Jewfem Blog

Parshat Zachor: On memory, Miriam, and the capacity for empathy

I walked to shul this morning in the rain and hail. As I was futilely trying to keep my layers of clothing dry, thinking about the 49 people killed in mosques in New Zealand yesterday, thinking about the overall state of the world, I was recalling the shabbatot of my childhood in Flatbush, where certain weeks we had to go to synagogue no matter what – rain, sun, or even hail. You did what you were supposed to do, showing up to take your space in the congregation, regardless of what else might be going on. 

This particular week, Shabbat Zachor – the Sabbath of Remembrance – was one of them. Every year, the sanctuary would be as packed on this Shabbat as it might be on Rosh Hashana. I'm guessing in many places, it still is. After all, the commandment to remember what the evil nation of Amalek did to "us" as "we" left Egypt, all frail and weak, was deemed as crucial to Jewish practice as, say, avoiding pork or fasting on Yom Kippur. It's just what you do. You remember. It is more than a commandment; it is cultural imperative, to remember who we are by remembering who tried to kill us. It is a formation of identity around resilience and determination above all, the chutzpah to survive and keep going. And it is the kind of practice that has come to define Jewishness in the modern world.

Interestingly, this dictate to remember what Amalek did to the Israelites (as if we were there and the "they" from 3500 years ago is actually "me", without anyone questioning that bizarre linear identification) marks one of supposedly six times that Torah commands its readers to remember. Why do I say six? Well, five and a half really. The standard Orthodox siddur includes the list of "six remembrances" at the end of the morning prayer service – five with the word "zachor" (remember) and another with the words "lo tishkakh" (don't forget), that is transmuted to "remember", hence I am calling it five and a half. But let's not quibble about this. We'll call it six remembrances, because that's what they are called in the siddur, right after Aleynu, the tail end, after most people have packed up their prayer shawls and gone home. There is a little-known Jewish tradition to recite these six every day. 

Most of us probably couldn't even list the six, so I'll tell you what they are here. It's an interesting list:

  • 1.Remember the Exodus from Egypt
  • 2.Remember the trek in the desert
  • 3.Remember standing at Sinai
  • 4.Remember what Amalek did
  • 5.Remember the Sabbath
  • 6.Remember what happened to Miriam

The list feels sort of random in places. The first three – the Exodus, the desert, and Sinai – arguably make some sense. These are considered major, defining historical events. But the Sabbath is not a singular event but an ongoing, weekly ritual, so it doesn't match the pattern. Amalek stands out because it is negative, something that was done to us, rather than something we proactively decided to construct as our own definition.

But the truly bizarre inclusion is the last item, the story of Miriam. It's hard to even know at first glance what we are supposed to remember about her story. That she rescued her baby brother Moses at the Nile? That she danced with the women on the banks of the Red Sea? Probably not. The verse says, "Remember what God did to Miriam as you left Egypt…." (Deut 24;9) Meaning, according to most traditional commentators, that we are remember that God gave her leprosy and that the whole community had to stand still for a week until she healed. The verse appears in a section that is about leprosy, so presumably that is the connection.

Why is this even on the list? What is so important about this story that it has the same weight as things like, say, the Exodus or the giving of the Torah?

Actually, I would say that it doesn't quite have the same weight, even though it IS on the list.

Certainly it did make the list, which in itself tells us something. Because, in fact, the list is not exactly a precise rendering of all the instances of "zachor" in the Bible.  The Torah actually says "zachor" far more than six times, but our rabbinic tradition only actually cares enough about these six to put them in the siddur. In the very same chapter as the Miriam remembrance is mentioned, for example, the Torah says TWICE, "Remember that you were slaves in Egypt" (Deut. 24; 18, 24;22). Why isn't that included? Why did rabbis decide that it is not important to remember that we were slaves in Egypt, but it is important to remember Miriam's suffering?  

Perhaps this is yet another illustration of the pervasiveness of rabbinic misogyny that sometimes seems to bleed into everything. Like, the rabbis couldn't even compile an innocuous list of remembrances – a list that is not actually accurate but rather hand-picked – they couldn't approach this task without sticking it to women one more time, reminding us to remember that women who misbehave will be punished. After all, the Miriam story is one of the cruelest stories in the Torah, and reflects a terrible injustice in which Miriam and Aaron talk about something together that is deemed sinful (though what that sin is remains up for discussion), yet Miriam gets this violent, life-threatening illness and awful reprimand as a punishment, while Aaron walks away scot free. That's patriarchy for you. And we are all told to remember this well, which some of our rabbis took quite seriously. The injunction upon women to know our place is up there for some rabbis with the Exodus and the stand at Sinai and even Shabbat, more important even than remembering that we were slaves in Egypt. Yep, the message is loud and clear. 

