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Hukkat.  July 13, 2019

Rabbi Randall Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

As the Israelites work their way across the desert, moving away from the Promised Land, it becomes apparent that the people will have to rethink what this journey is all about. From the moment they left Egypt, they had looked forward to their arrival at the country that God had promised their ancestors. Now, because of their sins in losing faith in God when confronted with the report of the spies, God has told them they will all die in the wilderness and only their children will conquer and inherit the land.

The people had looked forward to a land flowing with milk and honey; it just turned out to be too hard to keep a focus on the future when the present was so difficult. The people, no matter what their dreams might have been, could not envision the bounties of the future. They only could remember the good times in Egypt; the food that was plentiful and their varied diet. Instead of having a focus on freedom, they forgot the slavery and the lash of the whip. They looked backwards instead of forward and thus were cursed to die in the wilderness without going back or moving forward. God noted that their minds were stuck in the past so God punished them by removing their future.

It is important to note here that God has decreed that only two people alive will make it to the promised land. Joshua and Caleb; the only two spies who reported the possibilities of the Promised land, would be allowed to enter it. The leadership of the people are included in the ban on entering the land.  Moses, Aaron and Miriam will not have any privilege in this matter. Everyone who had lived to see the Exodus from Egypt will die in the wilderness. All the people now realize, as the Promised Land disappears behind them, that they will all die in this land of scrub, sand and heat.

Miriam will be the first of her family to die. We read the record of her death in this week’s parsha. Right after she dies the people suddenly are without water and there is a near riot as the people run out of water. Moses and Aaron will anger God by striking a rock to bring out water and God affirms that they too, just like everyone else, will die in the wilderness.

Later Sages, noting the connection between the thirst of the people and the death of Miriam, suggest that while Moses talked to God every day, and Aaron officiated in the Mishkan, Miriam had a well of water that seemed to follow her through the wilderness. Only when she dies, does this well disappear and the people complain about the lack of water. Miriam’s name becomes associated with providing water for the people.

One modern Rabbi, noted, however, that Miriam gets no credit for the life-giving water that she provides. When Aaron will die later in the chapter, the people will mourn his passing for thirty days. When Moses dies at the end of the book of Devarim, the people will mourn his passing for thirty days. When Miriam dies, she is buried, and the people move on. Something here is just not right.

We tend to rewrite history in a way that is convenient for the way we look at the world. People who write history spend their time only on the parts that meet their narrative. I like to ask people if they remember the date that Columbus “discovered” America. 1492. And what was the date that the Pilgrims arrived? 1620. And what happened in this country in the more than 100 years in between those two dates? The Spanish settled in St. Augustine, Florida, explored what would become the Southeastern United States, and fought a war with the French in what is today South Carolina. In fact, the Spanish presence in parts of this country is still longer than the English have been here. Many people and communities are left out of history, and the role of women in history is no different

Throughout the Torah, the contribution of Miriam seems to always be belittled. The midrash gives her credit for convincing her father to have a third child and thus Moses is born. She stands watch over him in his basket as it floats down the Nile. It is Miriam that suggests to Pharaoh’s daughter that Moses’s mother should be the baby’s wet nurse. It is Miriam who sees the miracle at the Red Sea and recognizes the hand of God in that moment and then she leads the women in song and dance, using the timbrals that she encouraged the women to bring, knowing that one day the people would need them. In honor of her holiness, God creates the well that will follow her throughout her life, giving living water to the entire people. And they don’t stop their march even one day when she dies? Where is the thirty days of mourning for the woman who, from the beginning, witnessed the many miracles of the Exodus?

Why is it that it is so hard to recognize the important role that women have had in the world? Why does history leave out, so very often, the contributions women have made to the progress of the world? We are quick to recognize the role that men play in history, but we often don’t stop to think about the women who worked right by their side. We celebrated the USA women’s soccer team who won the World Cup in a series of matches that broke all records for viewing a soccer match. And yet they are still fighting for equal pay and equal benefits from the American Soccer League and FIFA.

It took more than 50 years for a movie to be made about the three women who were critical in the early days of our nation’s space program. Katherine Johnson, Dorothy Vaughan and Mary Jackson were the brains behind one of the greatest operations in history: the launch of astronaut John Glenn into orbit. Women who were all but forgotten finally got the recognition they deserved for their knowledge and foresight that made orbital space flight possible.

Why don’t we know about Admiral Grace Hopper? If you use a computer, you should know her name and her claim to her place in history. Admiral Hopper believed that computer languages should be as easy to learn as English. She was one of the first                 computer programmers and she created COBAL, the first easy to use computer language. Long before the personal computer came out of Steve Job’s garage, she had created the computer language that made it all happen.

Is it any wonder that women are pushing back at those who are in positions of power who don’t take the role that women should have in society seriously? Any woman who has achieved success can tell you a story about when it was assumed that the only reason for her to be in the room was to get coffee for the men who were present. That does not even begin to touch upon the sexual harassment that women at every rung on the ladder of society have to endure. The Midrash in Judaism states it up front, it was the women among the Israelites that made the Exodus possible. And to this day the only holiday on the Jewish calendar that features a woman is Purim and Queen Esther. From Queen Esther to Golda Meir, we have to look long and hard to find any trace of the women who helped at vital moments in Jewish History.

Miriam deserved more from the Israelite tribes then she received at the time of her death. She was the first of many Jewish women who helped write whole chapters of Jewish history. Women continue to be a vital and critical part of our world, in politics, in business, in history, in the military and in sports. Women deserve equal credit, equal pay and equal opportunity along with all the other suppressed groups in our society. Let us celebrate all the men and women who work so hard to make our lives more interesting, easier and freer.

May God help us see the women who help make this world so much better and may we show our appreciation as we applaud their hard work today.    As we say ….

Amen and Shabbat Shalom


Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on Saturday, July 13, 2019.

Sat, July 2 2022 3 Tammuz 5782