by Carol Ochs
Miriam, like her brothers Moses and Aaron, was a child of Amran and Jochebed of the tribe of Levi. The Bible preserves but five references to Miriam, yet her importance to the Israelites' story shines through even this leanest of biographical sketches. First, she is called a prophet (though her teachings are not recorded). Second, she sings to the Lord following her people's safe passage across the Red Sea. Third, she and Aaron argue with Moses about the latter's wife. Fourth, she is banished from the camp when she falls ill with leprosy and, tellingly, the Children of Israel refuse to move on until she returns. Finally, she dies and is buried in Kadesh. These five references to Miriam are all that the Bible provides us, but I believe we can reconstruct Miriam's Way from this slight evidence and from what has come down to us in an oral tradition that has gone unrecognized for millennia.
Jewish lineage, unlike that of other Western religions, has always passed through the mother to the child: the faith of the mother determines the faith of the child. One has to wonder how this came about, given the central role in ancient Judaism of Temple worship, which lay entirely in the province of male priests, and the subsequent turn to Torah study, which was denied to women. Just what, we may ask, were the women passing on when they passed on their faith?
Tradition has credited Moses with having prescience as he looked out from Mount Nebo just before his death. The writers of midrash-- those tales that elaborate the biblical accounts -- credit Moses with recognizing that many generations in the future Rabbi Akiba would present a brilliant interpretation of the Torah, reaching well beyond the written text Moses himself had brought down from Mount Sinai. I offer an additional midrash, in which Moses recognizes, too late, what Miriam had contributed to the shaping of the Judaic religious consciousness.
When Moses climbed Mount Nebo to feast his eyes on the Promised Land, which he would never enter, and to experience God's drawing his soul out as gently as a kiss draws out the breath, we may imagine him thinking about the future of his people. He thought of Eleazer, who would carry on Aaron's priestly functions, and could reassure himself that the faith would be preserved. For a time the priests did just that; but for the past nineteen hundred years, the functions of the priests in the Jewish faith all but disappeared: it was not through Eleazer that the faith was finally preserved; Moses then thought of his choice of Joshua to lead the Israelites into the Promised Land, and through the land (Moses could reassure himself) the faith would be preserved; but for nearly two millennia the Israelites lived in exile so it was not through Joshua that the faith was preserved. Finally, in our new midrash, Moses thought of Miriam, but, not recognizing what she had contributed to preserving the faith, he had made no effort to have someone else assume her role.
If the Children of Israel were to remain true to their religion in the generations to come, it would be because the women passed their faith on to their children. Moses had legislated for the Israelite men and had largely neglected women, who were nearly invisible in the legal codes. But Miriam had centered on the women and the education of their children; in this moment before his death, Moses recognized an aspect of his people's future for which he had not prepared. Eleazar was destined for his priestly role by birth -- he was the eldest remaining son of Aaron. Joshua had been chosen because Moses judged him to be a capable leader. But whoever was to succeed Miriam would have to qualify through God's direct gift: no one had thought to name her successor. Moses, in that one prescient moment, understood that a vital element in the community may have died with Miriam; even if the men remained faithful, there was no guarantee that the faith would be passed on to future generations living in the Promised Land. So, according to our new midrash, Moses prayed for a successor to Miriam.
The prayer was urgent. Miriam's role, which Moses understood only now, was essential for preserving the faith: she and her multitude of successors would keep the Jewish people close to God. The Temple would disappear, the Promised Land would become a memory, but the worlds created and recreated by Miriam and the women who succeeded her allowed future generations to remain true to their faith.
At Sinai, the Children of Israel received the Torah. That same time of revelation also saw the first explicit teaching of Miriam's Way. Mount Sinai towered above the Israelites, the shofar blared, the thunder roared, and some of the people, in terror, told Moses:
Moses went up the mountain, and the revelation intended for all the people became, instead, a personal one. While Moses was on Mount Sinai, Aaron was collecting gold out of which to fashion a molten calf. Where was Miriam? According to our new midrash, Miriam gave her first teaching at this decisive time. In Moses' prolonged absence, the people grew restive and frightened, and the men planned for war. But the children still had to be cared for and the meals prepared. Miriam visited the women one at a time, as they cooked and stirred, rocked their children and comforted them, and she pointed out, "Revelation is taking place right now as you cook and comfort, tend the fires, and nurse the young."
