On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah: Wonder Women - Parashat Chukat

This week, in Parashat Chukat, we learn about the death of one of Judaism’s greatest ancestors: Miriam. Rabbi Rick Jacobs and his guest, Dr. Tsvia Walden, discuss how the strength, importance, and wisdom of women have been woven throughout our history, and how, like water, they are a necessary and valuable element of life.

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[URJ INTRO] Welcome back to On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a little bit about the Torah portion in about 10 minutes or less. Some weeks he is joined by a guest, as he was this week. Rabbi Jacobs spoke with Professor Tsvia Peres Walden, a retired Ben-Gurion University professor and a board member for the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation. Rabbi Jacobs and Dr. Walden spoke about Parashat Chukat. They talked a lot about Miriam and family, leadership roles, and water. And you'll see how they weave them all together.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] This week, we focus our attention on Parashat Chukat from the Book of Numbers. And we have in the parashah some very dramatic milestone moments. We learn in chapter 20 in verse 1 of the death of Miriam. Remember Miriam who is the sister to Moses and Aaron? And we have, in very one simple sentence of va-ta-mot sham Miriam, meaning that she died. Immediately in the next verse, we are told that there is a drought. There is no water.

And in our tradition, there is a whole discussion of the Well of Miriam that followed the Jewish people throughout their wanderings in the desert. But when Miriam dies, the well is no longer. It's a statement about the power of Jewish women.

And we are honored today to have one of the most extraordinary leaders of our Reform movement and one of our leaders of our Israel Movement for Progressive and Reform Judaism here with us-- Professor Tsvia Peres Walden, who is a proud member of Beit Daniel in Tel Aviv. Her rabbi is Meir Azari. And she is one of these people who simply inspires us by her life, her commitments. And we're so honored to have you with us today on the podcast.

[Professor Tsvia Peres Walden] And I'm so honored to be in the company of Miriam. Like me, Miriam is the oldest sister. And she has two brothers younger than her. So do I. I'm the older sister and I have the two brothers younger than me. And like her, she saved Moses when he was a baby. I looked after my baby brother, who is 12 years younger than me. And the reason I like to be in her company is because she combines a source of inspiration, my singing, my dancing, my talking, my taking care of everybody else. And the Well of Miriam in our literature, in Hebrew literature, occupies a very important place. Agnon wrote a story about it. Haim Be'er wrote a story about it.

So our famous Israeli, Hebrew contemporary author always referred to [HEBREW], the Well of Miriam. And it's interesting because in Hebrew we say be'erah shel Miriam. And in English, you say the Well of Miriam. We don't say Miriam's well, because it's a different meaning.

Now, actually, what's the difference between her and Moses? We're lucky to have three people as leaders, not one. And each one of them represents another way of being a leader. And together they cater for the needs of the Israelites in the desert in the wilderness. OK? So Miriam actually provides water. Without water, you couldn't possibly survive. She is the most important. Aaron provides the cloud, ammud anan, the pillar, the cloud that will actually lead the people of Israel. And Moses holds a staff, a stick, a way, a powerful, more powerful way of being the leader. So all together, they offer us, especially, does she. However, Miriam is the most important one.

And as a matter of fact, it's not our feminist view of reading this text. This was the way the text was written to begin with. And how do we know? We know it when we compare their deaths. And when we hear about how Moses passed away, how Aaron passed away, and how Miriam passed away.

And actually, the Bible says clearly-- states it in the most overt, open way is that Moses hit the rock. And hitting the rock was a way to show a marvel, a miracle, and the water will come up. But you have another way of getting water to spring up. And the other way of getting the water to spring up is by talking to it, or singing to it, or sharing with it. And this is what Miriam did. By the way, we should remember Aaron. We shouldn't forget him, because he was navigating. But what Miriam did is-- as a midrash, the aggadah, tells us-- she had the well walk with her. Wherever the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness, the well was following. And she'd come up to the well and sing. And as soon as she started singing, the water would spring up. And as soon as the water started springing up, each of the 12 tribes would send the elderly person, get a stick, take the water and lead it to its own tribe. So it's a beautiful way--

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] It's very beautiful.

[Professor Tsvia Peres Walden] --of being a leader in the sense that you are sharing everything with all 12 tribes, but the way to get your power is by talking, by singing, by being flexible, by being inclusive.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] What a beautiful teaching.

[Professor Tsvia Peres Walden] Isn't that what liberal Judaism is all about?

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] That's such a powerful teaching. And to think of two brothers and a sister, we think of you and your two brothers. And we think, also, if we could, of a moment when all the tribes were gathered. It was a couple of years ago when your father died, your father being one of our most inspired leaders of the Jewish people, a past president of the State of Israel, Shimon Peres, a person who had a vision for not just the country, but the entire region. And at his funeral I will never forget-- and I would ask you maybe even to tell your part of it-- of the leadership of Miriam, I felt in the leadership of Tsvia. Because here you were standing with your brothers burying this beloved figure-- obviously to you and your family, but to all of us who love Israel and love the Jewish people. And when it came time to say the Mourner's Kaddish, you led. And you led with such passion and clarity.

Here you were in front of the chief rabbis and in front of all of the international leaders, including President Obama, and you led that Kaddish. And at the end, the last line as we say in our Reform Movement in Israel, we say, Oseh Shalom, bimromav hu ya'aseh shalom aleinu, "May the One that makes peace in the high places let peace be upon us." And you added the words v'al kol b'nai adam, "May the peace be not only for our family and for our people but for all the world," which is so beautiful in remembering your father.

