. Balaam asks Balak to obtain seven bulls and seven rams to sacrifice on each of seven separate altars. Was this the voice of God instructing Balak through Balaam? After the burnt offerings are made, Balaam insists he has to go off alone so that God might perhaps reveal Himself to him. Then, of course, the details of the sacrifices could not have come from God. And who does Balaam run into by chance? God. So Balaam tells God about the sacrifices he made on the seven altars. Rashi writes that this chance meeting by day meant that, “God appeared to him with reluctance and with contempt.” Meetings between man and God are deliberate events, not chance encounters. God decides when and where to reveal Himself, usually on a mountain top. Further, Balaam was clearly competing with the three patriarchs of the Israelites in building seven altars, as many as Abraham (4), Isaac (1) and Jacob (2) altogether.

When Balaam returned to Balak, he noted that he, Balak, had asked him to curse (מֵהַרְרֵי) the Israelites. (This is the weak sense of curse, the verbal exercise in damning another and not the strong sense, pronouncing that the Israelites were already damned.) Jacob was to be cursed and then the wrath against Israel was to be invoked. Jacob was the old name of the Israelites. They had been reborn as Israel. Why would one be asked to lay a curse on a people that no longer went by that name? And how would cursing the house of Jacob result in invoking God’s wrath against the Israelites? Did Balaam recognize the paradox that God had put into his own mouth? What he uttered was like the trick utterance of a Delphic oracle? Balaam most likely did not understand, but certainly, Balak would not have had a clue.

Then Balaam asks Balak a question. How could I do it? Not how could I lay a curse upon a people that no longer goes by that name. But how can I curse the house of Jacob when God has not cursed them? And if they are not cursed and God is not angry with them, who am I to invoke God’s wrath? Rashi has another fascinating interpretation.

Even when they deserved to be cursed, they were not cursed, [namely,] when their father [Jacob] recalled their iniquity, [by saying,] “for in their wrath they killed a man” (Gen. 49:6), he cursed only their wrath, as it says, “Cursed be their wrath” (ibid. 7). When their father [Jacob] came in deceit to his father [Isaac], he deserved to be cursed. But what does it say there? “He, too, shall be blessed” (ibid. 27:33). Regarding those who blessed, it says, “These shall stand to bless the people” (Deut. 27:12). However, regarding those who cursed, it does not say, “These shall stand to curse the people” but, “These shall stand for the curse” (ibid. 13), for He [God] did not want to mention the word ‘curse’ in reference to them [the people]. — [Mid. Tanchuma Balak 12, Num. Rabbah 20:19]

Rather than invoking God’s wrath, it was the wrath of Isaac that should have been directed towards Jacob, his deceiving son, but, instead, it was the wrath itself that was cursed and the house of Jacob had been blessed. Just as Isaac had been saved from Abraham by offering an animal as a sacrifice, so Jacob had been saved from being cursed because God cursed Isaac’s wrath and thus turned it into a blessing. The turning of something into its opposite had been adumbrated. In other words, though, I have been summoned by you, Balak, to curse the Israelites, they have already been blessed by God, so any curse I utter will be transformed into a blessing. Israeli exceptionalism is being invoked. “God bless America” is the rite that usually comes at the end of every speaker’s invocation after they spoke at the Democratic Convention.

As virtually every commentator has noted, the choice over the last two weeks has been between an America that had been cursed (Donald Trump’s portrait), a nation that lived in fear and terror, weak and torn apart, threatened from without and from within, to repeat, a nation cursed, versus the Democratic vision of a nation blessed and not cursed, the home of the free and the brave and not of cowering, fearful and frightened citizens. Will America, will Israel, be a nation that dwells alone, that remains an exceptional witness to a divine aspiration for humanity, or will it be like other nations that succumb to their fears? Or is the only thing really to fear, fear itself? When listening and watching the Democratic Convention, you cannot help but feel that you are at a very ritualistic mass Bible meeting, one conducted to try to lift a curse that has befallen America, versus the portrait being conveyed by an itinerant snake oil salesman that the nation is indeed cursed and only he can save it, versus a religious revival movement of counting one’s blessings and playing those blessings forward to raise everyone up in a tide of hope.

