From Fear to Resolve: Mourning Miriam in Parshat Chukkat

Ancient wellHow much time was given to mourning Miriam?

Not enough. There certainly was enough energy for resistance and rage, though. Miriam dies and the Israelites waste little time in attacking Moses and Aaron. Again. There’s no water, they complain. We are thirsty, they say.

Moses and Aaron must be anguishing over their loss. Miriam, who saved her little brother, who co-led Project Israel, a singer and dancer, a giver of life. Their own people offer no comfort. Quite the contrary. Instead, the Israelites, who have busily brought pitcher after pitcher of poison to force down Moses’ and Aaron’s throats, brew up more of the same.

“Why have you brought YHVH’s congregation into this wilderness for us and our beasts to die there? Why did you make us leave Egypt…?” (Numbers 20: 4-5).

More complaints, more indictments. Two generations’ worth, now. You made us try to be free. You forced us to become a people with a spiritual purpose, with a divine promise to fulfill. You. You. You.

They exhaust me, those Israelites. Can’t they give it a rest? Are they really so dependent on Moses and Aaron, really so selfish that they can’t manage to take care of themselves – just this once? Or better yet, why not consider taking care of Moses and Aaron? Did they consider that?

Miriam, the tradition goes, brought water. Without her, Miriam’s well vanished. No wonder the people were frightened. No wonder they noticed their thirst with such force; without that well, they might die parched, burning from the inside out.

Why don’t they remember Miriam leading them in dance, invoke her joy and her hope, and go looking for sustenance in her name? They could have honored her and their own loss. They could have comforted Moses and Aaron, banded together to face their grief instead of indulging in fear.  Instead, they let fear rule. They used their fear like weapons.

Cruel. They cut and they wounded men who had been sliced open again and again.

Theodor Adorno wrote that you are only loved where you may show yourself to be weak without provoking strength. If that is the measure of love, then the Israelites did not know how to love at all.

I cannot blame Moses for striking out himself, for wounding the earth, for the exhaustion of his rage. When YHVH’s compassion is most necessary, it, too, fails. God pronounces judgment, and Aaron and Moses are to be denied the right to lead the Israelites into the promised land.

In Chukkat, we stand in a scorched wilderness composed of grief and rage and resistance.

Now, another task. Another grief. YHVH insists: Moses must walk his brother up Mount Hor. There, Moses himself must take the vestments from his elder brother’s body, transfer authority to Aaron’s son, watch as his brother dies. This time, the whole community mourns. For one month they grieve their High Priest.

Perhaps Moses found their grief cold comfort. The complaints will, after all, come again soon enough. One wonders why he does not abandon the project, walk up the mountain and lie down with his brother.

But he goes on and the people come to Beer. YHVH tells Moses to gather the people so that they may be given water. They assemble. Suddenly, they act – hopefully, joyfully. They sing the song they should have sung after Miriam died. “Spring up, O well,” they chant. “Sing to it” (Numbers 21:17). You might translate this verse: “Spring up, O well – sing to her!”

Is the well Miriam – her nefesh, her ruach, her life-giving force? Are the Israelites remembering Miriam’s song at the Sea of Reeds when she danced the first dance of freedom? Az yashir it reads in both places of our Torah scroll, “then [they] sang.”

But in Exodus 15:1 it is Moses and the children of Israel who sing (az yashir Moshe u’v’nei Yisrael). Here, in Numbers, only the Israelites are mentioned (az yashir Yisrael).

Moses, perhaps, observes, listens as they sing to the feminine, life-giving source of strength of the well, of its water, in honor or memory, perhaps, of Miriam, the prophetess.

Does this song offer Moses, who is now without brother or sister, a moment of healing? Does this song renew his spirit, make it possible for him to go on after all? In this moment, are the Israelites finally acting like a people – mature, considerate, able to be responsible for creating what they need?

If, at last, time was given to mourning and honoring Miriam, then it might have been enough. Grief could give way to hope; fear to resolve.

May it always be so.