The men were left without anything when Moses ascended Sinai. They had been taken out of their former role as slaves, but now Moses, who had given them their vision of freedom, had disappeared in the cloud on the mountain, and they were left without guidance. The women, meanwhile, returned to their tents, and Miriam was telling them that in their tasks and chores they would experience revelation.
Through these tasks and chores they had created worlds -- of feeding their families, of caring for their children -- and these worlds sustained them. They did not understand the meaning of either the men's panic or their own steadiness; least of all did they grasp how their daily work was related to revelation. Only as Miriam spoke with them, one by one, did they begin to see that the very future of the Israelites was at stake. When Moses returned and smashed the Tablets of the Law, and three thousand were put to the sword that day, the women comforted the living, tended the orphans, and mourned, while nursing those who suffered from plague. All the while, Miriam reminded the women that this was revelation: birth and family, dailiness and death.
It is long habits of faithfulness that preserve us. The Children of Israel had not yet developed such habits, having left Egypt only weeks earlier. Miriam showed the people that, though their covenant with God was new, those they had made with their spouses, their children, and their aging parents were vital to their covenant with God; habits of faithfulness built up over a lifetime could help preserve their commitment to God.
We might view the women's steadfastness at Sinai as a show of indifference to the covenant and a preoccupation with material needs, and so trivialize the women's role. We might even regard their stance as one of inaction in the face of terror at the impending void and scornfully contrast it with the active response of the men. But Miriam saw the women's steadiness and their attention to daily concerns as part of a covenantal faithfulness whereby each of their lesser commitments was lifted up to the divine covenant in which they participated. She understood that patience was a form of love and recognized the women's strength and courage in allowing Moses' absence to be a void that need not be filled. Miriam named these experiences and empowered the women to perceive and claim their own strength. Whether Miriam did any public teaching is not recorded, and we do not know the extent of her audience. But we can imagine that her teachings were passed on from woman to woman, from mother to child, and to any husband who was willing to learn.
Miriam's fundamental teaching was that our everyday tasks and ongoing commitments constitute one way to the holy. Moses and Miriam both emphasized freedom. Moses taught that freedom was a goal to be achieved by living in terms of the Mosaic law. Miriam taught that freedom was a process by which the Israelites should live, trusting their own experiences. Moses and Miriam both saw freedom as growing within the structure and habits of committed lives. Moses emphasized commitments centered on ritual; Miriam stressed the idiosyncratic structures of human relationships.
While giving the law to Moses, God said:
Our own experiences of revelation make it difficult to understand this eating and drinking in the Presence of God. How, in the Presence, can we eat and drink? How can we even swallow? But Miriam taught that God's Presence is not outside the domain of daily life and does not preclude the basic functions necessary for sustaining life. We are human, and the Presence of God makes us more truly who we are, not less. Humans eat and drink, but the story doesn't end there. After the eating and drinking,
For the Children of Israel this was a frightening time of absence; from their perspective, their leader had abandoned them.
Miriam helped those who listened to her understand the fundamental difference between the eating and drinking of Moses and the elders before God, and the feasting of the Children of Israel before the golden calf. The first was a feast before God; the second was a feast held in God's absence, but enacted as if there were no absence. The Israelites should have accepted the emptiness and not tried to fill it with false gods. Perhaps, Miriam suggested, had they spent time in this dark empty place, the void would have revealed gifts and insights for those who came to trust. We cannot come into relationship with emptiness if we fill it with false presence. Since the Presence intensifies our humanity, it was fitting that Moses and the elders ate and drank. But humans can also fast, and in the absence of God that may well be the appropriate response.