Balaam too has been sought out to curse a nation, but all his utterances are belied by the reality, that the nation is blessed. And so, though he would spread his curses, his curses would only reveal how blessed is that nation, mostly by being free of demagogues and megalomaniacs like him. You cannot govern a nation or sow a field with an ox looking only at the black soil yoked to a donkey braying into the wind. It is only from the mouth of the donkey, not the bellowing of a bull, that we will hear the words of the Lord. Yoking the two together will mean that the field will not be plowed and the braying and the bellowing will drown out the voices of one another.

Well, as you can imagine, Balak did not respond favourably to what he had been told by Balaam, that the Israelites were indeed blessed. “What have you done to me? I took you to curse my enemies, but you have blessed them!” (23:11) Balaam responded: “What the Lord puts into my mouth that I must take care to say.” (23:12) In other words, the bully of an ox had been made to speak like the braying of a donkey that spent its life in loyal service to another.

Balak did not give up. Three times he had summoned Balaam to come to him. Now he would summon Balaam a second and a third time to curse the Israelites.
וקבנו לי: לשון צווי, קללהו לי:
But Balaam continued to bray like a donkey, revealing, in spite of himself, what a blessed nation the Israelites were and Americans are. The Israelites bred prophets. The Midianites bred a famous soothsayer, Balaam. “For there is no divination in Jacob and no soothsaying in Israel.” (3:23) Soothsayers are oracles who read the equivalent of tea leaves and claim to see the future and curse the present. Diviners and fortune tellers, they are false prophets for they do not point to failures in the present that will result in tragedy in the future, but rather claim that the present is a tragedy. A soothsayer may claim that only he can transform a disaster into a rosy future. A soothsayer is a mountebank, a con artist, a reader of crystal balls, but in this satire worthy of Jonah, this soothsayer reveals himself as a he-ass, a teller of truths while intending to utter curses, but, and this is the irony, the truth told by a soothsayer will turn into a curse. People will believe they are so blessed that they become arrogant and insensitive to their failures.

Balaam praises and describes the Israelites as rising (from their impoverished state) “like a lioness (See Malbim) and raises itself like a lion. It does not lie down until it eats its prey and drinks the blood of the slain.” (23:24) The nation does not just destroy its enemies; it cannibalizes them. It does not just defeat the enemy; it commits atrocities against them. Balak asks Balaam rhetorically: “You shall neither curse them nor shall you bless them?” (23:24) Balaam now rebukes Balak: “’Everything the Lord speaks that I shall do” (23:25) without recognizing what an unwitting, what a witless, diviner he really is.

Well Balaam, in braying like an ass and blessing rather than cursing, saw himself as being favoured by God. He even gave up divination convinced that he had become a true prophet. But you had to know he was not. Because he turned “his face toward the desert,” (24:1), not the promised land, toward a past of idol worship rather than a future as a self-governing nation. Just as his face turned toward the desert, he raised his eyes from staring at the dirty soil beneath his feet. What did he see? The Israelites were blessed as a people and as a nation. Rashi describes the malevolence in his heart as follows: “an evil eye, a haughty spirit, and greed mentioned above (22:13,18). – [Avoth 5:19, Mid. Tanchuma Balak 6, Num. Rabbah 20:10]”

Margaret Atwood in Morning in the Burned House (“In the Secular Night”) wrote:

There is so much silence between the words,
you say. You say, The sensed absence
of God and the sensed presence
amount to much the same thing,
only in reverse.

Balaam said, “The word of Balaam the son of Beor [the beast] and the word of a man with an open eye.” (24:3) What is the word of the man with an open eye compared to the word of a man who prays with his eyes closed? Balaam is like the man who stands in the synagogue and, while everyone is praying with their eyes closed, he has one eye open looking around. Instead of participating in prayer, he looks sceptically upon the others or, not very differently, looks to see and use what he sees rather than presenting himself naked before God. You say. You say. Balaam says. And Balaam says. His words belie any possibility of embracing silence and hearing, and not just mouthing, the words of God. Words cannot bridge that silence. What Balaam utters is meaningless to himself. His words ring hollow because they are hollow, because there is no narrative behind them. They will mean the reverse of what they say. And what we heard over the last four days were stories and not just words, stories of individual Americans and a story of America itself. And the principal story of Hillary herself.

She began with expressing thanks to her daughter, Chelsea, for an introduction that conveyed how Hillary’s words as a mother had served as an anchor for Chelsea’s whole life, providing a grounding for her own understanding of life and its challenges. Hillary gave thanks to her own mother for insisting at the age of four that she not wallow in self pity but go out to face the mob with their harsh words and insults. L’dor va’dor. From generation to generation.