White People, Take it In: On Racism and the Charleston Murders

Charleston murderedWe were checking out various apartments and homes for rent around our new town, Charlotte, North Carolina. My husband, Ralf, stopped to talk to different folks in in what appeared to be a diverse neighborhood.

I was sitting in the car looking at newspaper ads when Ralf got back into the driver’s seat.

“Find out anything?” I asked. For a moment, Ralf was silent.

“What’s wrong, honey?”

“I can’t believe the language I just heard,” he said. “I was just talking to that white man over there in that front yard. He told me we should think about whether we want to move in to this neighborhood.”

“Why not?”

“Because – and these were his words – the ‘niggers’ are taking over.”

It was 1990. Neither one of us could take it in.

Photo by James Keivom, originally published in the NY Daily News

That was a quarter century ago. And now? We are taking in Eric Gardner on the sidewalk, choking to death. We are taking in the vision of a 14-year-old African American girl pushed to the ground and kneed in the back by a white police officer. We are taking in Dylann Storm Roof’s murder of nine African Americans in Emanuel AME Church in Charleston. During bible study, no less.

The list is, of course, endless. And we white people? We are, apparently, not sick enough.

There are so many pernicious ways for racism to run its course. Just cut out the facts of history, for example.

In 1999, I worked for the North Carolina State Department of Cultural Resources as the bicentennial coordinator for Reed Gold Mine. Reed Gold Mine is the location of the first documented discover of gold in America, and almost as soon as the family had sold enough nuggets, Reed began purchasing slaves to search for gold.

The white manager of the site called the place “John Reed’s farm.” John Reed’s enormous wealth was made on the backs of slave labor, but that went unmentioned in the tour shpiel which was delivered then, not unsurprisingly, mostly to white visitors.

Does this fact seem innocuous in comparison to the police brutality we have been witnessing in videos and pictures on YouTube? To a criminal justice system that routinely rounds up African Americans for, among other things, driving? To a mass murder of the faithful in a church sanctuary?

How about this (not small) fact: After WWII white people fled to the suburbs, often financed by banks who refused loans to African Americans. The result? Over decades, lower class white people were able to build home equity and inheritable wealth while African Americans were confined to decaying inner cities. One group got a hand up to the middle class; the other was prevented from moving at all.

These facts are among the millions of facts underpinning American racism. Racism is systemic, pervasive. It is not merely unacknowledged in this country, it is nourished by the white world’s inability to take it in.

Since 2000 I have seen more and more African American students in my classes at UNC Charlotte. They seem different from those I was teaching in the 1990’s. They are more self-assured, more confident. They seem, generally, to trust that I want to help.

Why should they?

Why should African Americans trust any white person who has a position of authority? Why should they trust any white person?

White people have enslaved black people, we have oppressed and persecuted black people, we have made it impossible for any black person to be born into true freedom.

A thousand, a million, an uncountable number of cuts. Banks, police, the criminal system – white America is sick with hatred and violence against African Americans. But not yet sick enough?

Why did those members of “Mother Emanuel,” the oldest AME church in the south, invite in a lone white man into their community? Into their sacred space? Into their sanctuary?

“They were so trusting,” church historian Liz Alston said.

Now it is time: White people – all white people must consider what they must do to earn such trust.

Take it in.


Forgiving and Forgetting in Parshat Sh’lach L’cha

angry-crowdSix congregants were on the phone line to discuss Parshat Sh’lach L’cha. We pictured the awful scene: Moses and Aaron falling to their faces, Joshua and Caleb rending their clothes, a community threatening to stone their own leaders. Moses, asking God to forgive the cowardice and the craziness, and God relenting – partially.

There was much conversation about knowing how and when to forgive. When do those who oppose us function as dark angels with important messages? When are aggressive, angry people actually teaching us how to respond firmly and clearly to unhealthy rage and unwarranted destruction? When must we stand fast, insist on light and right?

One imagines what it took for Moses to stand again, to turn from the people prepared to stone him and his brother and to plead with his (and their) God. Pardon them. Pardon them, please, again. As you have since they left Egypt, as you have according to Your great kindness (Numbers 14:19).

