“Why did God create man?” “Because he wanted to hear a good story!”

We met with Hebrew Seminary alumni and faculty member Rabbi Shari Chen to share her passion for the stories of the Bible, as so beautifully manifest in her 2005 thesis for rabbinic ordination on the Midrashim of Our Mothers.  This is the second half of that interview.

You conclude each of your thesis chapters on the different women in Genesis with your own midrash exemplifying their faith.  How did you go about this and is the retelling of midrashim part of our Jewish tradition?

Our Talmud teaches that, Torah m’daberet b’lashon adam – Torah speaks in the language of man. There is no greater way to relate to the Torah than through midrashim.  It is asked, “Why did God create man?”  “Because he wanted to hear a good story!”  God wants us to create new midrashim to share his words with new generations in a contemporary language that they can relate to.  It was my hope in creating these new midrashim that I would be able to inspire young women to want to learn Torah and to learn more about the women we came from.  My midrashim of Eve Naamah (Noah’s wife), Eidit and our matriarchs, all based on Judaic sources, not only brings them to life but illustrates the often unsung goodness within each of them.

This summer we read the Torah portion Chukat in which Miriam dies.  Rabbi Shefa Gold, renown for her teaching of sacred, Hebrew chants, writes, “Miriam had a way with water.  She could touch the depths with her song and call forth spiritual nourishment.  No matter how difficult the journey, Miriam’s dance would bring ease and beauty to the process itself.  She carried with her the feminine wisdom that could not be written down.  Upon her death we are given a spiritual challenge: to reclaim the source of her wisdom, to discover the song in our voice and the dance in our step.”  Is there an ancient or modern midrash that can help us with this spiritual challenge?

Midrash tells us that after pharaoh’s decree that every Hebrew newborn son be cast into the Nile, it is said that Yochevet and Amram, Moses’ parents, separated so that they wouldn’t conceive any more children.  Miriam goes to her father and convinces him that he shouldn’t do what pharaoh wants, stop bearing Hebrew children.   Because of Miriam’s wisdom, Yochevet and Amram reunite and Moses is born.

Miriam’s great spiritual wisdom is also clearly illustrated in a midrash relating to the crossing of the Red Sea.  It is said that when the waters first split, the men began to argue about which tribe should have the honor of going first into the sea.  While the men are arguing, Miriam instructs the women to all take hands and enter the sea together and the sea splits into twelve distinct paths.  This is an example of how not one of us is any better than any other and that God wants us to join together to celebrate as one people, equal in the eyes of God.

When you counsel congregants, how do you use Torah text and in what ways have you found the texts to be helpful?

I often use midrashic text and stories to help congregants.  There’s a beautiful midrashic story about seeking the perfect object that will bring the wealthiest, most content person to tears, and yet brings gladness to the ones who are suffering the most.  The object, which is found after much effort, is a ring with four simple words engraved within it, “this too shall pass”.  I feel that all of us need to remember this truth at some point in our life.  When we are going through hard times there are many different midrashim that can offer us hope.  For thousands of years we have sought answers to the greatest question: why?  Why must we suffer?  Why is life sometimes so difficult?  Our inspiring and cherished midrashim help us to understand that we are not alone and that we, like our ancestors, will not only survive but we will endure guided by love and by faith.

What Midrashim collections can you recommend for us?

Robert Alter, Genesis: Translation and Commentary

Chaim and Rabinitsky Bialik, Sefer Ha’agadah: The Legends that are in the Talmud and Midrash (HEBREW)

Gerald Friedlander, Pirke de Rabbi Eliezer

Tikva Frymer-Kensky, Reading the Women of the Bible: A New Interpretation of Their Stories

Louis Ginzberg, The Legends of Jews

Jill Hammer, Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women

Moses and Miriam’s Friendship of Trust

Our sidra this week is Chukat which includes the mysterious telling of Moses emotionally striking the rock in the wilderness of Zin to bring forth much needed water for the people of Israel (Num. 20:10-11). For this, Moses was not allowed to enter the land of Canaan.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks observes this is the first trial that Moses had to face as a leader without his sister Miriam who had recently passed away. Rabbi Sacks explains that the early life of Moses suggests that Miriam was Moses’ trusted friend and confidante. “Maimonides calls it the ‘friendship of trust’ (chaver habitachon) and describes it as having someone in whom ‘you have absolute trust and with whom you are completely open and unguarded.’” Even Moses needed a human friend that he could trust.

My fellow student Tirtzah says this is also what we need to help heal our world today. My heart has been aching since the deaths of Alton Sterling, Philando Castile, and the Dallas policemen Brent Thompson, Patrick Zamarripa, Michael Krol, Michael Smith, and Lorne Ahrens. I asked Tirtzah what can we do? She told me of her Englewood neighbors and their ‘network of trust’. These eight households began neighbor-by-neighbor to be open, unguarded and authentic with each other. Leaders such as Moses and neighbors such as you and I need friends and family we can trust.

This is one thing we can do. Give those we meet reason to trust us. Be a kind listener. Be a trusted problem-solver. Talk openly about your fears and sanctify the gift of each day by being kind.

Here is another thing we can do. Jewish law influenced Roman law, English law, and our own Declaration of Independence and Constitution. The Men of the Great Assembly said, “”Be deliberate in judgement,’ because there is no greater act of loving-kindness than saving the oppressed (from those who would wrong them) by rendering fair judgement.” (Kehati on Pirkei Avot, Chapter 1, Mishnah 2.)

In the words of contemporary author George Saunders, “… to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality – your soul, if you will – is as bright and shining as any that has ever been. Bright as Shakespear’s, bright as Gandhi’s, bright as Mother Teresa’s. Clear away everything that keeps you separate from this secret, luminous place. Believe that it exists, come to know it better, nurture it, share its fruits tirelessly.”