And also I have to say I stood next to the chief rabbis and they were angry. They were upset. What is she doing? A, she's leading the Kaddish and she's changing it. How could she do that? And then I looked at some of the secular leaders who were very intrigued. I didn't know women could lead and that we could change some of the tradition to keep pace with some of the changes that we need.

So if you want to reflect, it was inspiring. The whole community, we all took note. That was a moment you changed-- you changed Jewish community. You changed the attitudes that people have toward what roles will women play. And you gave us an inspired, contemporary expression of Miriam, because we all are drinking in from the water of that leadership that you demonstrated that day and every day.

[Professor Tsvia Peres Walden] And I should say that I was so confident for a few reasons. First of all, everybody who came to pay respect to my father and to the State of Israel, if we were not referring to the people who came and we were not including them, I mean what is this to begin with? Secondly, I was self-confident because I knew that there was no halachic reason that I wouldn't provoke, I wouldn't-- I was not trying to be provocative in any way on the other way around. But I knew from studying. And actually, what is the idea of water and be'erah? That's the place where you get your inspiration.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] And Mayim Hayyim is the living waters of Torah, of learning.

[Professor Tsvia Peres Walden] Exactly. So if you study well and you know what Kaddish came from, you'd be confident to pronounce it the way I did. And if you study halachah and you respect other people, even though you do not necessarily share their point of view, you would know that there's no reason why women should not lead it.

And on top of it, being the first-born, I helped my brothers to actually respect my father's will, because when my mother passed away six years ago, we did the same thing. We read Kaddish. And there was not that big-- it was a more restricted the public, but my father was sitting there. And he knew that I was going to read Kaddish. And I think he guessed I would read it the Reform way, because he knows that this is where I come from. So for me, that's the natural way. And was that the sentence I put up, I just did Kaddish the way we always do in the synagogue.

And my father really loved it. And on the way back home, he looked at me and he looked at my brothers, and he said, well, your mother would have been proud of you. Which actually meant, when my time comes, you do the same thing. So my brothers look at me when my father passed away and say please give us the right version, the Reform version, the Liberal version.

So we were paying respect to whoever was there. For me, I was inspired by studying. By the way, the first Reform rabbi before Meir Azari, who [by the way] is our actual rabbi, but we had Moshe Mel Singer who came from the States. And he wrote a beautiful book. And from his book was the first time I ever learned about the fact that women, there was no reason to-- what's the word?

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] Restrict their participation.

[Professor Tsvia Peres Walden] Yeah, so I'll take back and take two. And then from halachic point of view, there is no reason to restrict their role and women could recite Kaddish easily.

And the last point is, actually, our society is changing. And the Jewish people is changing. Jewish people used to be mostly Orthodox, but, nowadays, with the Jewish people is mostly liberal, progressive, moving, walking like the halachah, which actually means "walk," right? So we are walking with halachah, just as Miriam was walking with the well through the wilderness. It's so beautiful, the image, I love it so much. So it is our duty to show the world that the Jewish people is progressive, moving, trying to be more inclusive. And to me that was Miriam's, in a way, her testament to what she was actually telling us. So--

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] You provide such a beautiful expression of what it means to be a liberal Jew in this 21st century, because, a, you're someone who's very knowledgeable, and you inform how you live as a Jewish person by learning and by being willing to also help the community move forward, not be stuck in one place. And in that one moment of just-- in front of the whole State of Israel, in front of the world-wide community, and not to be provocative but to move us forward to show women's roles. There's a beautiful teaching by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who is--

[Professor Tsvia Peres Walden] The judge.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] Our beloved judge--

[Professor Tsvia Peres Walden] Beloved judge.

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] --who says women belong in all places where decisions are being made. And we know that Israel are very proud of Golda Meir, who had been prime minister. But we also think that women's roles are primary everywhere, whether it be in academia-- you are a brilliant academic-- whether it be in the synagogue, or in the Knesset, or in any setting, now also in the Israeli defense forces. Wherever we gather to do our work, wherever we do important work, women, their role is to lead not to follow.

And that was Miriam's teaching. And she did it already in biblical times. She was a prophet. She wasn't simply a person. And it's inspiring to see the way in which Reform Judaism in Israel is a powerful and a positive story of growth, and of change, and of hope, and of possibility.

And you, Dr. Tsvia Walden, you are one of those people who helps show us the way. We are so honored by your presence today and so honored by the leadership that you exercise. And I am certain that your mother and your father are smiling upon you and so proud of the leader that you are. And we, as a reform movement, take such pride in your example and all that you teach us. So Kol haKavod. And Miriam is alive and well.

[Professor Tsvia Peres Walden] Thank you so much. I thank Miriam. And I thank you for the inspiration and for the beautiful introduction. Thank you so much.

[URJ OUTRO] Thanks for joining us on this week's episode of On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah. Want more? You can download a new episode each Monday on Apple Podcasts or Google Play or Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you hear, write us a review or share the podcast with a friend. For daily ongoing conversations about Jewish holidays, pop culture, rituals, current events, and more, visit ReformJudaism.org and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. You can also follow Rabbi Jacobs on Twitter at @URJpresident.

On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life. And until next week, L'hitroat.