Miriam used the occurrence of the two feasts to lead the women to ask, Can we accept Nothingness? the void? Can we learn to wait? What, she asked, might have happened if the Children of Israel had not built the golden calf? Might they have directly received the revelation that came to Moses instead of getting it vicariously? And if we ask ourselves today what Moses perceived, we realize that he perceived Nothing. He entered the thick darkness and clouds, and learned that God's visage could not be perceived (except in retrospect). So if the Children of Israel had waited, they would have experienced absence, or nothingness, and not turned it into false presence. They would have learned to be patient and would have found God in the emptiness and in the waiting. Space and time would have become personal and worthy of being addressed as the personal "you" -- Buber's Thou.
When Miriam was teaching the Israelites to allow the void to be void and not to fill absence with a false presence, she was presenting the central insight embodied in the Tabernacle worship described in Exodus. The purpose of the Tabernacle, or Tent of Meeting, was to shape a safe framework for Nothing. That was precisely what the men had done in building the camp around the Tabernacle and the Tabernacle around the Holy of Holies; situated in that Holy of Holies was the emptiness, the Nothing that was the deepest expression of their faith. In recreating the revelation at Sinai, the Israelites recalled that at Mount Sinai they saw nothing. How tempting it must have been to put something in the Holy of Holies -- a rare jewel, an exquisite carving. That same temptation faces us as we form our own consciousness. We want to fill gaps, resolve all questions, reconcile all-differing views. If the Children of Israel had put something -- anything -- into the Holy of Holies they would have been idol worshipers. Their profound insight lay in knowing that what they worshiped was unknowable and could not be represented physically. Similarly, we must recognize that our deepest faithfulness lies in preserving the essential space within our hearts.
Because the Tabernacle was built in direct consequence of the revelation at Sinai, we can look at the practices involved with the Tabernacle and hope to gain some insight into how the Children of Israel experienced the revelation. The Tabernacle was filled with clouds of incense, reminding the Israelites of the awesome cloud that covered Sinai at the time of revelation. The chief activity in the Tabernacle was animal sacrifice, and, though it is difficult today to recreate the sensibility that fostered this form of worship, we have some tangible clues. Animal sacrifice, a substitute for human sacrifice, was never thought to fill some divine need. Rather, it was meant to accomplish something for the worshiper: sacrifice depicted the idea that we need to die in order to fully live. This realization is not thought out or reflected upon; it is something that certain experiences in life allow us to recognize. We don't know which self has to die or what force will then live, but we find that the process of sacrifice clarifies and intensifies the experience of living.
At Sinai, the Children of Israel had experienced fear, awe, wonder, and self-annihilation before the power of the Numinous. Afterward, they periodically needed to recreate the intensity and commitment of that experience. They wanted not to return physically to Sinai, but to recover the experience of dying for the sake of a deeper life. The carefully controlled setting of the Tabernacle made possible self-annihilation -dying without death. In fact, the self-annihilation symbolized by animal sacrifice releases a deeper self. We can have spontaneous experiences of that deeper self, and learning to attend to them encourages us to release control and to trust the process of self-annihilation. Some translations of Tabernacle worship into twentieth-century idiom have lost this point. Sacrifice is not related to tithing or gift-giving; we come not in our fullness but in our poverty. Once we release control of our lives, all the energy that has been bound up in defensiveness, fear, and anxiety is freed up for living, for being, and for doing. Self-annihilation resembles the familiar experience of being so absorbed in a task that we lose ourselves in it. When we return to our "conscious" selves we feel refreshed, as if all the old constraints were really provisional and not inevitable. We sometimes experience a similar feeling when we awaken from sleep freed from our usual sense of material causality.
