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Entries in healing (2)


Miriam's Trauma/Healing By Water

Let’s talk about Miriam – prophetess, leader, water-bringer. In her life, there are two crucial scenes that take place next to water:


 As a young girl she stands by the Nile, watching her baby brother Moses float in a basket, placed there anxiously by his mother after Pharaoh decreed that all baby boys must be thrown in the Nile (Exodus 2):

3. And when she could not longer hide him, she took for him an ark made of reeds, and daubed it with slime and with pitch, and put the child in it; and she laid it in the rushes by the river’s brink.

4. And his sister stood far away, to see what would be done to him. 

Pharaoh’s daughter takes him and saves him from the genocidal decree by adopting him, and Miriam is instrumental in that.


Much later, as a woman of eighty-five, after the Red sea has split allowing the Israelites to go through and then closed over the Egyptian foe, she witnesses her brother Moses singing the famous song known as “Az Yashir”. Then, following his  lead, she takes up her tambourine and leads the women in song and dance by the sea (Exodus 15):

20. And Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a tambourine in her hand; and all the women went out after her with tambourines, dancing.

21. And Miriam answered them, Sing to the Lord, for he has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider has he thrown into the sea. 

In the first instance, she is not named – she is only named in the second story, many decades later. Why is this? And moreover, why don’t hear anything of Miriam in the intervening years between these two scenes? What was she doing in Egypt? Was she not involved in leading the people? What happened to the resourceful little girl who spoke up boldly to Pharaoh’s daughter – why does she vanish from the text?

And since we are asking questions, let us also wonder why Miriam is described here suddenly as “sister of Aaron”?

* * *  

Many answers are possible, but one that ties all these threads together emerged during a Bibliodrama I ran in Rechovot. It goes as follows:

Let’s conjecture that the first incident caused young Miriam to experience a trauma. Yes, her baby brother was saved from death, but he was still ripped away from his family, taken to the palace of the cruel tyrant whom the Israelites hated and feared, and raised there by another woman as an Egyptian. We have no idea if Miriam even saw him from that day forth. Perhaps this took all the wind out of her sails. She was unable henceforth to step up to leadership roles; she could never forget her little brother or stop being worried about him.

Fast forward to the redemption by the sea.

If the first scene took place by the Nile, the god of the Egyptian, water that belonged to the enemy and served its genocidal purposes, this scene takes place by a sea that was friendly to the Israelites, that opened for them and closed over the Egyptians. Finally, they were safe. And now Miriam also sees her brother sing gloriously, leading all the people – something he has never done before. A moment before that, we learned that the Israelites “believed in God and in Moses his servant.” Miriam can finally put her mind at rest. Moses is okay, he is whole – she can see it. She is entirely joyous now - where in the previous scene "she stood", here she dances. 

In this moment, as her trauma recedes in what we in Hebrew call a חוויה מתקנת. a rectifying experience, she can come into the fullness of her being and be named. She can also finally let her anxiety about Moses rest. And if all these years she neglected her middle brother, Aaron, being unable to give him the attention and love he deserved, perhaps now she can finally become his sister.

* * * 
Two verses later, and surely not by coincidence, the letters of Miriam’s name מרים appear again as “Marim”, bitter. But Miriam’s bitterness has now receded, just as the bitter waters will recede when Moses puts a tree or stick into them. The tree of life. A sweet experience of life – and the tree of life, the Torah – can heal bitterness, as it did for Miriam.

Then, in her merit, the well of life-bringing water comes to the people and remains with them until her death.


[1] With thanks to Aviva Harbater-Tsubeiri for her insight regarding the trauma of the first incident, and to other members of the Berman synagogue in Rechovot for their input and ideas.  

[2] For more on how the Israelites' belief in Moses enabled him to sing his song, see here.



And Lilith fled

The mythology of the demon queen Lilith appears in a number of Jewish sources. Lilith represents an evil force who, among other things, kills babies. One of the sources where Lilith appears is the Zohar. However the Zohar tells us the story differently from other sources. Rather than being created demonic, she started off as a non-evil spirit:

There is a female, a spirit of all spirits, and her name is Lilith, and she was at first with Adam (Zohar 3:19)

She had union with Adam who was at that time a spirit, in primal undifferentiated form (i.e. encapsulating both male and female, as in the verse in Genesis 1:27). However, once Adam began differentiating into male and female, Lilith fled and became evil.

Thereafter the Holy One, blessed be He, sawed Adam into two, and made the female. And He brought her to Adam in her perfection like a bride to the canopy. When Lilith saw this, she fled. And she is in the cities of the sea, and she is still trying to harm the sons of the world. (Zohar 3:19)

What precisely made Lilith flee? The Zohar does not tell us, though this is an intriguing question in and of itself. It might be because she was jealous of Eve, or upset that Adam now had a body while she did not. But I want to suggest something more. We see that she saw Adam becoming whole – developing male and female aspects, while she remained only female. It seems to me that once Adam had evolved, but she had not, the union became imbalanced and that was why she fled. This is a lesson for male-female relationships. In some relationships, each partner is playing up only half of the aspects of the self - the gendered half. The woman plays up only her feminine aspects to the very masculine man. However, where one partner has developed to be more whole and integrate his/her own male and female aspects, the other partner will have to develop similarly for the relationship to endure and thrive.

A second important point here is that the Zohar’s Lilith was originally not evil. What made her evil was her feelings of offense, or upset, or rejection. The Zohar is making a profound statement about the roots of evil, that lie in our actions and reactions. How much damage rejection can do! I mentioned this already in this post, about Timna.

- - -

I originally ended this post here, with the words:

"Two wounded beings unleash so much bad into the world. How can we help people move beyond their negative emotions? What can we do to add to the world’s healing? Here's one route. "

However, today my teacher Avraham mentioned something that puts a much deeper spin on it, that repesents a spiritual development. He taught that Leah is kabbalistically seen as a reincarnation of Lilith, no less (and Rachel is Eve, with Jacob equivalent to Adam).

Like Lilith, Leah too suffers from tremendous rejection and pain. For her entire life, her husband Jacob has given his love to her sister Rachel. Leah's challenges in her lifetime represent the opportunity for growth and tikkun for the Lilith soul inside her. True repentance, says the Rambam, is only when you are back in the same situation and you act differently. Thus, in her lifetime Leah had a similar experience to Lilith, of rejection - but her response is different. Instead of acting in a childish, unevolved manner and storming off to do angry damage in the world, Leah lives within the situation, tries to resolve it, and even strives to feel gratitude for what she actually has, as we see when she names Judah and says "This time I shall thank G-d."

We all get to face our unique personal challenges again and again, in different forms, so that we can refine our responses and react from a more evolved place each time. This is how we heal the world (and meditation [see the link above] is indeed a very valuable tool, as it teaches us to hold our emotions in a different way).


[Thanks to my teacher Avraham Leader for introducing me to this passage. Translation of Zohar is from this site]