Miriam, Amalek, Memory, and Mouths

This dvar torah is about remembering and how Jewish memory is built with the help of our prayerbooks. Some of what I learned in preparing today’s remarks can be found in this handout.

The end of the handout is the result of the earlier parts of my studies, a brief exploration into Mishkan T’filah and earlier drafts of the siddur, mostly focusing on one pair of pages where we find: “Six Torah episodes are to be remembered each day, to refine our direction.”

The “Six Torah episodes” section can be found on pages 43 and 205 in the actual Mishkan T’filah, on page 12 in the handout, shared here.

full text version can be found here

In similar passages (more on this later) in other prayer books, “What God did to Miriam” is included here. I turned to older drafts of Mishkan T’filah, hoping they might clue me into why Miriam is not on this page.

Endnote Deadend

An endnote in the published siddur says the Six Torah episodes were “adapted from a Sephardic siddur.” But it doesn’t specify which or say what was adapted. I could find no example anywhere, Ashkenazi or Sephardic, in another siddur which changes the verses so as to omit Miriam, as Mishkan T’filah does. Every other example over the last 1000 years seems to focus on the same six incidents, all of which include a Torah verse demanding that we “remember” and/or “not forget.” Only Mishkan T’filah uses a different list. Only Mishkan T’filah leaves out specific Torah verses. And only Mishkan T’filah adds in Korach — about whom we have no memory admonition in the Torah.

These seem significant differences, and I thought it a little odd that so much changed over the course of the drafts, while this passage remained static through five years or more of edits. (See the handout for some notes on changes that did occur over the drafts.) No one I asked — including some Temple Micah clergy, current and past, and other people I thought might know — had an explanation. Rabbi Gerry Serotta, who served as interim rabbi some years ago, sent a query on my behalf to the siddur’s chief editor, Rabbi Elyse Frishman, and to Rabbi David Ellenson. If we hear back, I’ll let you know.

Improvement by Removal?

Meanwhile, Rabbi Gerry and I guessed that removing Miriam had been an attempt to respond to feminist criticism about how Miriam is usually remembered: 1) focusing on her case of tzaraat, a skin condition, rather than on anything she actually did or who she was; 2) remembering “What God did to Miriam” in a way that accuses her of lashon hara [evil speech], although that is unclear in the text; and 3) blames Miriam alone, while the text clearly states that both Aaron and Miriam spoke against Moses (Numbers 12:1ff).

If it’s true that the change was made due to feminist sensibilities, it seems ironic — and oddly instructive — that, as a result, Miriam is… just gone.


Acquiring Memory

In my travels through older prayerbook drafts, I was intrigued by the adage, attributed to David Ellenson: “Acquire the memory of what it means to be a Jew.”

This prompted me to wonder:

  • What did the siddur editors want us to remember with this set of episodes?
  • What does it mean that Miriam is not on the page?
  • What would it mean if she were there?
  • What does it mean that Mishkan T’filah made this change without explanation?
  • Would the passage land differently, had an explanation been included?

From there I followed many other branches of wondering, more generally, about how memory, and Jewish identity, are formed by our practice and our prayerbooks. That brings me to older material I found relating to the Six Remembrances.

On page three of the handout is a Talmudic source arguing why the verb “remember” should be understood to mean “repeat it with your mouth.” The link between speech and remembering is an old one in Jewish thought. The passage from Sifra discusses four of the verses in the Six or Ten Remembrances.

full text version can be found here

In addition to these four, the Exodus and the Revelation at Mount Sinai are included. Here, page 6 of handout, is a typical example of how the Six Remembrances appear in contemporary prayerbooks —

full text version can be found here

Intentions and Remembering

In addition to Mishkan T’filah’s “to refine our direction,” other intentions introduce these remembrances: from a simple “some say,” to “for the sake of unification of the divine name…” and “those who recite these are assured a place in the world to come.” (See page 2 of the handout for these various intentions and page 6 for details of how the Six and Remembrances and the “Six Torah episodes” differ.)

