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Entries in trauma (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.



Noah and his moment

This year I have been feeling the story of Noah very deeply. Particularly, the image of this man who essentially went through a Holocaust with his family.

There is an interesting tension within our commentators (revolving around the words "in his generations") between those who would see Noah as righteous and those who would see him as mediocre at best.

It's easy to judge Noah. He wasn't Abraham - he did not plead to G-d to save the world, and he did not run around telling everyone that they needed to repent. He was "נח", passive. That is why we do not adopt him as one of our patriarchs or as a role model.

Abraham was told "Lech Lecha, leave behind everything you know and set out on a long journey." So was Noah. Both obeyed G-d. 

Abraham opened his house to guests. Noah built a (floating) house and faithfully took care of hundreds of animal guests for over a year.

Yet to be fair, Noah did not have any role models for action. G-d came and told him to do something very difficult, and he did it. He obeyed. We praise Abraham for his obedience at the Akedah, why should we not give Noah the credit for fulfilling the extremely challenging task he was given.

You could argue that neither did Abraham have any role models before him. True. But he did have Noah and the flood story (a midrash even claims that Noah was still alive when Abraham was born). He had a negative example to learn from. He also had a contemporary (and who knows, perhaps he even spoke to him?) to whom G-d had spoken and who had obeyed.  In other words, perhaps without Noah there could not have been an Abraham. Noah's actions and activities created the basis, was a precursor, for the greatness of Abraham.

Hegel speaks of thesis and anti-thesis. Perhaps Noah's very passivity and lack of pleading (thesis) led to the antithesis, Abraham's active mode and his intercession before G-d.

- - -

But, truth to tell, Noah did miss a tremendous opportunity. After the flood, all idol-worship had been wiped out. There was only Noah and his family, and they know of the one G-d. Judaism's entire theology is bent towards the day when the entire world will know G-d. Noah had an opportunity to set the world on a foundation of monotheism when he emerged from the ark; to go out into the world and serve G-d. Instead, he got drunk and ended up cursing his own descendants. It is hard to blame Noah for getting drunk - he must have been unimaginably traumatised by emerging from the ark into a world where nothing he had known even existed any more and everyone was dead. But it was a lost opportunity and hence, it was subsequently up to Abraham to try to introduce monotheism into a world already riddled with idol-worship.

N.B. Interestingly enough, a lecture I heard last week by Dr Paula Friedrikssohn taught me that during the time of Jesus, another such moment came along in history. At that time, pagans were pluralists, and even those who might admire the Israelite G-d, would still cling to their own nation's gods. In other words, the norm was to worship numerous gods at the same time, but never to let go of your family gods. Along came Saul/Paul and began to announce to the pagans that they must surrender their idols and worship only the G-d of Israel (who was of course the G-d that Jesus and his followers believed in, being Jewish). At that time, many pagans converted to a form of Judaism, or at least Jewish belief (I am not sure if they had any practice).

Of course, the moment was lost, on some level, when this form of Judaism then morphed into a new religion that no longer resembled Judaism. Still, this series of events set into motion the advent of a new monotheistic trend in the world that would come to embrace millions and bring them closer to one G-d. Let's hope, pray and believe that this has to be a good thing.