No wonder, given the multitude of cascading transgressions we commit each year, that we quote this very plea after Kol Nidre. We must trust in God’s forgiveness.

Finally, I asked, “Do we need to discuss the Sabbath breaker?” Perhaps I imagined the collective breath; I certainly heard one familiar voice say firmly, “yes.”

There is no forgiveness this time.

The very community that indulged in collective cowardice now (perhaps?) does so again. They bring the Sabbath breaker before Moses and place him under guard, “for it was not clear what should be done to him” (Numbers 15:34).

YHVH issues judgment. The man is to be stoned to death. This time, the community does exactly as commanded.

One congregant points out that God Godself took the first Shabbat rest. Humans were created in God’s image, he says. They were asked only to be godly. Here, an Israelite flaunts everything, the whole project, the extraordinary gift of the Law given by God at Sinai. This one Israelite has spurned the first, fundamental act of God after creation is completed. God blessed that day, declared it holy. This is, the congregant points out, serious stuff.

But another notes that the Sabbath breaker could hardly have predicted the outcome of his transgression – after all, even the community does not know what to do with him at first. Why must YHVH be so severe?

A third asks: Why didn’t anyone speak up? We’ve seen Moses appeal to God’s ego to dissuade YHVH from destroying the entire people. In the face of this judgment against one man, Moses is silent. Aaron is silent. The people are silent. Why?

We acknowledge that the text comes from the Priestly school of writers. My congregants know by now that the Priestly school was all about institutionalizing the Sabbath, brit milah, Temple sacrifice and Temple ritual. Nevertheless, another congregant points out the obvious: Later redactors left this story in our Torah – and they sanctified it by doing so.

More discussion, and we are still unsure, at odds with ourselves. Can we accept the severity of this decree as a warning that the Sabbath was critical to our survival – that without its practice we, too, would die? Does the gift – and the observance – of the Sabbath ensure the life of our very souls?

Humans, so the saying goes, call out: “How long, oh Lord? How long?” And God answers back: “How long, humankind? How long?”

In his novel, The Buried Giant, writer Kazuo Ishiguro describes a post-Arthurian world suffering from forgetfulness. Characters struggle to remember what happened just hours earlier. Their past is barely present to them. Every memory they think they have is mere speculation.

At one point, an elderly couple discusses the possibility that it is God who is causing the mist that takes their memories. Perhaps God is angry about something we’ve done, one says. Or maybe God isn’t angry, but just ashamed. The other doesn’t understand: Why, then, doesn’t God merely punish humanity? Why make everyone forget?

“Perhaps God’s so deeply ashamed of us, of something we did, that he’s wishing himself to forget,” the first answers. “…when God won’t remember, it’s no wonder we’re unable to do so.”

Sometimes, our texts describe God ashamed. I was wrong to shrink the light of the moon, God says in one midrash and the Holy One even asks that a sacrifice be brought God’s own account, no less: “The Holy Blessed One said: bring an expiation for me because I diminished the moon… (Bereshit Rabba 6:1,4)

Sometimes, our texts describe God hiding from us: “But your iniquities have been a barrier between you and your God / Your sins have made Him turn His face away / And refuse to hear you” (Isaiah 59:2). God turns away from our crimes– perhaps in order to forget they ever occurred? How else could God go on?

A community rejects its charge and then turns on its leaders, threatening to kill them for asking for their courage and their faith. God forgives, partially, but soon after commands that same community to kill one of its members. Does the wrong done warrant this judgment or has God, tested by the people’s own spinelessness and aggression, simply forgotten forgiveness? When God turns from humanity, does God begin to forget Godself?

When we forget what makes us divine, do we forget ourselves?


B’ha’alot’cha: Torah for Our Times

pillar of cloudRabbi Shimon said, “Woe to the human being who says that Torah presents mere stories and ordinary words!