The Sifra passage also includes an expression that really caught my attention — the idea of “heart-forgetfulness,” apparently something that can be fixed with thought, while speech is required in other cases…..

This might be a good thing to keep in mind during Elul, thinking about what can be repaired by thought and memory and what requires speaking aloud.

Back to Miriam

Now, back to Miriam, who is not on the Mishkan T’filah pages but IS in this week’s Torah portion (now last week’s, Ki Teitzei, Deut. 21:10 – 25:19 — pages 7 and 8 of the handout). Deuteronomy 24:9 is one of only 12 times her name appears in the Torah.

Rabbinic imagination saw Miriam’s Well in the white space between her death and the lack of water in the next verse. And many other stories and lessons surround Miriam. But she appears in four incidents in the Torah — named three times and “his sister” in another — and is mentioned twice more. That’s it. That’s all she wrote about Miriam.

full text version can be found here

There is a lot of commentary about the two verses in this week’s portion– the one telling the listener to heed the priests in matters of tzaraat (Deut 24:8) and the following one telling us to remember what God did to Miriam.

What God did to Miriam is related in Numbers 12. The demand that we remember what God did to Miriam is usually understood as a warning to guard the tongue, due to links in commentary between tzaraat and sins of the tongue. But it’s crucial to note that there is no direct link — either in this week’s portion or in Numbers 12 or elsewhere in Torah text — between Miriam and evil speech.

What and How We Remember

The story in Numbers 12 is full of obscure imagery, and Miriam’s tzaraat is the same condition Moses experienced at the Burning Bush, where it was part of his recognition as a prophet, and not understood as punishment at all. Early Jewish teachers chose to make Miriam an object lesson rather than following another set of interpretations with a different set of lessons.

None of the other Six or Ten Remembrances involve an individual, so — regardless of initial intention — Jewish thought and law were greatly influenced by the linkage that developed between Miriam, and women in general, and evil speech.

  • But, is that a good reason to remove the text from recitation?
  • Does that facilitate forgetting of a helpful kind?
  • What is gained and what is lost in removing a passage with difficult associations?
  • Might it be better to keep it in and work to understand and re-interpret?

Theologian Judith Plaskow discusses this in a piece on this week’s portion, “Tzaraat and Memory.” I highly recommend reading the whole thing — either in The Torah: A Women’s Commentary, in print, or on My Jewish Learning.

Writing in 2008, Plaskow raises the issue of how progress can actually be a challenge to memory and to further progress. I’ll add that her conclusion can also apply to the appearance of progress, as when a problematic text is removed from regular recitation or consideration, or when we make changes that don’t always benefit the most harmed or vulnerable.

She writes, referencing the other important “memory” verses in this week’s portion:

We blot out the memory of Amalek when we create Jewish communities in which the perpetual exclusion of some group of people — or the denial of women’s rights — are so contrary to current values as to be almost incredible. Yet, if we are to safeguard our achievements, we can also never forget to remember the history of inequality and the decisions and struggles that have made more equitable communities possible.


What We Remember, What We Fix

I’ve been watching a series of mysteries focusing on women in the mid-1960s. (For fellow mystery fans: Ms. Fisher’s Modern Murder Mysteries, set in 1964-65 Melbourne, Australia, a delightful set of sequels to Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries, set in the same area in the late 1920s.) And I’ve noticed that I am remembering, quite viscerally, how it FELT, as a girl and young woman, to have limited rights, opportunities, and expectations. And also of how dangerous it could be back then, in physical, legal, and psychic ways, for women and also for queer people and for many others….And I’m on the young side for these experiences; others have longer histories with inequality.

This exploration also reminded me of, on the one hand, how grateful I was to have to explain such things to our children as they were growing up. So many conversations that centered around: Queer people were forbidden from expressing their identity or acting on their sexuality, let alone getting married?! Women weren’t allowed to what?! US law defined whiteness as property and prevented Black people from what?!