But self-annihilation is more than mere self-forgetting and more radical than sleep. It is an experience of time outside of time, so it leads us to wonder if time is illusion and timelessness the reality. It also trains us, as it were, for death -- not for dying or for enduring pain, but for accepting and entering into a state we cannot control but have learned to trust. What I am calling self-annihilation can also be named an encounter with Nothing. This encounter takes us into the unbounded; after we return to ourselves, we for a few moments feel diminished, constricted; our day-to-day self strikes us as shallow in comparison with the self which has encountered Nothing. This deeper self is larger, stronger, and freer than our socially constructed self, and we become more familiar with it, we allow it to take on the tasks that our usual self has accomplished only with effort or even struggle. Encountering Nothing, or self-annihilation, sometimes requires merely getting out of the way; sometimes, however, it requires a ritual sacrifice, as the builders of the Tabernacle well knew.
The more conscious we are of our usual self, the less we experience reality. On a beautiful day, if we are consciously aware of taking in the sunshine and flowers, we are more distant from the day and its beauty than if we simply delighted in them. We want to get our judging, commenting, abstracting self out of the way -- this self-conscious, self-reflecting entity. But how do we divest ourselves of this self? The Tabernacle enabled the Children of Israel to let go of boundaries and release the self and the will. We who are without the Tabernacle must see what can serve the same function in our own lives. The self needs a mirror to reflect it; while the world may well be the fitting mirror for our ordinary self, Nothing -- as we will see -- is the fitting mirror for the annihilated self.
Space was carefully bounded in the camp of the Israelites. There was an "outside the camp," where everyone and everything that threatened boundaries were sent. Women were sent there during their menses, as were people who had touched a dead body or those whose own boundaries had been breached by, for example, running sores. Within the camp, the Tent of Meeting had boundaries within boundaries. Miriam helped the Israelites see the function of the various courtyards and the role they played in the people's own understanding: borders were related to the fear of separation and death. She taught them that the courts and inner circles were one context within which they could raise questions about distance and separation, about having and losing, and about the fundamental ordering of values. The rigid boundaries in the Tabernacle and the camp expressed the Israelites' fear of what might happen if they let go of the mental outline that kept everything separate and in its place. daries, shifting over a lifetime of relationships, are flexible and semipermeable. When we experience this changing or blurring of boundaries in human relationships, we encounter Nothing. Facing that void is part of the risk entailed in love -- and also part of the freedom. When we love, our boundaries are transformed. We have opened ourselves to another person whose life and happiness is inextricably connected to our own; but our beloved remains other, and we are "invaded" by this other we cannot control. This vulnerability is really strength. Miriam showed the Israelites that their covenants with God and with one another, while supporting their world, had to be exercised in freedom. People had to love without reason or agenda, and without the illusion of control. She taught that we learn to love while recognizing how powerless we really are; with this recognition we can come to fear less and trust more. Covenants are not contracts or promises; they are transformative relationships of love. The Israelites already understood how that applied to their spouses, children, and parents. But learning how it ultimately applied to God required, as it still does today, entering into relationship with God and being transformed.
Though worship in the Tabernacle was an opportunity to recreate the revelation at Sinai, it had a disadvantage: the priests were keepers of the gate and they alone determined who could approach the Holy. Miriam helped the others see that the real gate is within ourselves. Our lives shape and instruct us, and we have all had experiences of revelation and redemption. We can recognize the sacred text because it is present in our life stories. Moses brought nothing down from Sinai that the Israelites did not already know in their bones' marrow. Miriam taught them to recognize in revelation not something new but something true. Just as God's presence could not be restricted to the Tent of Meeting, God's revelation is not restricted to the Five Books of Moses. The Torah stands at the center of Judaism just as the Tabernacle stood at the center of the camp, but God's Presence is everywhere.
