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Phyllis Chesler
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Posted in: Devrai Torah, General Jewish Themes

Published on Apr 18, 2014 by Phyllis Chesler

Written for The Jerusalem Post

Miriam's Message


Most women—men too--are already exhausted long before the first Pesach Seder: they have been cleaning, swapping out sets of dishes, shopping for food, new clothes for children, inviting guests, accepting invitations as well as last minute guests--all before they even step foot in shul. Then, after days of creating or serving matza-based cakes, puddings, kugels, candies, entertaining guests and being entertained, exhaustion has reached a fever pitch. "Will Pesach ever end?" "Each year we leave Egypt but each year we're back there again." "Will we ever really leave Egypt?"

Such exhaustion often allows for transcendent experiences.

This is perfect since the last days of Pesach represent a mystical and messianic moment.

Sometimes, an exhausted Jew can actually see the future and experience it with his or her whole being in the present. This is precisely what Miriam and the women do when they sing and dance with joy, accompanied by their drums or tambourines, in recognition of God's miraculous redemption at the Reed Sea.

Sometimes the future is also pre-figured in the beginning.

In parasha Shmot, when Moses's mother, Yocheved, puts him in a basket she gently places him in the reeds ("v'tasam basuf"). He, that most Egyptian of Jews, the adopted son of Pharoah's daughter, a veritable Prince of Egypt, begins his destined voyage in water, in the "reeds." In parasha Beshallach God splits the "reed sea"(yam suf'). The next step of our journey is also through water and in the "reeds."

Miriam, the sister of Moses and Aharon, is finally named as a "prophetess," ("ha'naviya"), in the Torah, not only in midrash.
The miracle of birth and rebirth and of ultimate redemption is associated with both terror and water. This is something that women understand in our bodies. We risk death in bringing forth life, and in Egypt, Jewish slave women gave birth, knowing that they also risked losing their just-born sons to Pharoah's terrifying decree.

Safely on the other side of the Reed Sea, "(yam suf"), Moses and the people will sing ("ashira") in praise of God. Moses announces this song as a future intention. Perhaps he means: Get ready, we are going to sing a song of praise. We assume that both men and women sing together at this moment. Perhaps they did not. Then, amazingly, Miriam and the women separate themselves from the men and both sing and dance, accompanied by their drums or tambourines which, it is said, they brought with them from Egypt because they had faith in God and miracles.

Miriam and the women dance in a circle or in circles, "b"micholot." Midrash teaches that the Jews crossed the sea in twelve tribal rows. But, at this moment, the women do not separate themselves into tribes but instead, create a new form of unity, a circle, where every person is equal to every other. (See Maor Va'shemesh, Kalonymous Kalman Epstein of Krakow on this verse.)

According to some commentaries, the Shechina, God's presence, is in the middle of this sacred circle, which enables each woman to be equally close to the presence of God. Miriam and the women show that it is possible to ignore differences, overcome tribal divisions, in order to praise the "One God" who has rescued them.

Some say that the women recognized God as the very God who had protected them in childbirth and that Miriam and the women could see far into the future at this transcendent moment. For them, in that moment, the past, the present, and the future become One.

This is precisely what the Original Women of the Wall, those of us who wish to remain in the Ezrat Nashim at the Kotel have been doing. Our all-female groups at the Kotel (not at Robinson's Arch) have also crossed denominational barriers in order to pray together.

No matter how we pray: Genders separated, genders together, denominations separated, denominations together, let us remember that when God sees us God sees one people, one nation. "So may God bless us, all of us together, with one blessing."

The Baal Shem Tov, (to whom, I am proud to say, my son is related through his father), initiated a custom of dedicating the last feast of Pesach to the Messiah. On the first night, we re-live and celebrate our God-given redemption from Egypt. On the last night, we celebrate a future and final redemption.

I hope this heady, heavenly material helps elevate Pesach exhaustion into a sense that not only do we see miracles every single day, but that many more miracles, as well as an ultimate redemption, are yet to come.

This piece is dedicated to my dear chevrutah and friend, Rivka Haut, (z"l.)


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