And with Bill? In different words from Margaret Atwood:

You fit into me
like a hook into an eye
A fish hook
An open eye.

A hook into an open eye. Balaam uttered “the word of the man with an open eye,” not the words of a many with both eyes open, as one who hears God and sees the vision, as one who may be stricken, but one who gazes at the world and sees its faults and does not focus his other eye on himself in a continuous series of selfies. Hillary and Bill had been linked together with language, sometimes false language that treated her as a fish caught by Bill with a hook in her eye. They had been through great troubles and tribulations. But they rose above it, helped by the waves of love so apparent in that convention, the waves of love that rise like the ocean tides and can never be mistaken for false sentiment. “How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel!” (24:5) “Water will flow from his wells, and his seed shall have abundant water; his king shall be raised over Agag, and his kingship exalted.” (24:7)

Balak was incensed with Balaam’s words. Balaam protested: “I was just uttering God’s words. I was not responsible for my actions. I was just a conduit. And Balaam prophesizes what the Israelites will do to the Moabites. But it is a false prophecy for from the Moabites will emerge Ruth, one of the great, if not the greatest, prophet in all of Israel. Verses 15 and 16 repeat:

He took up his parable and said, “The word of Balaam, son of Beor, the word of a man with an open eye.
The word of the one who hears God’s sayings and perceives the thoughts of the Most High; who sees the vision of the Almighty, fallen yet with open eyes.
So Balaam hears God’s words with one eye open and later will understand them when he is cast down and finally both eyes will be opened and he will be able to see the world freed up from his own mindblindness. A ruler shall come out of Jacob, but that ruler will descend from the loins of Ruth, a Moabite. Balaam envisions war throughout the Middle East as each nation is ravaged in turn by Israel. It is an apocalyptic vision, not a vision of Israel serving as a light unto the nations.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Prophets, Priests and Politicians: Parashat Korah, Numbers 19:1 – 22.1

Prophets, Priests and Politicians: Parashat Korah, Numbers 19:1 – 22.1        15.06.13

by

Howard Adelman

Repeatedly, Moses is described as the greatest leader the Jewish people ever had. There was also no one like Miriam. Without Aaron, would Moses have reached his great success? In this segment, both Miriam and Aaron die in that order; shortly thereafter it will be Moses’ turn. All three die in that final year in the wilderness without entering the Promised Land. What an illustrious and mutually complementary leadership the trio had made. As it is written in Micah (6:4), “I brought you forth out of the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of bondage, and I sent before you Moses, and Aaron, and Miriam.” (See also I Chronicles 5:29) 

Moses was the rabbi, the teacher/leader (Moshe Rabbenu מֹשֶׁה רַבֵּנוּ) rather than a high priest or a thundering seer. He was also a man of action who assassinated an Egyptian slave taskmaster and had to flee. He knew when to get out and when and how to get his people out and then traverse enemy territory successfully. 

The Torah speaks of Moses and the prophets; rarely does it suggest that Moses was a prophet. Yet most Christian and many Jewish commentaries assert he was the greatest prophet that ever lived.  He was not only not the greatest prophet, he was not even one at all contrary to Maimonides’ claim. He was the greatest political leader. However, a great political leader does not a prophet make.

Moses’ older sister was the prophet. Moses recognizes and acknowledges this. (Exodus 15:20) He does not refer to himself as one. Dubbing Moses a prophet confuses the different leadership roles of politicians, prophets and priests. For one, Moses, like Jonah, was called by God to assume his role. He did so extremely reluctantly. Upon her mother’s suggestion, when only a child herself, Miriam decided to rescue her younger infant brother from the edict of death and float him down the Nile to be rescued by the Egyptian princess. It was as if she could foresee how, if raised among the Egyptian nobility, Moses could emerge with leadership skills that would allow him to rescue his people as she had rescued him. That is why, though named by his father, Chaver (father), and called Avigdor by his grandfather, he would henceforth be known by the name given to him by the Pharoah’s daughter, “he who is drawn out”. At the same time, Miriam was clever enough to ensure Moses was instilled with loyalty to his people by convincing the princess to hire Yocheved, his natural mother, as his wet nurse.