Miriam helped the women locate the experience of the Divine in and through every aspect of their lives. She taught them to see their lives as sacred text. For a historical religion, the unfolding of a life over time is revelation, and the women had to be taught to value and explore their own experiences. At Sinai, their most likely feeling was of being but dust and ashes, of nothingness. But Miriam led them to explore further and discover that Nothing is not simply the absence of something, it is a way of experiencing what is wholly other. Nothing is represented aurally by silence, visually by darkness and by emptiness. The wide-stretching desert becomes the void, which in Miriam's Way we experience not as the absence of vegetation but the presence of something wholly other. In the physical wilderness of Sinai, the women needed to recognize and value their daily effort to survive and to draw spiritual insight from the void. They had traveled through the wilderness, a place without water, unmarked and unboundaried, and experienced an encounter with Nothing. Miriam not only helped them recognize and value what they had endured; she taught them that the physical desert was a powerful analogy to their own inner emptiness. The analogy still works in our own time: the barren, the unsettled, and the unfilled spaces within us are our Holy of Holies.
Just as the desert underlies all fertile soil -- a year's drought or sudden erosion will reveal it -- so there is a Nothing underlying all the somethings that we see. This Nothing, which Miriam's Way helps us relate to, trust, and even love, becomes visible in all the gaps of existence and in every transformation of reality -- every change of form and status, every loss and exclusion. Encountering this Nothing requires a safe setting so that trust can grow. The religious story told in the Five Books of Moses constitutes one frame for Nothing; Miriam's Way gives us another.
Miriam also helped the women recognize that they created worlds of meaning and value. At the end they might look at their creations and see that they are good, but first they had to enter the formlessness and void that precedes creation. And even before that, they had to undergo the self-emptying that allows them a deeper life and enables their creations to have independent life. Perhaps Miriam accomplished this by bringing the people back to the account of Creation: "When God began to create the heaven and the earth -- the earth being unformed and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep and the spirit of God hovering over the waters. . . . "
Unformed and void -- the time before creation is one of chaos. The abstract notion of the creation of the world takes concrete shape if we consider the creation of our children and the creation of the worlds of meaning and value that our family and community take on. It is liberating to discover our creative power, and some day we may look and see that our creations were good, but first we have to live through the unknown. We need to acknowledge that we fear freedom; that we are drawn to it, but resist our creative process. Freedom entails change, standing alone, taking responsibility; and all of them frighten us. We must recognize the extent to which we -- each of us -- have created our own world of meaning, our own reality. This makes it no less real but does mean that, delicate and fragile, it needs our conscious support to stay alive. But as we recognize our creative role we realize that creativity is more than simple self-expression; it is the ground of all of our institutions -- we create out of Nothing and in the face of Nothing. When we look at our own creations and see that they are good, we do so not in pride but in humility.
Miriam's Way reminds us that we all have experiences that require our self-limiting and self-emptying for the sake of a greater life. Our greatest creativity, exercised when we form a relationship, comes from divesting ourselves of self in order to make room for an independent life. In the sixteenth century Rabbi Isaac Luria gave a name to this process, teaching that the great moment of creation was not "And God said . . ." but the moment before that, tsimtsum, when God's self contracted to make room for independent creatures. Tsimtsum is not necessary for all creations, only those that will be independent, because only an independent being can come into a freely chosen relationship with God. God's creation of beings in freedom shows us that beings need independent space to form relationships, and we must try to emulate this creation of space. In pregnancy, physical displacement takes place so new life can exist. As the body undergoes radical transformation, so does the soul -- in this case, a decentering of ego. But not all of our creations are babies. The new life that grows within may take the form of ideas, institutions, and -- especially --relationships; all require a self-emptying that allows space for freedom.
According to our new midrash, Miriam taught the Children of Israel that their sojourn in the desert was intended to instruct them about love, about their relationship to religion, about creativity, and about the need to stay alive and grow. Many of the men had shown great physical courage in accepting the risks of battle. Danger helps us become sharply focused -- a feeling we like because it makes all perceptions clearer and more intense. Miriam's Way shows us that love can be just as enlivening as physical danger and sacrifice. Love is a profound risk, but of a kind radically different from war. Yet the self-noughting experience in love resembles the near-death experience in war.
