Jul 1, 2009

Chukat 5769/2009: "Seeing Beyond the Apparent"

Chukat 5769/2009: "Seeing Beyond the Apparent"
© Rabbi Menachem Creditor

Five years ago I contracted Bell's Palsy, a form of facial paralysis resulting from damage to the 7th facial nerve, afflicting 40,000 Americans each year. Even when I learned that Bell's Palsy typically goes away within a few weeks, I was deeply frightened.  The worst part of experiencing Bell's Palsy was my appearance, over which I suddenly realized I had no control, something new for a rabbi whose primary mode of teaching, singing, and counseling are directly communicated through voice and face. My lack of control over one small part of my body affected my sense of security despite my knowledge of its passing nature.  I was constantly wondering: "How will people see me? How will someone I only meet tomorrow see me? Will they see past my changed face and understand that there is more to me than that which is apparent?"

During this week's Parasha we encounter Miriam's death: "Then came the people of Israel, the whole congregation, into the desert of Zin in the first month; and the people abode in Kadesh; and Miriam died there, and was buried there. (Num. 20:1)" Mention of Miriam's death seems almost an afterthought, and there is no mention of her being mourned as is written regarding the deaths of Moses and Aaron. This led me to search for other occurrences of Miriam in the Torah, which resulted in a surprising discovery: There are only five times in the entire Torah that her name appears. 

(see Ex. 15:20-21, Num. 12:1-16, 20:1, 26:59, and Deut. 24:9; see also Ex. 2:1-8 for what we believe is Miriam's first appearance as baby Moses' sister, though she is never named in that section.)

Miriam the Prophetess, Miriam sister of Moses the Prophet and Aaron the High Priest, Miriam who led us with song and passionthis ancient leader of our people only appears five times in the Torah?! The Midrash is full of stories of Miriam's abilities, her holiness, and her character!  We learn, for instance, we learn that Miriam was a skilled midwife, and that Betzalel the artist and King David descended from her (Ex. Rabbah 1:13,16,17) and of a mystical well that followed Miriam through the Israelites' travels in the desert (TB Ta'anit 9a).

Where do these texts come from?  Certainly not from the Torah!  Perhaps this demonstrates that the meaning and realities of history depend upon what we make of it. Perhaps we can learn that there is more than inheritance to Truth, that vision requires imagination, as we learn from the Talmudic teaching that "blessing is not found in that which is already weighed, measured, or counted, but only in that which is hidden from the eye. (TB Bava Metzia 42a)"  When we limit our vision to that which our eyes see we're left with an poor portrait of a rich and important character.

Perhaps we can only truly meet Miriam when we close our eyes.

During rabbinical school I served as chaplain-in-training at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York.  It was a deeply difficult challenge to appraoch a person in a hospital room where pain takes up so much space, and where a person is known primarily as a patient. Most of that person isn't obvious. There is little evidence for the whole picture of a patient, and who they are outside of the hospital - let alone who they may one day become.

There are many Miriam's in the hospital. If, as a chaplain, I see the person only as they appear, as they appear in the "text" we call a hospital, I don't really see them as a whole person with a textured life. I see a patient who is in a bed that other patients have occupied and that other patients will one day occupy. But when I see the families and friends of patients, sharing memories and dreams, laughing and loving, I learn that this person lives beyond the visible confines.

This woman, this grandfather, this child – these patients are not simply patients – they're not simply anything. And the fullest picture of who they are simply cannot be seen with my eyes. I look at a daughter hold her mother's hand and know that there are a thousand memories in that touch. An ailing husband's momentary glance at his wife brings a lifetime of color and depth to his face.

And that is why Miriam was, and is, so real for all of us – despite the scant textual support in the Torah. Look at what her relationships were – look at the results of her life:  The rabbis shared a precious and potent picture of Miriam when they taught: "Miriam also died by the Divine kiss" (Mo'ed Katan 28a-b). They saw that even God was effected by Miriam.

If God is touched by the life and death of a person of whom little is written, how might we be touched by the lives of people still writing their own stories?

May our visions of others develop more and more as we stop relying exclusively upon our eyes in our relationships.

May our deeper understandings of truth permit yet-undiscovered living colors to be born and change the world.

Rabbi Menachem Creditor
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