By Rabbi Uri Lam, 44, Sociedade Israelita da Bahia (
SIB – Jewish Congregation of Bahia
), Salvador, Bahia St., Brazil
“El Na Refa Na La” (God, please, heal her, please) Five words. From one moment to the next, Moses – the only man who saw God face to face – humbles himself more than ever when he calls for his sister Miriam’s healing. Time stopped. Nothing makes sense if Miriam does not recover from her illness. No matter what she did to merit the illness – El Na, please God, heal her, please! Out of these five words, two of them are Moses asking twice: please, please.
The walk through the desert began again. This time, what should have taken a few months proves to be more difficult than expected. In theory, the distance between past and future lives should be short. The Promised Land should be a Land of Milk and Honey – even though, as we now know, it was mostly an arid and dry land.
It would not take long for Am Israel, the People of Israel, to desire, nostalgically, those “good old times” in Egypt. After all, everything our forefathers and fore-mothers built through sweat and tears was being left behind. Joseph and his brothers reconciled and lived together in Goshen, then the most fertile land in Egypt. They and their descendants lived very well for over two hundred years.
But as it always happens, time erodes all. What was once an abundant life became the house of slavery. One moment the Israelites had many children in Egypt, and in the next moment children were torn from their mothers and thrown into the water. What was once good no longer existed. We needed to leave immediately. It was urgent. And we left Egypt.
The most optimistic said it would be a short walk; with some effort, we would soon arrive safely in the new land. But soon it became apparent that the project could fail. And then the complaints began: “It was better in Egypt! There we had food in abundance! Where are you taking us, Moses?”
Moses, Aaron and Miriam faced many challenges but went forward. They received the Torah at Sinai with great fanfare. Am Israel seemed convinced of the Divine Power and the leadership given to Moses. We moved on again.
Under Divine guidance, we built a beautiful golden Menorah, to illuminate the way to the Promised Land. By this time, the harsh experiences of the past developed into religious festivals. What was once fear of death turned into the Feast of Passover. The laws given to Am Israel were also valid for those who joined us without distinction of origin: “One law shall be to you, to the stranger and the citizen of the earth.” (Numbers 9:14).
But people began to complain again. Every day the same food! Every day this manah! Moses then complained with God: “Was it I who conceived all this people… I alone am not able to carry all this people, because it is too burdensome for me.” (Numbers 11: 11–15)
Although Moses was the greatest of the prophets, he was just a human being. He had an enormous undertaking before him. But could he do this alone? No chance! God himself recognized it and told him to distribute the responsibilities: “Moses, you should gather seventy men from the elders of the people, and together you shall bear the burden of the people so that you, Moses, do not overload yourself” (Numbers 11: 16-17)
This need to move on from the old ways happens today in our communities. Many of our congregations, which started out as strong, centrally located communities where generations of Jewish men and women experienced life cycle moments, are no longer our homes and became a burden. The time comes to move on.
The journey to leave our old houses is often hard. Often, the challenges we meet along the way make many of us reminisce about how good the old house was – despite all the problems we had in the past. Just as our ancestors did, we need to move on. But we cannot place the entire burden on the shoulders of a few people. We need to distribute the weight. This was true during the time of the pilgrimage through the desert, during the times of the two Temples in Jerusalem, in Europe and in America too. And it’s like that now, too.
Moses was able to find at least seventy men who led the Promised Land Project forward. They did not know the end of the story, but we know they succeeded in their task – though not without material and even personal sacrifices: Moses himself didn’t enter the Land of Israel. Nowadays we also expect men and women to keep alive our congregations, schools and cultural centers.
The Torah also takes into account public and private lives. Faced with such dedication, Moses was criticized both in public and in private life. Miriam and Aaron questioned why he married a woman from Cush. God didn’t forgive them. Immediately, Miriam became white as snow, as if she was dead. The Midrash
(99) tells us that the Ethiopian woman was one of exceptional beauty. Even if she was not so beautiful, the private life of Moses was not about anyone but him and his wife.
Miriam was wrong. But we are all subject to make mistakes. Am Israel understood it and stopped in the middle of the road because they refused to let Miriam back in. Given the general commotion, Moses uttered a painful
, request. Nothing makes sense if Miriam will not be healed, it doesn’t matter if she was right or wrong. El Na, God, please, heal her, please! Miriam was healed. The people came together to welcome her as one big family.
Each of us is responsible for one another and we must act according to this responsibility. Let’s be optimistic, roll up our sleeves – and move on. As always.
Rabbi Uri Lam can be contacted through: