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Entries in Moses (5)


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.



Moses' Difficulty in Making the Menorah

The midrash Tanchuma (Shemini) describes how Moshe found himself unable to to make the menorah. 

מעשה המנורה נתקשה בה משה א"ל הקב"ה הרי אני עושה אותה לפניך מה עשה הקדוש ברוך הוא הראה לו אש לבנה ואש אדומה ואש שחורה אש ירוקה ועשה מהן את המנורה גביעיה כפתוריה ופרחיה וששת הקנים והוא אומר לו כך וכך עשה אותם שנאמר (במדבר ח) וזה מעשה המנורה מלמד שהראה לו הקדוש ברוך הוא באצבע את המנורה ואעפ"כ נתקשה בה הרבה משה לעשותו מה עשה הקב"ה חקקה על כף ידו של משה אמר לו וראה ועשה בתבניתם כשם שחקקתיה על כף ידך ואעפ"כ נתקשה בה משה ואמר מקשה תיעשה המנורה כלומר מה קשה לעשות א"ל הקב"ה השלך את הזהב לאש והמנורה תיעשה מאליה שנאמר (שמות כח) מקשה תיעשה המנורה כתיב תיעשה מעצמה תיעשה מלמד שנתקשה לו המנורה


G-d told him how to do it and even engraved it on his palm, but all His instructions still didn't help, so eventually He told Moses: "Just throw it in the fire and it will make itself."

This is a mysterious midrash. I asked people to speak at the Shabbat table to speak as Moshe and tell me why they were having so much trouble.

Here is one possibility:

I keep being challenged to do new things - I wasn't even sure I could lead the people out of Egypt, and now I've had to do a whole series of other things I wasn't prepared for. Each time it's something else. I rise to the challenges but I make mistakes. Sometimes, I just need to give it over to G-d as it's beyond my capabilities.

I think in this Moses is a role model for us with all of our struggles, successes and failures. 

Another answer is that Moses, having given over the Torah, was in danger of perceiving himself, and being perceived, as the great knower. Every so often in the Torah Moses is shown as not knowing. It is crucial that we understand that the Torah did not come from him, and he did not know of his own accord, only through G-d's grace.  So too us all.


Marrying the Kushite woman

At the end of parshat Beha’alotcha we find a mysterious and puzzling narrative. Its first three verses don’t seem to follow on from each other at all:

1. And Miriam and Aaron spoke against Moses because of the Kushite woman whom he had married; for he had married a Kushite woman. 2. And they said, Has the Lord indeed spoken only by Moses? has he not spoken also by us? And the Lord heard it. 3. And the man Moses was very humble, more than any other men which were upon the face of the earth.

I am intrigued by verses 1 and 2 and the disconnect between them. We need to ask at least a couple of questions:

- What is the complaint here? Is it that Moses has married a Kushite woman (and if so, what is the problem with that?)

- What are Miriam and Aaron trying to say in verse 2 and what does that have to do with the Kushite woman?

The Midrash, Rashi and others suggest a non-literal interpretation – the complaint was that Moses had separated from his wife Tzipporah, and his siblings felt that that this was unnecessary and inappropriate. They too were prophets and yet had not separated themselves thus. This approach adequately explains the connection between the two verses, but it deviates from the plain meaning of the first verse: that Moses indeed married a Kushite woman.

Obviously if we follow the plain meaning, this in and of itself raises questions, such as: Where did he meet this woman? and: Why did he marry her? Rashbam and Daat zekenim quote a work called Divrei Hayamim LeMoshe Rabbenu, that somewhere between age 40 and 80, Moses married an Ethiopian queen (though he did not sleep with her. See further discussion of this interpretation here).

Daat zekenim goes on to explain the second verse as follows: They protested: “Was Moses so proud, because G-d spoke to him face to face, that he married out of the tribe? We (Miriam and Aaron) also had G-d speak to us, and we did not marry out of the tribe.”


I’d like to suggest an alternative reading. Unlike Miriam and Aaron, who grew up in amongst the Israelites in Egypt, Moses grew up in Pharaoh’s palace as a non-Jew. He then fled to Midian, lived once again among non-Jews, and married Tzipporah, daughter of an idol-worshipping priest (as Yitro was then). Moses spent his life among those who were other to him, and was familiar and comfortable with that. Thus, when G-d chose him to receive prophecy on a level never before or since attained, and to give the Torah through him – making him the ultimate Other, a human being with an experience he cannot share with any other person – he already had the inner kli (vessel) prepared and available to contain such a role.

Miriam and Aaron in all their greatness did not have this kind of vessel. Their protest derived from a lack of understanding of the greatness of Moses, who could be the leader of a people to which he was, in some regards, other. They saw him breaking the rules, and thought it was due to hubris in being spoken to G-d; but it was not. Hence verse 3, clarifying for us: No, Moses was humble.

In fact, if I can be bold enough as to take the Kushite woman as a metaphor, but in a different way than the Midrash does, and without meaning to be racist but simply to take the Tanach on its own terms and in its own context: the Kushite is a symbol of the quintessential Other, in that he is dark-skinned and exotic. When Moses marries the Kushite woman, he is embracing (“marrying”) his otherness to the full – perhaps accepting fully, finally, that he will never be just like everyone else, or like anyone else. Perhaps Miriam and Aaron sensed this and could not bear to fully, finally accept the separation from him that this would entail, as their younger brother whom they saved from death in the river.

- With thanks to Dan Goldblatt, through whose Bibliodrama session I arrived at this insight: Tammuz 5773


Singing your soul song

The Nadvorna Rebbe (צמח ה' לצבי) points out that it was only when the people of Israel, after the splitting of the Sea, finally at long last

"believed in G-d, and in Moses His prophet," (Exodus 14:31)


"Then Moses sang this song" (Exodus 15:1) - which is of course the famous song of praise, Az Yashir.

The Nadvorna takes this in a certain direction (that we should sing even before the miracle occurs).
However I noticed another point that speaks to me: that just before the song, we hear that the people believed in G-d and in Moses.

Moses, who held back so much in following his calling at the beginning; Moses of "the uncircumcized lips", who resisted the call to leadership; who was also uncertain what to do at the Red Sea and had to be firmly instructed by G-d, "Why do you cry to me? Speak to the people of Israel, that they go forward!" (Ex. 14:15). This is the Moses who suddenly sings out without hesitation, with great confidence.

Perhaps it was precisely the people's palpable faith in him that now suddenly granted Moses the ability to sing  this extended, articulate and poetic paean to G-d. Perhaps this even enables the next phase of his spiritual career, as he becomes a fine-tuned instrument of G-d and goes on to receive the Torah on Mt Sinai.

Faith in G-d, is one important lesson of this part of the Exodus narrative; but here we also have a window into the importance of faith in people, especially our leaders.

The famous Torah of R' Nachman, the Azamra Torah (292) that speaks of finding the good points in another person and thus elevating them, continues with the following:

In just the same way you must carry on searching until you find another good point. Even if you feel that this good point is also full of flaws, you must still search for some good in it. And so you must continue finding more and more good points. This is how songs are made.

Now I understand this idea expressed by R' Nachman, which I have read several times in the past, in a more meaningful way. This truly is how songs are made.

Also, we are told they believed in Moses G-d's servant. Thus, our perception of the potential in people and leaders is most empowering to them when we focus on their calling in this life, on how they can be of unique Divine service.

So let us hold a gaze of steady faith in those others we have been given to love and admire - friends, family, leaders - so as to enable them to sing their unique divine soul song, a gift to all who surround them.


ויספר משה לחתנו And Moses told his father-in-law

I love to learn Parsha with a chabura (group) of people, where we just read the text carefully and discuss together without preparing in advance. It's great - things pop out at you that you never seem to notice when learning on your own. I highly recommend it.
Here's something I noticed this week in one such group learning session. At the beginning of Parshat Yitro, Yitro comes to visit Moshe because he has heard of all the miraculous things that God has done, specifically the Exodus from Egypt.
But then Shemot chapter 18, verse 8 tells us:

And Moses told his father-in-law all that the Lord had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, and all the hardship that had come upon them by the way, and how the Lord saved them.

Yitro's reaction is:

And Jethro rejoiced because of all the goodness which the Lord had done to Israel, whom he had delivered from the hand of the Egyptians.