On the other hand, I remember the desire to let them go on asking questions like “Do you have to be a mommy to lead services?” without ever realizing how impossible that question would have been in my youth and how painful it was for all of us who didn’t see ourselves reflected in leadership roles…or at all.

There is a strong tension between wanting to build a world with more equity and inclusivity, on the one hand, and the responsibility to never forget that we are sitting in a place built by damage; with many wounds still present, often unhealed, and so much work still to do. Continuing to REMEMBER, and recite, difficult passages can cause harm. But failing to remember carries it’s own risk.

The same applies in many ways to teshuva: When might it be appropriate to forget or not mention old harm, and when must we work to remember and confront? In other words, maybe, when are we dealing with heart-forgetfulness and when with something that requires us to use our mouths?

As I tried to figure out what happened with Miriam and the Six Torah episodes, I kept remembering these lines, from a song about memory and loss —

If you hear that same sweet song again,
will you know why?

— “Bird Song,” by Robert Hunter (1941-2019) & Jerry Garcia, z”l (1942-1995)
first performed Feb 19, 1971. “for Janis [Janis Joplin (1943-1970)]”

How much do we lose, and what do we gain, when we forget to remember why we chose to remember or forget?

This dvar Torah was originally prepared, and offered in a slightly different form, for Temple Micah (DC), 5781.


Handout in PDF and text versions

Full text version of handout for anyone who cannot easily do graphics is posted here.

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Spin grief’s straw into gold: Moving on from Tisha B’Av

UPDATE: Please note that the “DC Against Hate” website has been updated with more details about three inter-connected actions. See also this blog’s update.

Jewish tradition teaches that much was lost in our history due to “baseless hatred” and that few things require more of our attention than making our communities welcoming to all, strangers included. We use Tisha B’Av — the day of mourning for destruction and calamities over the ages, the lowest point of the Jewish calendar — to help us consider all that needs changing if we are to move toward a better new year for all. (Tisha B’Av fell on 7/21-22 this year, and the new year begins 9/10-11.)

The month of Elul, an important point in this journey and the last of the old year, starts on August 12 this year — which happens to be the date a group of Klan and Nazi supporters have chosen for their “Unite the Right II” rally in DC, celebrating the anniversary of the violence at Charlottesville, VA last year (because they were refused a permit in Charlottesville).

National and local Jewish groups are planning responses, but none have been announced yet (7/24), to the best of my knowledge. Meanwhile, I hope Jews, in DC and beyond, are thinking of ways to celebrate Rosh Chodesh Elul, by joining with others who oppose baseless hatred and maltreatment of strangers and the most vulnerable among us.

…get back to work
you don’t have forever

…the wounded world
is still in your hands

…get on with it
gather grief like straw
spin it into something like gold
— from Alicia Suskin Ostriker’s “Drone”
The Book of Seventy
Pittsburgh: Univ. of Pittsburgh Press, 2009.

Some of us will be joining already planned mobilization efforts standing together for “ICE abolition, open borders, dismantling the prison industrial complex, and ending the settler colonial system. We will confront fascism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, white supremacy, and state violence.”

Others will find alternative ways to move into the new year with (re-)new commitment to opposing hate in its many forms.

I pray that none of us will be silent in the face of Klan- and Nazi-supporters gathering outside the White House.

DC Against Hate.jpg

Grass Roots: a holiday question and memorial reflection

As we approach the high holidays, grass shows up in two haftarah readings. What do these verses tell us in this season of repentance and return? I am pondering. Meanwhile, a recent yahrzeit called to mind the sweetness of grass as well as its transient nature. Does that, too, carry a message for the high holidays?

