Voices of WRJ: Chukat
July 15, 2016
WRJ Guest Blogger
by Alison Auerbach
In this week’s parsha, Chukat 19:1−22:1, we read the following:
20:1 The Israelites arrived at Kadesh in the wilderness of Zin. Miriam died and was buried there.
These two lines on the death of Miriam seem a short shrift for a woman Rabbi Charles P. Sherman, in his sermon A Woman Worth Remembering describes thusly:
Friends, this was no ordinary lady – not by any means. Yes, she was a fallible human being with faults. On occasion Miriam liked a juicy word of gossip – who doesn’t? But she was a woman of enormous love of life and of exemplary courage, and she played a central role in the exodus which should not be forgotten.
Yet her death is a mere line in the Torah. Miriam, the only woman named as prophet in the Torah, very clearly didn’t receive the recognition upon her death that her male peers did. The text does tell us she was missed; in the very next verse we are told that after she died the Israelites found themselves without water.
Just as importantly when we learn there is no water we also learn Miriam has no heir; no one has been chosen to carry on her legacy. The well has run dry.
Or has it?
Carol Ochs, in Remembering Miriam, from The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, argues that while no one woman was named as successor, all women carried on her work. Miriam’s succession, she tells us, is shown in women passing on Jewish knowledge and practice in their families and in the recognition that home, too, was a sacred space. More ever, she states that: Miriam taught the women to find the holy wherever they were open to it, whenever they could be responsive. The strictures created around ritualized worship in the Torah were of less concern to Miriam than embracing a living Judaism. Women were taught by Miriam that the sacred can be experienced outside of structured worship. That, whenever we could be responsive to the holy, we should act upon it.
Indeed, Ms. Ochs helps us recognize Miriam’s work we are still carrying on:
Miriam’s legacy, which we are just beginning to retrieve, models our capacity to care for those more vulnerable than ourselves (as she did for her infant brother), to intervene in history regardless of our position (as she did when she approached the princess and when she challenged Moses’ conduct and leadership), and to dance as well as to sing publicly as a form of worship.
This is a powerful message. Whatever you choose to do as a Jewish woman, from creating a Jewish home, to taking on a leadership position in your synagogue or your sisterhood, to empowering WRJ to give voice to your values, you are carrying on Miriam’s legacy. It is our actions which mark us as Miriam’s successors.
We are following in her footsteps when we work to create a better world, as Rabbi Jessica Kessler Marshall shows us in her sermon Chukat: Miriam, a Prophet of Deeds:
Our prophet Miriam was a prophet of deeds. She didn’t give fiery speeches, she didn’t adjudicate matters of law, and she wasn’t overly concerned with exact prescriptions for sacrificial offerings. … She was not in the forefront of the public eye. She wasn’t loud or showy. But she did know what her people needed and she provided that. … Our prophet Miriam teaches us about what it truly means to lead by supporting others. To provide the sustaining nourishment and foundation so that one’s people may develop and thrive.
When we take action, support others and express our love of that which is holy we follow in Miriam’s footsteps. We are carrying on in a myriad of ways the heritage of the complex woman who was Miriam.
We carry on Miriam’s legacy when we help those in need.
We carry on Miriam’s legacy when we take a stand against racism, bigotry and hatred.
We carry on Miriam’s legacy when we dare to celebrate our love of Torah at The Western Wall.
No, Miriam was not mourned, not as her peers were. Instead we honor her life by following her teachings today. Her memory is for a blessing, and we, women who embrace the ethical and moral teachings of Judaism, have become her successors. We carry on Miriam’s legacy in ways big and small every day. And that is a memory we all should hold fast to.
Alison Heller Auerbach is proud to be a member of one of the founding congregations of WRJ, Rockdale Temple/KK Bene Israel, in Cincinnati. Alison has served as a board member for her congregation and as sisterhood president, and is currently an Area Director for WRJ’s Central District. Additionally she is on WRJ’s Board where she has worked on creating content for new and continuing sisterhood presidents.