This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Be’ha’alot’cha is no mere story, but a story for our times. The Israelites are traveling away from Sinai, away from exaltation and revelation. They have been given a covenant and responsibility with it. They have been charged with obligations they do not fully understand, that they have yet to learn and to practice.

The Holy One goes with them, a fire in the night, a blaze wrapped in cloud by day.

When the Ark was to set out, Moses would say: Kuma Adonai v’yafutzu oivecha v’yanusu m’sanecha mipanecha. “Arise, YHVH!” And he would pray: “May Your enemies be scattered, and may Your foes flee before You” (Numbers 10:35).

We chant this verse during Torah services, followed immediately by verses adding a critical postscript: Ki mitzion teitzei Torah: For the Torah came from Zion (Isaiah 2:3).

For many years I have read this text through the eyes of Rebecca Smith. During her bat mitzvah preparation, nearly a decade ago, we looked at this text together. Rebecca was  clear: She didn’t like it the text. It seemed like the description of an angry, vengeful, aggressive God.

Sometimes, your students help you form the questions you long wanted to ask yourself.

“What are God’s enemies?” I asked. “Who are God’s enemies?”

“Lies,” she told me.

Rebecca, at twelve, knew that whenever we lie to ourselves or to others we close off our hearts and souls to the divine. She named other enemies of God: Rage and aggression and the capacity to destroy.

“What’s in the Ark?” I asked.

“Truth,” she said.

And, in truth, the Ark held and holds Torah, the Torah that binds us and protects us. “When you are bound above,” the sages say, “you will not fall below.”

Of our Torah we say: Eitz Hayyim hi. She is a tree of life (Proverbs 3:18). All her ways are ways of peace, we sing. But to make peace, to create peace takes clarity about our intentions. Who is our Higher Authority, our Source of All? What is our purpose?

In this week’s parsha, Moses hears the complaining, the carping, the whining. He takes it all in. It is too much. He cannot carry the weight of dissatisfied, hungry, devouring people. And the Holy One tells him: Find those who can receive ruach, spirit, and who can radiate what they receive. Find those who understand the purpose of this journey, the charge of the Torah, the holiness of the task. When two men Moses did not choose themselves begin to prophecy a boy comes to tattletale and complain. But Moses knows that there are many sources of wisdom. “Would that all YHVH’s people were prophets,” he says.

Towards the end of Be’ha’alot’cha , Miriam and Aaron go about the people complaining, gossiping. Moses, they say, married a Cushite woman! Note well: They do not go to speak to Moses, they spread their vitriol elsewhere, instead. A culture of complaint, triangulation, and gossip is poisonous. Lashon hara devours its practitioners, infects its witnesses, and scars its targets.

YHVH calls Miriam and Aaron forward. Miriam is stricken with snow-white scales. She becomes a vision of death.

She is the first prophetess of Israel, a woman charged with speaking God’s truth. Instead, she and her brother, the High Priest, have let venomous words do their awful, dangerous work among the people. Aaron is horrified at her punishment; he, too, is guilty. Miriam, the woman who embodied freedom and joy at the sea is now the vessel for the sick spirit of her community.

Moses prays: El na rafa na la. Holy One please, heal her please.

Truth, Rebecca told me years ago, was cradled in the ark, is held in our Torah. She is not made of mere stories but of knowledge and wisdom and life itself. Her ways are peace.

This week’s Torah portion is not a mere story, but a mandate. We, too, must have Moses’ courage to ask the Holy One of Blessing for healing.

May we pray to become whole and grateful inhabitants of our communities.  May we learn that sacred purpose and intentions must be shared and supported by all. May we be blessed with spiritual growth and goodness, with love of Torah. May the Holy One speak to us, and may the Holy One hear our prayer.

Come and see: So it is above.
There is garment, body, soul, and soul of soul.
The heavens and their host are the garment.
The Assembly of Israel is the body,
who receives the soul, Beauty of Israel.
So she is the body of the soul.
The soul we have mentioned is Beauty of Israel, real Torah.
The soul of the soul is the Holy Ancient One.
All is connected, this one to that one



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