Battles may be seen as holy wars, variations of other trials that intensify the experience of life. But do we need to risk our lives in order to live more fully? No; we can move away from direct danger just as our ancestors moved from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice to creativity. We can move from life-and-death stakes (as in human sacrifice and war) to vicarious risk (as in animal sacrifice and symbolic trials such as fasting), to creativity, and to the creative form of consciousness.
Elie Wiesel, in Gates of the Forest, recounts an oft-repeated tale in which the Baal Shem Tov, foreseeing misfortune threatening the Jews, would make his way to a certain part of the forest where he would light a fire and say a special prayer, after which the misfortune would be averted. Later, according to the story, his disciple the Magid of Mezritch also foresaw a calamity threatening the Jews. He went to the same place in the forest and prayed, "Master of the Universe, I do not know how to light the fire, but I am still able to say the prayer," whereupon the new disaster was averted. Still later, Rabbi Moshe-Leib of Sasov, in an effort to save his people, entered the forest and said, "I don't know how to light the fire and I don't know the prayer, but I know the place, and this must be sufficient," and it was. Then it fell to Rabbi Israel of Rizhyn to overcome misfortune. He said to God, "I am unable to light the fire, I don't know the prayer, I cannot even find the place in the forest, all I can do is tell the story, and this must suffice," and it did. For the later rabbis this story illustrated the gradual loss of knowledge about practice, but demonstrated that keeping the memory alive was sufficient to ward off calamity. From the perspective of Miriam's Way, this same story would be an account not of loss but of gain. What was once physical space -the place in the forest -- has become the great inner space in which we can meet the Divine, a move from ritual act to imaginative reconstruction. This is the move that Miriam, in our midrash, prefigured as she pointed out how human sacrifice had to be replaced by animal sacrifice which, in turn, had to be replaced by a transformed consciousness. In many ways Miriam's teachings resembled those of the later psalmist, who wrote, "The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and contrite heart . . ." (Ps. 51).
This brokenness consists in entering into Nothing, self-annihilation. What the psalmist calls a broken or contrite spirit, and I have been calling entering into Nothing, is the obliteration of the socially constructed self before the Numinous; it occurred at Sinai and led the people to experience a deeper self that they had never fully been and that they could not even name. This moment of blankness, of Nothing, of the loss of self, is the moment of incipient fruitfulness and renewal of life. For the Children of Israel, this self-annihilation and renewal occurred at Sinai and were recreated and fostered through Tabernacle worship. For us they may occur at various, often unexpected moments, frequently at times of risk and danger. At first we may discover accidentally the tremendous release that comes from near-death experience. Without understanding what causes this renewal, we associate it with the risk we have undergone. We think we must literally face death, or experience the actual death of someone very close, for this greater life to be lived. Eventually we learn that vicarious or symbolic sacrifice frequently, though not inevitably, releases this deeper self. As we reflect on the circumstances in which this self is released, we become aware that our own creativity requires a kind of death, or self-annihilation. In this process, we put aside the controlling self, and the self that now emerges is not well known to us. We have not, for the most part, identified with it; it more nearly resembles the self that "lives us" rather than our own identity. After longer acquaintance, however, we begin to identify with this other, deeper self.
Traditionally, women did not go off to war, nor did they participate in animal sacrifice. They kept awake, alive, and aware in part because of their regular experiences at the borders of life and death: giving birth and attending to the dying. The monthly menses may have served as another reminder of these same borders -- potential new life, potential death. To be sure, the story of the matriarchs reminds us that pregnancy involves risk.
Miriam's Way teaches us that Nothing, before it becomes an idea, is an experience -- a strange kind of experience, perhaps almost a lack of experience, one that cannot be described. Yet we can find some analogues: when you lose a tooth, your tongue keeps searching out the space between the surrounding two teeth; what you feel is the absence of a tooth. Space resembles silence, consciousness, and Nothing, in that all contain without themselves being contained and without imposing any characteristics on their content. We don't mind the space between the teeth because it is an encapsulated emptiness. But an emptiness without boundaries threatens our sense of self and our security.