Aaron, though also chosen by God for the position of High Priest, in contrast to the selection of his younger brother, Moses, exhibited no reluctance to serve. However, unlike Moses, he was not trained on the job but isolated and given a specific course of detailed instructions in priestly practices. That position was to be continued as part of a dynamic succession rather than by self selection or a call in spite of one’s own desires or self-conception. Miriam would have no part in choosing the prophets that succeeded her. Moses was able to choose his disciple, Joshua, as a successor. Aaron passed on his role through inheritance to his son, Eleazar.

Prophets, politicians and priests not only differ in the way they are selected and how their successors are chosen, they differ in how they exercise their leadership. A politician who thinks the office makes the President (or the Prime Minister) is suffering from a deep and severe delusion. His or her personal authority makes the office. A political leader accumulates and dispenses personal authority, one which is tremendously enhanced when he believes that God is behind him. When Moses leads the Israelite males and sings to the Lord his praises for their deliverance from the Egyptians, he sings as an “I”. (Exodus 15:1) When Miriam sings, she does so in the name of “We”. She was a prophet of and amid the people. Moses was an elitist who delegated power.

A priest has no personal authority at all. He is only an expression of his office and derives his influence from the formal authority granted to that office. In contrast, a prophet or prophetess has neither formal authority nor personal charisma but exercises his or her persuasive power by means of her authentic authority. She has neither coercive power nor the power of high office to give her legitimacy.

Moses needed the early practical training as distinct from a training in practices and procedures. However, without the requisite prudence and the forty years in the wilderness tending sheep to learn what was required to be a shepherd of his people, he would not have been the success he was for he began his active adult life as a very rash and volatile young man. A politician is a legislator. He appoints judges to administer and interpret the law. But it is the law, and not he, which must rule, a law certainly backed by coercive power, but coercive power that backs the rule of law and does not undermine it. A prophet or prophetess operates only through persuasion and not through legislation, persuasion even about how a law itself or an edict or even a leader may have exceeded the bounds of fairness. A priest operates through repetition and making sure the second order rules which maintain the structure of the social system are adhered to with precision and exactitude. That is why, from their very different perspectives, both Miriam and Aaron revolted against Moses and suggested that his power had gone to his head, as much as God may have backed him up, for God continually had to learn to limit His exercise of His power.  

Miriam in a Greek world would have been dubbed a goddess of water. Though she was not a goddess, she was the source for divining water in the desert, a source that dried up when Miriam died in Zin in the last year the Israelites were forced to wander in the wilderness. She was an original not to be duplicated. But even her water, so important for cleansing and purification, had its limits as chapter 19 makes clear. Sprinkling water on someone who could not be cleansed of a ritual sin was useless. But when the water was not forthcoming from the rocks after she died, the commonwealth of Israel once again turned against the leadership of Moses and Aaron (20:2) moaning that Moses had led them only to allow them and their cattle to die in the barren wilderness.

Moses fell on his knees and begged God to intervene. God instructed Moses and Aaron to assemble the people with their rods and speak to the rock to ask it to give forth water. (20:8) But instead of speaking, Moses smote the rock with his rod, not once but twice.  (20:11) Water finally gushed forth. But God reprimanded both Moses and Aaron for not doing precisely what they were told. Sometimes, a politician’s skills at improvisation and creativity are crucial, but not when commanded by God to do precisely one thing, something which Aaron understood, but the latter allowed himself to play second fiddle to his brother at precisely the time when detailed obeisance was required. Moses was punished for his actions and Aaron for his inaction in not following a precise protocol and procedure when God gave a direct order. Aaron would die five months after Miriam passed away. Prophets could be original and spontaneous. Politicians had to improvise with prudence while priests ensure the rituals that are the prerequisites in order for a society to enact laws, determine policies and carry out actions are followed in meticulous detail.

Miriam was buried in an anonymous place in Kodesh. She is honoured in name only. Aaron died on Mount Hor. Chapter 20, verses 25-29 read: “25 Take Aaron and Eleazar his son, and bring them up unto mount Hor. 26 And strip Aaron of his garments, and put them upon Eleazar his son; and Aaron shall be gathered unto his people, and shall die there.’ 27 And Moses did as the LORD commanded; and they went up into mount Hor in the sight of all the congregation. 28 And Moses stripped Aaron of his garments, and put them upon Eleazar his son; and Aaron died there in the top of the mount; and Moses and Eleazar came down from the mount. 29 And when all the congregation saw that Aaron was dead, they wept for Aaron thirty days, even all the house of Israel.” 

