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Rabbi’s Parsha: Chukat – The wisdom of Miryam, the first woman to lead the Jewish people

Two of the most important things in this world are the return of Eretz Yisrael as our Homeland, and the growing re-empowerment of women in our Jewish political, social, and religious lives. I firmly believe that, without these restorations, Judaism would be challenged to survive.

The importance of Eretz Yisrael is obvious, but why put so much emphasis on the restoration of the importance women once had to our People? Consider the importance Golda Meir had on the political and economic growth of Eretz Yisrael.

As far as Torah learning and Jewish teaching are concerned, many, if not most, of today’s most insightful commentaries, teaching methods, and curricula are coming from the minds, pens, and actions of women rabbis and Jewish educators.

To understand where I am coming from, we must review the sin Moshe committed and his punishment. In Bamidbar, Chapter 20, Verses 1-2, we read how B’nai Yisrael had arrived at a certain place in the wilderness. Then Miryam died, followed immediately by the people bitterly complaining about the lack of water. The ancient rabbi Rashi observed that as long as Miryam was alive, a special sweet, pure water well accompanied B’nai Yisrael on their journey. As soon as Miryam died, the well dried up and B’nai Yisrael complained.

G-d knew that the People needed to be reassured they would have water. G-d commanded Moshe “to take his staff … and to SPEAK to the rock.” It was Moshe’s staff that represented the kind of leader he was: a soft-spoken shepherd.
The rock symbolized the stiff-necked behavior of B’nai Yisrael. It represented that they were as hard and stubborn as a rock, making them quick to “kvetch” and always ready to rebel. Remember when B’nai Yisrael thought that Moshe was late coming down from Sinai? What did they do? They rebelled by building the Egel, the Golden Calf.

Moshe was told to simply “talk to the rock,” but he struck the rock, as G-d had told him to do earlier in the Exodus from Egypt (Shemot, Chapter 17). Because Moshe was so disgruntled with all the non-stop complaining and frustrated because G-d had to tell him how to provide the same sweet, pure water that his sister had so easily and naturally provided, he struck the rock instead of talking to it. The water returned, but for disobeying G-d’s word, Moshe would not be allowed to enter Eretz Yisrael. Most of us cannot understand why Moshe was so harshly punished and we feel sorry for him.

The rod symbolizes regal authority, domination, and control. B’nai Yisrael had just been freed from suffering 210 years in slavery under totalitarian tyrants. After leaving this, B’nai Yisrael needed a compassionate, principled, but strong leader.

You see, Moshe’s sin and punishment comes right between Miryam’s death and when the well dries up and then is returned.

Earlier Torah verses tell us how Miryam sang her song at the Red Sea after the Egyptian soldiers were swallowed up in its parting, and, by doing so, she became a most beloved figure and leader.

That is why I am convinced the restoration of Eretz Yisrael and the re-empowerment of women in Jewish life is a great thing. Combining these make up the nectar that will nurture the future of our Jewish People for many years to come.

Rabbi Richard Perlman is the spiritual leader of Temple Ner Tamid in Peabody.

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