For those of us who have given birth, the experience starts simply enough. We live together with our loved one and our body rounds as the child grows. Everything is warm, close, contained. The wonder is the birth of the baby, and yet after the birth, as we lie resting, we suddenly feel contemporaneous with Creation. It is not a thought, "I have created new life," but a feeling, as full and as empty as any feeling in the world. It is hard to return to that feeling; the baby needing to be fed, the furious, surprising sound of the baby sucking. Somehow, no matter how often we have seen babies nursing, we had never been conscious of the sound, or of the vein pulsating at the top of the baby's head. And yet, as the baby begins to doze in our arms, we again remember the fullness and emptiness that are somehow connected not only to the nursing but to the birth. Women's bodies are not empty receptacles destined to hold a baby. They are more like potential space, as in the animal bladders in which wine used to be stored: the space is not really there until liquid is poured in, turning the potential space into actual space.
We can build on the analogy of pregnancy to explain our encounter with Nothing. The experience starts simply enough: we encounter Nothing, our soul rounds, and gradually a space grows. Within us grows an ever larger inner emptiness -- regular encounters with Nothing have given rise to new life within. Before our encounter with Nothing we had to look outside for what was within, but now we know that even long after childbearing years have passed, we still carry within ourselves a potential space and feel that something is expanding us, though we no longer know what we carry. The space within is part of the space beyond. From time to time, at unexpected moments, we know that by growing still and focusing within, we can go as far as the top of Mount Sinai.
After Miriam fought with Moses, she lost her status, but strangely, that loss was a gain. Now people who came to her were no longer seeking indirect access to Moses. During her struggle with leprosy Miriam learned about vulnerability and what it was like to be banished from the camp for seven days. A week is a short time, but for Miriam it was long enough to view the camp, with its problems and intrigues, from a totally different perspective. She came back -- but not completely. How do you regard your skin when it has once begun to flake with leprosy? And how do you reengage completely with the drama of the camp when you have once lived outside its borders? Contemplating these questions confirmed what Miriam had always known: that we create worlds of meaning and value, and they are suspended on fragile threads of relationships. The experience of marginality gives us the space to choose to relate to others and to God -- or to reject such commitments.
Part of the gift of freedom at Sinai was the magnificent ambiguity of Nothing. For some, "At Sinai you saw Nothing" meant they were present at the greatest revelation since Creation. For others, it meant they felt unbound by any covenant. It is like love. Others see the person we uniquely love, but they don't see what we see. Indeed, some things are visible only to those who love. All the Israelites were present at Sinai, and since Sinais occur in every life we all have been present at Sinai. Some of us have been profoundly moved and had our faith confirmed, and some find no such thing.
Miriam had always taught about the role of boundaries but her leprosy showed her how important, but also how potentially stultifying, religious boundaries could be. She had been thrust beyond the borders of the camp and had experienced Nothing, which engendered deeper life. From outside the community, she could look toward the camp and feel excluded, or she could turn away from the camp and exclude it from her line of vision and concern.
In our new midrash, Miriam returned and began to speak about "outside the camp." She taught the Children of Israel to see that they were building worlds of meaning and value in the homes and relationships they fashioned and that through them Nothing could be safely experienced. They needed to know that even outside the camp they could build frames within which to experience Nothing. Miriam talked about something else she had experienced outside the camp, something neither seen nor heard, but felt: "I was never alone." The women grew silent, reflecting and remembering.
The builders of the Tabernacle had shaped a safe framework for Nothing, but Miriam had arrived at a different view. The Nothing experienced in banishment and grief outside the structure of the camp may take the form of terror. If it befalls us, perhaps through exile or loss, we perceive the terror both of vast space and of our own smallness. Most of all, we fear that the vast space lies within ourselves. So there is a frame, but the frame is neither the camp nor the Tabernacle -- it is the self that holds at its core a great emptiness.