We learn on Shabbat Nachamu, the Sabbath of Comfort that follows the lowest point in the Jewish calendar, that “all flesh is grass,” and that “grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God stands forever” (Isaiah 40:6-8). Three weeks later, on Shabbat Shoftim, we are told “Mortals fare like grass” (Isaiah 51:12). (Full verses and Hebrew below)

Learning to Witness

My father, Delmar G. Spatz — called just plain ‘Spatz’ by most adults, including my mom — was raised in northern Wisconsin. He moved to Chicago after his Army Air Corps service during World Ward Two; he’d been stationed in England but still taught us to sing “How Ya Gonna Keep ’em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree).” Spatz met Bette, a native of Chicago. They married in 1951 and settled on the city’s West Side. He died in 1976, the summer I was 16.

The hole my dad left has taken many shapes over the decades. This is his 40th yahrzeit. And it appears to me this year that his death – and his life – form a hollow that creates a lens.

A few weeks ago, my older sister, Martha, and I had the opportunity to discuss some of what he taught us to see. She told me how, in 1968, he walked her out to see the tanks, deployed a few blocks from our apartment in the wake of Martin Luther King’s murder and the subsequent unrest. Later that year, during the Democratic National Convention, Dad sent Martha and a friend downtown to the Prudential Building – then the tallest place around – so they could see without direct risk to themselves what was happening between police and protesters in Grant Park.

That was the year Martha turned 14. I guess my younger siblings, Amy and Bob, and I were considered too young for these particular field trips.

But learning to be a witness was a major part of our education in all the years we had with Dad. He especially emphasized noticing people and circumstances that regularly went unrecognized.

It took me a long time to realize that my classmates were not being taught see the same way my dad wanted us to see. It might take me another 40 years to explore just how the lenses crafted by my dad’s lessons worked – and continue to work – in my life.

grass2Meanwhile, though – in the way each yahrzeit seems to bring its own new facet of blessing – this year I recall another aspect of that lens. I remember Dad teaching me to notice how the strongest blades of grass, when pulled gently from the ground, would yield a hidden, moist taste treat. He helped me recognize that the greenish-white part of a watermelon, the stuff closest to the rind – that so many people toss away – is often the sweetest. And together, on many a horridly hot summer day, we witnessed how sitting absolutely still could call up a breeze more cooling than anything produced by a fan, electric or paper.
— these reflections were shared with Temple Micah on August 20, 2016.

Haftarah Verses from Isaiah

קוֹל אֹמֵר קְרָא, וְאָמַר מָה אֶקְרָא; כָּל-הַבָּשָׂר חָצִיר, וְכָל-חַסְדּוֹ כְּצִיץ הַשָּׂדֶה.
יָבֵשׁ חָצִיר נָבֵל צִיץ, כִּי רוּחַ יְהוָה נָשְׁבָה בּוֹ; אָכֵן חָצִיר, הָעָם.
יָבֵשׁ חָצִיר, נָבֵל צִיץ; וּדְבַר-אֱלֹהֵינוּ, יָקוּם לְעוֹלָם.

Hark! says one: ‘Proclaim!’ Another says: ‘What shall I proclaim?’
‘All flesh is grass, and its goodness is as the flower of the field;
The grass withers, the flower fades;
because the breath of the LORD blows upon it–surely the people is grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God stands forever.’
— Isaiah 40:6-8, in Haftarah Va’etchanan

אָנֹכִי אָנֹכִי הוּא, מְנַחֶמְכֶם; מִי-אַתְּ וַתִּירְאִי מֵאֱנוֹשׁ יָמוּת, וּמִבֶּן-אָדָם חָצִיר יִנָּתֵן.
I, even I, am He who comforts you: who are you, that you fear Man who must die, Mortals who fare like grass… — Isaiah 51:12, in Haftarah Shoftim

Hebrew text from Mechon-Mamre.org,
Translation adapated from “Old JPS” and Sefaria.org
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Yet More on Psalm 27 (3 of 4)

The close of Psalm 27 —

קַוֵּה, אֶל-יְהוָה: חֲזַק, וְיַאֲמֵץ לִבֶּךָ; וְקַוֵּה, אֶל-יְהוָה.