It seems superfluous for Moshe
to tell this story over to a person who has already heard it! What can we learn from this?

We could take three possible directions: 

  1. The rumours of the miracles had spread to Midyan. Rumours have a way of spreading, as the Talmud in Sotah colourfully describes it, by gossiping women spinning tales by moonlight, or as the Talmud in Baba Batra says, simply things get around, "For the bird of the heaven shall carry the voice"
    BUT you don't just want to rely on a rumour, it's important to check the veracity of it from someone who was there

  2. When you hear a first person account it has an entirely different effect than hearing the generalities. This happens to us all the time - we hear of a disaster and it's just numbers: 250 killed in a plane crash, 50000 killed in an earthquake. Our brain registers, but our hearts remain untouched. But when we hear one individual story, tears come to our eyes. Yitro's reaction is one of rejoicing, but the word used ויחד is odd. The rabbis translated it as goosebumps - a powerful reaction of awe and wonder. To hear it from the horse's mouth so to speak, was almost to relive it. אינו דומה שמיעה לראייה - hearing is not like seeing. We see this also when Moshe is up Mt Sinai and the people are worshipping the Golden Calf below. God says (Shemot 32:7-8)
Go down; for your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have corrupted themselves;
They have turned aside quickly from the way which I commanded them; they have made them a molten calf, and have worshipped it...

So he knew about this - who would doubt the word of God? Yet only when Moshe SAW the calf and the dancing did his anger burn and he dropped the tablets. 

3. The third angle we can take on Moshe's retelling is less about Yitro's need to hear and more regarding Moshe's need to tell the story over. When we tell a story over to an outsider, it helps us to understand what we have been through. It helps to organise our thoughts and may be cathartic, as in psychoanalysis. It makes a difference who we are speaking to also - here, Yitro was a powerful religious figure, also a leader, and Moshe could speak to him as a peer and share all of the emotions regarding everything he had just been through - including the hardship. I wonder how long that conversation took - perhaps they sat in a tent all day, eating Manna, smoking a nargilla, in one of those unforgettable ten hour conversations that make life worth living.

Perhaps that is also why Yitro was the one who a few verses later suggested to Moshe that he needed to lighten his burden. He most deeply understood what Moshe had been through and where he was at.
This is an early example of coaching - a deep listening followed by advice to match where the person is!

And it is interesting that all this takes place just before the tremendous revelation at Sinai - an event which in Jewish consciousness takes its place in import alongside the Creation of the World. At the Creation, God speaks ten sayings, but there is really no one to talk to - God is saying them to Him/Herself.
לולא מסתפימא I would say, God is lonely.
Now at Sinai, God gets to "do a tikkun - have a healing experience" so to speak, when S/He can say ten things to 600000 people who are listening attentively. We all need to speak out our truth to another, and this is to be not alone.

by Hyam Plutzik

(Once, when I entered the Holy of Holies to burn the incense, I saw the Lord
of all Hosts sitting on a high and exalted throne, and He said to me:
"Ishmael, my son, bless me." —
The Talmud)

He is lonely then within the pale of the palace
The Enthroned Will, whose fingers must ever shore
The pitiful islands against the destroyer of all.

To guard the breath of the violet for its time
And Helen’s face, and the gay moment the sun
Touches the street in the town where children play.

To shape and reshape forever the crumbling substances
Yet see the ruin so quickly, the figurines
Wasting in air, the brush-strokes graying like ash
If only once out of the flow, the river,
To make the lasting, the perfect – O to create
What will endure for all the creator’s time.

Lonely, lonely in the pale of the palace.
Once there were others, rivals, Ammon or Zeus.
Brother or foe, to bring the blood to the face,

Or who fashioned himself a mate out of the ground,
For eternity, his paltry thousand years.
But to shape and reshape forever the dust, the dust.

And the desperate tricks, the man or the nation beloved.
The disguises: dream or fire or a cloak by the gate
Of an unknown city, beyond the candlelight's friendship,

Where the guard cries out who goes, and sees no thing
But the darkening sand and a desert bird wheeling
With the cry that a gull makes on an empty coast.

O he is lonely in the pale of the palace¬— The Enthroned
Will, whose fingers must ever shore
The pitiful islands against the destroyer of all.