Thought for Shabbat – June 18, 2021
The Torah portion of Chukkat contains several landmark events of the history of the Jewish people. One of those is the key story of the end of Moses’ career as he strikes a stone to bring water out for the people who were in need of water. The striking of the rock is against the instructions of God. His continued frustration with the people makes it very hard for him to continue in his job.
One of the questions that we ask is: Why was there no water in that moment? Many rabbis contend that the lack of water was due to the death of Miriam that had recently occurred. It is Miriam with whom we connect water of the wilderness in the Torah. Many modern seders now have a Cup of Miriam. Unlike the cup of Elijah that is filled with wine, the cup of Miriam is filled with water by those at the seder to honor her memory and contribution to our freedom and the establishment of a people of Israel.
She is known in our tradition as Miriam Ha’Neviah, Miriam the Prophet. Our rabbis ascribe tremendous greatness to her not only from the words of the Torah where she helps to save Moses’ life and make sure that he is raised at least in part by his mother while also being raised by the Pharaoh’s sister. The rabbis say in their midrash that before Moses’ birth, Miraim’s parents, Amram and Yocheved, separated. Thus, it was only through Miriam’s efforts that the couple got back together and later became parents to the baby Moses. So not only did she save his life, but she created the circumstances under which Moses was born. The Torah tells us of how Miriam led the women in song and dance in rejoicing at the Red Sea, early in the timeline of the Exodus.
Miriam was there at the beginning, before the birth of Moses. She was his guardian during his childhood. She was a co-leader of the people. And yet, when we think of our Torah and history, she is often forgotten. That’s the way it is with history sometimes. We don’t always remember. Often, we don’t even know.
I was thinking about this as over the last few weeks many of us have come to know and understand the importance of Juneteenth, which marks freedom from slavery. Some of us learned last month for the first time about a massacre of an entire neighborhood/district known as Black Wall Street, 35 square blocks, of African Americans in Tulsa. It was not done by the KKK, but by the citizenry and even the police of that city one hundred years ago last month.
It is one thing to learn about history and yet another to keep history alive so that its lessons can be learned. Holocaust deniers have been hard at work for years to minimize the terror and tragedy of Hitler’s Final Solution. It has taken a monumental effort by many to keep those memories alive. It is one of the great missions and mitzvot of our people to keep that history alive. It is not enough to just remember history, to know it was there. History demands that we retell it, that we repeat it, that we keep it alive, and that no one is ever forgotten.
Rabbi Yaier Lehrer
A generation which ignores history has no past and no future. Robert Heinlein
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