After her leprosy, Miriam no longer tried to talk to Moses and Aaron. We imagine her remaining time, during which she still had to teach the Children of Israel how to die. Our own final encounter with Nothing occurs as we face death. Nothing precedes birth and Nothing follows death. Nothing is the wilderness that harbors the unformed, unordered, fertile source. Life brings order, boundaries, and limits. But as we grow in our exposure to Nothing, we begin to make room for the wilderness and the unordered within it. Death need not be dissolution, it can be the infinite expansion of all boundaries. Moses and Aaron would die on a mountaintop, but Miriam would die in her tent, surrounded by women yearning to understand this process. She had never given birth, but having attended many births and many deaths, she concluded that the two processes are the same. Her brothers, as priests, were forbidden to minister to the dying: true to their faith forged in opposition to Egypt's cult of the dead, they would have found any signs of death polluting. Miriam, however, had found her own contact with the dead intensely purifying. How much clearer her mind and heart became after she sat with the dying, held their hands, closed their eyes. Even as she herself was dying, Miriam seemed at peace -- tired and uncomfortable, perhaps, but at peace. How could she be in pain, know that death was near, and still be at peace? Because she was unworried and unafraid, and she was being comforted by the women around her, who moistened her lips and cooled her brow. Some of the women may have been angry that Moses and Aaron had not valued what their sister knew, but Miriam told them that anger would only sap their energy. She believed she had been given more than anyone could ask, and she felt gratitude. Not one of the women had felt jealousy toward her or challenged her position -- what position? -- and they sat with her because they loved her. And what about the pain they felt because she would no longer be there? They would use it to grow, she told them, and they did.
Miriam's lids would close over a final vision of the desert -- a wilderness she had come to know as filled with love, with pain, with desire -and with Presence. She could not know what final vision the next generation would have, yet she hoped that even in the Promised Land, they could retain the vision of the open space that held everything.
Having learned from Miriam that their lives were revealed text, the women were free to store up memories and tease meaning out of them, just as generations of rabbis would later draw meaning from every syllable of the Five Books of Moses. The rabbis believed that if they engaged the text -- their revelation from God -- they were engaging with God and might discover the mind behind the Creation. Through their study they sought to be transformed, not merely by learning the content but by intensifying their relationship to the Divine. In their continual engagement with the Five Books of Moses, the rabbis could encounter God. Miriam's Way shows us that the daily events of our lives also bring us to God. If we view our lives as sacred text, we can hope to find Presence in and through the mundane. Our lives are ongoing revelation from God, and at any moment we can pause and come into relationship with the Divine.
Miriam's perspective and insights were not limited to the time in the wilderness, nor is the relevance of her teaching restricted to those who sojourned with her in the desert. The rabbis, learning from an oral tradition that reflects Miriam's Way, concluded that creative consciousness can replace ritual acts, that the Temple we carry within ourselves cannot be destroyed, and that the world we continually recreate is a source of strength.
Miriam's Way gives us the tools for thinking about everything from the Mosaic account of Creation, through the pain between generations that fills the Torah, to the wonder of raising children who surpass us. It suggests that Moses' law can be understood as a way, not just a conclusion. And it teaches us that since our lives are revelation and revelation is our life, not only should we study our lives to find God's teaching in and through the events of our days, we should study the Torah to find a way of naming and thinking about our own inchoate experiences.
"On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder and lightning, and a dark cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn; and all the people who were in the camp trembled" (Exod. 19:16). As we, along with all the people, stood at Sinai, we received two revelations: the Five Books of Moses and Miriam's Way. After years of wandering in our deserts, building worlds of meaning and value, and encountering Nothing, we finally recognize the essential truth of that Way: our lives are precious gifts in which we can find the Divine Presence. So the two revelations, of Scripture and of life, are really one --Torah is our life because our lives are sacred scripture.
By Carol Ochs
CAROL OCHS teaches at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in
New York City. An earlier essay, "The Presence in the Desert," appeared in Cross
Currents, Fall 1993. The present article was delivered as a talk at this year's SVHE/ARIL
convocation at Claremont, Calif.
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