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D’var Torah Shemini

Shabbat Shalom:

We recognize the heartfelt loss of our colleague and friend, Ron Levine,
who passed away suddenly this week. Our thoughts and prayers go out to
his family: “May God comfort you among the other mourners of Zion and
Jerusalem.”

Here is this week’s D’var Torah:

Making the Bitter Sweet
Ilana Kurshan

The Torah reading for the seventh day of Pesach is the narrative of the splitting of the sea and the ensuing “Song of the Sea,” which is sung in exultant triumph by Moses and the Israelites. Following this lengthy biblical poem, the Torah recounts that the women were led in song and dance by “Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister” (Ex. 15:20). What makes Miriam a prophetess, and why is she described as Aaron’s sister and not as sister of the more famous Moses? The Talmud, in considering these questions, highlights Miriam’s role in the drama of the Exodus and her legacy in the Seder ritual.

The Talmud discusses Miriam’s prophetic gift as part of a list of the seven biblical prophetesses: Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail (King David’s second wife), Hulda (who advises King Josiah in II Kings), and finally Esther – which explains why this list appears in tractate Megillah (14b). The rabbis explain that Miriam is referred to as the “sister of Aaron” because she first prophesied when Moses was not yet born and she was the sister of Aaron alone. At a time when Pharaoh had decreed that all male children must be cast into the river, she predicted, “My mother is destined to bear a son who will deliver the Jewish people.” And indeed, as the Talmud continues, when Moses was born, the whole house filled with light and Miriam’s father kissed her on her head and praised her, saying, “My daughter, your prophecy has been fulfilled.” But then when the baby had to be cast into the Nile, she stood by the shores of the river to watch what would befall her brother and what would befall her prophecy. Miriam thus began her prophetic career at a very young age.

Miriam, who once watched by the waters of the Nile, grows up to lead the women in song by the waters of the Sea of Reeds. She remains associated with water throughout her life – the Talmud (Taanit 9b) teaches that the well that accompanied the Israelites throughout the desert wanderings was on account of Miriam’s merit, as evidenced by the fact that it dried up immediately following her death (Numbers 20:2). Miriam’s name contains a subset of the letters in the Hebrew word for water, mayim, further reinforcing this connection. But Miriam’s name also begins with the same letters as the Hebrew word for bitterness, mar, which suggests a link to the episode that immediately follows her song in our parsha. The Israelites travel to a place called Mara, meaning bitterness, and they cannot drink the waters of the place because they are bitter. When the people complain, God shows Moses a piece of wood which Moses throws into the water, making it sweet and potable. And so immediately after Miriam leads the women in inspired song, the bitter waters are made sweet — just as Miriam’s divinely inspired prophecy sweetened her parents’ experience of Egyptian servitude by foretelling the birth of Moses.

In the final verse of our Torah reading, God follows the episode at Mara by instructing the people that He will heal them so long as they obey Him: “If you heed the Lord your God diligently, doing what is upright in His sight…. Then I will not bring upon you any of the diseases that I brought upon the Egyptians” (15:26). This verse resonates powerfully with another role Miriam played in Egypt. According to the Talmud (Sotah 11b), Miriam and her mother Yocheved were the midwives Purah and Shira, respectively, who were responsible for ensuring that the Israelites survived in spite of their weakened condition in Egypt. The Torah relates that “The midwives feared God and did not do as the king of Egypt had told them” (Exodus 1:17). By heeding God diligently and doing what was upright in His sight, they ensured that the terrible decree that Pharaoh sought to impose—the killing of all firstborns—was not brought upon the Israelites. As midwives, they played the role of healers, making the bitter sweet.

At the Pesach seder we eat the Maror to remember the bitter experience of Egyptian servitude, thinking back, too, to the bitterness so many of us tasted on Pesach one year ago, when the world was ravaged by a global pandemic. This year, while dipping the Maror in the sweet Charoset, we take stock of all the ways we have found to sweeten the bitterness, as Miriam did. When the Egyptians pursued the fleeing Israelite slaves, we can imagine that she watched the waters of the Sea of Reeds in trepidation just as she had watched her brother in the Nile – to see whether her prophecy that the bitter would be made sweet would indeed come true. And when her prophecy was fulfilled, she led the women in song and dance, celebrating the sweetness of God’s deliverance. We might think of the sweetening of the Maror as a tribute to her legacy.

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