At the same time, the Miriam remembrance stands out in another jarring way. Take a look at how these remembrances are carried out:

  • 1.Remember the Exodus from Egypt – annual Seder and holiday of Passover
  • 2.Remember the trek in the desert – annual holiday of Sukkot
  • 3.Remember standing at Sinai –  annual holiday of Shavuot
  • 4.Remember what Amalek did – the annual must-go-to-shul Shabbat of Parshat Zachor, when congregations read the story out loud for this purpose
  • 5.Remember the Sabbath – weekly recitation of kiddush on Shabbat
  • 6.Remember what happened to Miriam -- ??????

Every single item on the list has practices associated with them – some annual, some weekly, all of them quite a big deal. But how do we remember Miriam? Nothing. There is nothing. We do not have Miriam as a memory in any of our practices.

The inconsistency of how "zachor" is implemented is strange enough. Some weekly and some annually, some in private and some in public. Whoever decided that the remembrances should be commemorated through daily recitations at the end of the morning prayers should be commended for this act of trying to create some kind of consistency. And frankly, that seems like quite an appropriate and effective way to fulfill the requirement of remembering. 

Barring that morning ritual which most Jews don't even know about, it is quite astonishing that five items on the list have major practices for remembrance while Miriam is the only one with none. So here we have another side of the patriarchy -- that is, the forgetting of women. This is the forgetting of women even when the rabbis are trying to tell a story about women. Here, the one woman on the list is the only item that is considered secondary. On the one hand, her leprosy is as important as, say, the Exodus or the Sabbath. On the other hand, she's just a woman so we're not really going to take it that seriously in real life.

Personally, I think there are lots of important reasons to remember Miriam. We could remember her fearlessness, tenacity, and quick-thinking care in the way she rescued her baby brother. We could remember her spirit, passion, and leadership on the banks of the sea. We could remember the way she maintained her mantle of leadership along with her brothers, despite being given no formal role or responsibilities, despite having no recorded lineage to follow her, despite having none of her prophesies recorded for posterity even though she was important enough to be called 'prophetess'. We can remember how she maintained her composure through all this, except for that one little private slip-up when she dared whisper her complaint about the inequality to her brother, Aaron. 

Indeed, we can also remember the story of her illness, but perhaps from a different perspective. Rather than see the story as an example of someone being punished for her sin – even though we don't even know exactly what her sin was; the midrash so often cited is that she gossiped, but the simple reading of the text seems to indicate that she was not as 'modest' as her brother Moses, and did not know her place as a woman, which was to be passive and accepting – we can reclaim this story today.

Perhaps we can use this to remember the cruel and violent double standards that women faced then and now.

Or perhaps we can remember something equally powerful: the way that the community waited for her to heal.

Personally, I think that the story of the Israelites waiting for Miriam to heal is one of the most important messages we can internalize as a community. So often, the community is immune or indifferent to the suffering of others. Mass shootings happen -- in New Zealand as in Pittsburgh as Marjory Stoneman high school -- and still life goes on. Thousands of immigrant children have been cruelly separated from their parents at the American borders, for example, and yet life goes on.  The people of Gaza do not have electricity and water half the time, and yet we keep going. Somewhere in America, a woman is raped every two minutes – yet life goes on. In India, a child dies of malnutrition every 20 seconds. And yet we continue with our own lives. We sigh, we scroll on Facebook, and then we look away and move on. 

For me, the message of Miriam is that when someone is suffering, we stop. We take interest. We tend to the wounded and the hurt. I feel like the world we are living in is so full of cruelty, yet we have become impervious to it. We shut our eyes to it. We continue on our own journeys and don't bother with anyone else's. As if that is even truly possible. As if humanity is not intricately connected anyway.

This week, Jews everywhere are going to be talking about Haman and how important it is to remember that there are people out to get us. They will talk about the rise in anti-Semitism, about Iran, about Hamas, whatever. All this is out there, yes. The hate is real. But I'm asking myself whether this act of remembrance is the most imperative remembrance we have right now. We have allowed that fearfulness to define us as a people for decades. But while we are busy remembering our victimhood -- might I suggest, at times excessively -- we have completely neglected the need to remember our deeper purpose. We are here to bring humanity into the world. And we have forgotten how. 

We have forgotten Miriam. There are people suffering, and we are supposed to stop and give them support to heal. We have forgotten how to do that. This should be our primary mission right now. 

I would like humanity to relearn what it means to actually be connected. That when one person suffers, we all suffer. As a starting point. From there, we can figure out together what comes next. It has to be better than what we are doing right now. 

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