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Feeling bitter? Remember Miriam

January 14th, 2022 | 12th of Sh'vat, 5782 | Beshalach בְּשַׁלַּח



Dear Beit Rabban Community,

One of the beautiful things about sharing space with other Jewish institutions is the impromptu moments of connection and learning. Today I had the pleasure of bumping into two of the best people with whom to learn, Rabbi Dianne Cohler-Esses and Rabbi David Ingber of Kehillat Romemu. They were studying the parashah together and asked for my thoughts on the language used to describe a place called Marah (bitter) where the Israelites first complain of dire thirst:

וַיָּבֹ֣אוּ מָרָ֔תָה וְלֹ֣א יָֽכְל֗וּ לִשְׁתֹּ֥ת מַ֙יִם֙ מִמָּרָ֔ה כִּ֥י מָרִ֖ים הֵ֑ם עַל־כֵּ֥ן קָרָֽא־שְׁמָ֖הּ מָרָֽה

They came to Marah, but they could not drink the water of Marah because it was bitter; that is why her name is called Marah.

Diane and David asked what I thought about this sentence. In my approximately 35 years of reading this parashah, I had never noticed the language "karah shma Marah," her name was called bitter. Ostensibly this language refers to the place, but the Torah would usually say וַיִּקְרָא֙ שֵׁ֣ם הַמָּק֔וֹם, the "place was named". Who is the Torah referring to when it uses the term "her"? Is there a "her" to be associated with the bitter water of this place?

My gut response was that this refers to Miriam. There are a few things that support this connection. This episode immediately follows the story of Miriam leading women in song after the Israelites cross the Sea of Reeds. Plus, Miriam's name also shares the root Marah, bitter. Furthermore, the Rabbis famously credit her with the blessing of water in the desert, and this is a story about water. Finally, the next time we find the Israelites without water and turning against their leaders is immediately after Miriam's death at Kadesh.

I read the text and thought: in a matter of seconds (or a couple of verses) the Israelites forgot how Miriam held them through song after crossing the sea. They turned their bitterness toward her, so deeply that they associate the undrinkable water with Miriam's name and call the place "Marah." Or maybe, Miriam was herself bitter because of the people's immature and ungrateful pattern of turning to blame. The inclination to say things like, "why would you take us out of Egypt to die in the dessert from thirst" (ולָ֤מָּה זֶּה֙ הֶעֱלִיתָ֣נוּ מִמִּצְרַ֔יִם לְהָמִ֥ית אֹתִ֛י וְאֶת־בָּנַ֥י וְאֶת־מִקְנַ֖י בַּצָּמָֽא)!

What? Seriously, do you not remember the massive water-based miracle of a couple verses prior? It is one of the most iconic miracles of the Western cannon! Miriam must have been so bitter at that moment.

As always, I read the parashah through the lens of my lived experience at this moment. Lately, I have been harboring the feeling of "why is everything my fault!" To illustrate the point, here's a "hypothetical" inner monologue I may or may not have recently experienced: "When you blame me for not letting you sleep enough and waking you up this morning to get ready for school, do you not remember how long I spent putting you to bed last night and how resistant you were to bedtime? Have you forgotten all the stories, and hugs, and reassurance I gave you to help you fall asleep? Exactly how is this my fault!"

I sense I'm not alone in this feeling. I have had many conversations of late with a friend, a colleague or even a student who described a situation in which someone else was unduly critical of them, unfairly blamed them, or focused exclusively on their faults without appreciating the context of their larger contributions. Indeed, I myself have been called out for these sorts of interactions recently, and rightly so. What is going on? Are we all just raw. Is our dire thirst (for safety, for predictability, for normalcy) wearing us down? Maybe some of us are defaulting toward blame. Maybe some of us are feeling blamed when we are not even being targeted.

Some of my favorite "torah" of management is the Conscious Leadership Group's paradigm of "above the line leadership." The basic concept (which you can read all about in 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership) is that our actions and reactions are either "above the line" or "below the line." Above the line leadership (and human behavior more generally) is characterized by openness, curiosity, and a commitment to learning. It means checking the desire to blame others, and simultaneously responding with curiosity and a committed to learning even when someone else blames you. Whereas, engaging from a place below the line is characterized by defensiveness, an inclination to blame others, and a commitment to being right. No one is always above the line, and that would be an unrealistic goal. The goal is to understand where you are, or where you were, and make a conscious decision of where you will go next.

My close friend and teacher Dr. Yardaena Osband wrote an article once about Torat Miriam, her take was that "Miriam is able to see beyond the bitterness of her time and knows that there is always salvation in the future." The Talmud in Megillah and Sotah teach that it is Miriam who ensured the Jewish people's salvation from slavery, inspiring her parents to remarry and have more children and thereby yield her famous brother Moses. Yardaena points out that even though she prophesized that her brother would save the Jewish people and did so much to ensure that, she is not celebrated for the prophesy, but rather "must deliver her own Shirah that she witnessed the fulfillment of that prophecy and she is only named as a prophet once the prophecy comes true."

And this is what I love about Miriam. She has so much to be bitter about: all her sacrifices, her minimal recognition, even her lousy name! But the thing is that no one and no circumstance can condemn her to remaining in that state of bitterness, that desert of despair. Miriam chooses to live above the line, and this nourishes those around her. It is her "zechut," her merit, that sustains the Israelites through the desert with the most basic of necessities, fresh water.

And Miriam continues to inspire even thousands of years after her epic dance party on the banks of the sea. I read this week's parashah and think about what it looks like to refuse bitterness, blame, and defeatism, even in the hardest of times when you are most worn down, whether it be physically from thirst or emotionally from (fill in the blank with one of many, many options). If this reminder helps me stay above the line, even just for the moment, then I am so grateful. I know that each time one of us maintains an above the line stance it makes it easier for everyone else around them to do the same, and so on and so forth.

Sometimes it just takes one Miriam to lift up everyone else.

Wishing you a restful and rejuvenating Shabbat,

Stephanie

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