Vision, Miracle, and Effort: Reflections on Miriam for Passover, 5784

Prof. Zehavit Gross, Dean of the Faculty of Education, Bar-Ilan University, Israel, and Head, Executive board, Sal Van Gelder Center for Holocaust Research & Instruction, Bar Ilan University.

We find ourselves on the eve of Passover with a mixture of fear and trembling, and with great concern on one hand, and hope for liberation and blossoming on the other. Passover is one of the most significant holidays, as it marks our transformation from a group of individuals into a nation, from bondage to redemption.

Every week, I deliver a lecture on the weekly Torah portion to the displaced in one of the hotels in the country. Yesterday, in the weekly lecture leading up to Passover, I felt great unease and profound pain for those wonderful people, the “invisible sacrifices,” who were evicted from their homes, wandering like question marks in the shelters and hotels, not knowing what the next day will bring. I told them that from the Passover holiday, we can derive three conclusions:

  1. Resilience – We are a strong people. Despite the harsh slavery the Israelites endured in Egypt and the severe afflictions and bitterness, we survived, and as a nation, we have the strength and resilience to endure physical and mental suffering. We are a people of iron, a strong nation.
  2. Identity – Despite the many trials we have faced, we have maintained our uniqueness as a people and survived. Nations have risen and disappeared, but the people of Israel have endured forever. Where are the Hittites, the Canaanites, and the Parisians? And Sennacherib? And the kingdoms of Rome and Greece? They have all vanished from the stage of history, but we have survived because we did not change our name, our language, or our dress, which give us our identity and belonging. We have also not forgotten our values, especially family and community values, which have been preserved throughout the generations.
  3. Vision of Freedom – We have given the world the message and concept of freedom for all time. The exodus from Egypt symbolizes universal freedom. We have bestowed upon the world the concepts of compassion and human rights.

On Passover, when we sit down to the Seder table, we declare together, “In every generation, they rise against us to annihilate us, but the Holy One, blessed be He, saves us from their hands.” The question arises: What is the role of our oppressors and enemies? Some argue that it is because of our enemies that we have preserved our identity as a people, while others argue that despite our enemies, we have preserved our identity as a people. In any case, Jewish existence has fluctuated dialectically between overt miracles that we experienced and the ingenuity and effort we invested in order to survive and prosper.

In order to leave the bondage of Egypt and bring the children of Israel to the Promised Land, three things were needed: vision, miracle, and effort.

Moses could not have made the long journey from the desert to the Promised Land, the Land of Israel, and overcome all the difficulties without vision. Even after he shattered the tablets with the vision, he continued forward and led the children of Israel towards redemption. But there was also a need for a miracle – the splitting of the Red Sea. And after the Lord split the sea for the children of Israel, they beheld the dry land that emerged in the midst of the sea, and no one dared to move until Nachshon ben Aminadav dared and jumped into the water, followed by all the children of Israel.

Every nation needs a Nachshon who will be the first to jump into the water. Without the combination of miracle, ingenuity, and effort, the children of Israel would not have reached the Promised Land. In the Torah, it is written that “the children of Israel went up armed” and Rashi, the Torah commentator, says that they went out with weapons. The question arises: Didn’t they trust the Lord to save them? The answer is that it is not because they do not rely on miracles. We do things with the help of the Lord, but we act actively and invest effort to fulfill the miracle and the vision.

It was Miriam who worked resolutely and contributed to the redemption. Even when the children of Israel were in Egypt, amidst slavery, she persuaded the women to gather drums. “The day will come,” she said to the women, “when the redemption will come, and we will need to dance. So we should already have musical instruments.” The ability to see reality with a visionary approach was the force that sustained the women in Egypt and strengthened them, and they, in turn, supported the men who were physically and mentally broken from the hard work. When the children of Israel were asked to leave Egypt hastily, Miriam the prophetess took the drum, and all the women followed.

After they witnessed with their own eyes the miracle of the sea splitting, and they crossed it, they were the first to dance in a dance of redemption. Miriam’s ability to sweep the women away in song, “Sing to the Lord, for He is highly exalted; the horse and its rider He has hurled into the sea,” was a driving force that gave the women personal and national redemption and freedom from hard labor. Miriam’s ingenuity and effort were what created the atmosphere of redemption.

Every year, in honor of Miriam, I suggest at the Seder table to drink a fifth cup of water in her memory, in honor of Miriam’s well and Miriam’s drum, which brought inner freedom and redemption to the world. On this Passover eve, our hearts are with the captives held in Gaza, our hearts are with the wounded and the IDF soldiers doing holy work in Gaza. On Passover, we must draw strength from the ingenuity. Every person has troubles and problems, and every person has their own “personal Egypt” that they need to escape from… but we must learn from history and know that in order to reach the “Promised Land” and to overcome personal and national troubles, we must adopt a vision, pray for a miracle, but also be proactive and invest effort, ingenuity, and perseverance.

From the special figure of Miriam, we must learn that redemption will come if we build it ourselves. Women from Egypt and from Miriam are learning that women have a special visionary insight that creates reality and repairs the world. So let us, the women, raise a fifth cup of water in honor of Miriam, and let us continue together to dream of the vision, the miracle, and the effort that each and every one of us needs to invest for a better, more beautiful, and just world, and that we all have a happy holiday, spring, and blossoming!