The respect for Aaron and his infamous compassion (andrachamim) was expressed in the long period of mourning. In comparison, Miriam had been known for her personal kindness (chesed) and Moses for his righteousness (tzedek). As I explained in an earlier blog, Miriam largely disappeared from the story until the challenge over Moses’ Cushite wife. Miriam, along with Aaron, had not challenged Moses because, as many commentators suggest, he married a dark-skinned woman, a Cush, as if they were both racists. Rather, Miriam was concerned with the hurt and neglect Moses had caused his wife as he dedicated everything to his political cause. The different roles require very different strengths of character which receive, in turn, very different responses; Miriam’s deepest essence was to be considerate of others even if it meant going against a furious, vindictive and punitive God. And the people of Israel remained loyal to her because she always remained among them even as Moses and Aaron rose up to their exalted positions.

For a prophet is a visionary while a politician has to be pragmatic and a priest must exhibit the greatest purity. That is why it is Miriam who has to remind her two brothers that leadership requires and embraces different voices and why God, the defender and expression of the singular commanding voice, punishes her so harshly because He mistakenly believes that His form of leadership can be replicated in human society. That is why each of the three leaders expresses his or herself so differently, Miriam through music, dance and drama, Moses in what he writes and Aaron through his long silences and articulate interventions. For each operates in a different temporal dimension, the prophet as an articulation of eternal time expressed through constant change. A politician like Moses lives in historical time while a priest lives in obeisance to repetitive cycles – the week, the year. Though God spoke directly to Moses and confronted Moses face-to-face, God spoke to Miriam through visions and dreams. It was Miriam who led the women of Israel in song and dance using timbrels to celebrate the Israeli escape from their Egyptian pursuers. (Exodus 15:20-21) “Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; Horse and rider he has thrown into the sea.” As it is written in Jeremiah (31:4), when Israel once again marches forth out into the world, Israelis will go forth with drums, dances and merrymakers rather than swords and guns.

My daughter, Rachel, wrote a poem entitled, “The Song of Miriam’s Well” with a prefatory credit to T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland.

Through the wasteland, I traveled with them.

So there was rock and also water.

A spring, a stone that rolled,

Where no moss grows.

The sound of water and cicada,

And the dry grass singing.

When the Clouds of Glory settled,

I lay on my side,

And dug myself deep into the desert sand.

Date palms sprung up around me,

To shade the noblemen with their buckets,

Singing:

            “Rise up, O well, (And in chorus, they’d answer)

            Ali be’er.

            The well our forefathers dug

            Maces, staffs, striking the flint face.”[1]

And like a beehive, spewing swarms of bees,

I would spout water for their dry mouths.[2]

They knew how to suckle on rock,

Honey cakes and oil from the flinty stone.[3]

 

But when my mistress died…

Miriam, who sang at the Nile,

Not knowing if her brother, among the Reeds, was to live or die,

Miriam, who sang at the Reed Sea,

When we emerged alive out of water, this time.

Well, I could sing water no more.

They came with their buckets in the Wilderness of Tzin,

Saying Kaddish for her, named of bitterness,

Miriam, mayim marim.[4]

Stone-faced, I could not even cry.

What does it take to weep sweet water?

This time Moshe’s staff struck twice

And yet no drop.

 

Now, you are leaving the desert behind.

You are thirsty, your people crying for water.

But I have no mind to roll on with you.

A new water-out-of-rock must be found.

Be the overflowing spring,

Or a cistern that doesn’t lose a drop.[5]

Be the one who digs deep into desert sand.

Be water-out-of-rock.

 

In Albert Hirschman’s terms, Miriam was the exemplification of loyalty, both in what she gave and what was returned to her in turn by the Israelites. In contrast, as I wrote above, Moses was the exemplification of the exit and not the entry; though he led, he lacked a fluent tongue. Instead, his older brother, Aaron made up for Moses’ speech impediment with his soft and sensitive voice. Together, the three made up one of the greatest leadership teams in history.


[1]Num. 21:17

[2] An image based on Midrash Tanhuma Parashat Hukat (9).

[3]   From Deut. 32:13, the image is based on a midrash in TB Sotah 11b.

[4] She is named for the verse in Ex. 1:14, “for the Egyptians had embittered their lives “.וימררו  את חייהם

[5] Based on Pirkei Avot 2:8.