Hope in the LORD; strengthen yourself, let your heart take courage, and hope in the Lord [Psalm 27:14]

— is often cited as a motivational aphorism, particularly for the penitential season. This is its role in this meditation for Elul, for example.

Psalms 27:14 is employed in the Babylonian Talmud as a proof-text for appropriate attitude in prayer. The passage includes a discussion on prayer and hope, including — like the question Langston Hughes asks in “Harlem” — what happens to hope deferred.

Psalms 27:14 stands out in that it uses the second person (command) form, while the previous 13 verses are in the first person: “God is My light…whom should I fear?” etc. This raises the question: Whose heart is to hope?
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Exploring Psalm 27 — (1 of 4)

For a little over 200 years, Psalm 27 has been associated with the season of repentance: Some have the custom of reciting this psalm during Days of Awe (10 days), some for the whole month of Elul as well (40 days), and some beginning on Rosh Hodesh Elul and continuing through Hoshana Rabba (51 days). There are several explanations for this association. Most focus on the psalm’s themes; also noted: the expression “were it not” — לוּלֵא — in verse 13 spells Elul — אלול — backward.

Many siddurim include the full psalm somewhere in Psukei D’zimrah (verses of song, in the morning service). Mishkan T’filah includes the single verse, 27:4, for which there are a number of popular tunes (p.662 in “songs and hymns”).
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Notes on Psalm 27

Two Sources for Basic Commentary
Rabbi Benjamin Segal offers an analysis of Psalm 27 in its biblical-literary context and discusses the unity of psalm, behind its apparently disparate set of emotions. The very readable series from Schechter Institute in Philadelphia also includes complete text of each psalm in English and Hebrew. This commentary includes a note on the use of Psalm 27 in Elul and the Days of Awe. [UPDATE 2017: Sadly, this on-line resource appears to be gone; Segal’s A New Psalm: The Psalms as Literature is now published by Geffen Books.]

Machzor Lev Shalem offers explanatory notes as well as a few thoughts on Psalm 27 in the penitential season. Unfortunately, the Rabbinical Assembly’s link to this material, previously offered here, is no longer public. Instead, a few notes are shared in More Exploring Psalm 27 (2 of 4). (Here is the machzor’s own website.) The Kol Nidrei sample pages include Zelda’s poem on “that strange night,” inspiration for this essay during Elul 5772.

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Rosh Hodesh Elul

Rosh Hodesh Elul
a cross-community celebration
in solidarity with Women of the Wall
and for a better 5771

Location: Adas Israel, 2850 Quebec Street, NW
(Metro: Red Line, Cleveland Park)
Time: 7:30 a.m.

Women of the Wall, or Nashot Hakotel נשות הכותל in Hebrew, is a group of Jewish women from around the world who strive to achieve the right, as women, to wear prayer shawls, pray and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall (Kotel) in Jerusalem, Israel. The Western Wall is Judaism’s most sacred holy site and the principal symbol of Jewish people-hood and sovereignty and Women of the Wall works to make it a holy site where women can pray freely. WOW chose Rosh Hodesh as the day to gather as a women’s prayer group and celebrate, through prayer at the Wall and reading the special portion for Rosh Hodesh from the Torah scroll.

A non-denominational group of women and men will be gathering in Washington, DC, on August 11, for Rosh Hodesh Elul in solidarity with WOW and to begin our own journeys toward the new year. Like the services held by Women of the Wall in Jerusalem, the DC service will accommodate participants from across the Jewish spectrum. While women will lead services, men are encouraged to come.

Please bring a tallit and a siddur, if you are able to do so.

A number of people have asked, so: Yes, we will blow shofar, as is traditional throughout Elul, beginning on the second day of Rosh Hodesh.
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