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A Cup of Hope on the Seder Table

As first published at Jerusalem Perspective Online

The decades have not dimmed the memory of my parents’ Seder table back in Trenton, New Jersey. It was laden with traditional family favorites, and, more importantly, with the enduring symbols of commemoration. We each had our own little bowl to hold the salt water symbolizing our tears when we were slaves. The parsley was at the ready for dipping into the salt water, symbolizing the new life and joy of our springtime festival of freedom. And of course there was the all-important Seder plate, each object representing an element of the immortal saga. The full wine cup of Elijah was there, too, waiting for the redemptive door to open. My mother added to the symbolism with her signature, green-in-honor-of-spring Passover Jello-and-pineapple ring.

Just under a week ago,  in our home in the mountains of Judah, at my own family’s Passover table, we had all of those, along with a new symbol of which my mother would certainly have approved: Next to Elijah’s cup we set another goblet—brimming with water—Miriam’s cup. I’m glad my granddaughters, and the many families around the world who mark this new custom, will grow up with Miriam, sister of Aaron and Moses, “singing unto them” more powerfully than ever before.

Miriam the prophetess leading praise by the seashore; facing her miraculous spring. Detail of a painting by Riky Rothenberg. Courtesy of Riky Rothenberg.

Miriam the prophetess leading praise by the seashore; facing her miraculous well as the sages pictured it. At left is Serah, daughter of Asher (Gen. 46:17; Num. 26:46), another scriptural woman who sustained the Jewish people throughout the generations, according to legend.  Detail of a painting by Riky Rothenberg. Courtesy of Riki Rothenberg.

What is Miriam’s connection to water? We remember her as “prophetess, sister of Moses and Aaron,” timbrel in hand, leading the women in praise song and dance at the shores of the Red Sea (Exod. 15:20–21).  But there’s much more. The medieval commentator Rashi, explaining Psalm 110:7, interpreted her name as having two parts: mar, a Hebrew word for “bitterness,” plus the Hebrew word for “sea,” yam.  In fact, those are the two elements that bookend the drama of Miriam’s early life, from the bitterness of the slavery into which she was born, to the shores of the Red Sea where she emerges as a public leader, part of a team, as the prophet Micah (6:4) reminds us.

Miriam was a prophet, says Exod. 15:20—the first woman in the Bible to receive this title. The Bible does not tell us what she prophesied, but the ancient sages are there, as always, to fill in the blanks. The two midwives, Puah and Shifra (Exod. 1:15), they said, were none other than Jochebed, Miriam’s mother, and her five-year-old (!) daughter. In this imaginary telling, Pharaoh summons Miriam and Jochebed to his palace to deliver his diabolical edict—to kill the Hebrew baby boys they had delivered. The world’s most defiant toddler then stamped her foot (as I picture it) and warned the Egyptian ruler: “Woe to this man because of his evil deeds when God is finished with him.”

Miriam's well Miriam before Pharoah

A fearless little Miriam tells Pharaoh off at the banks of the Nile. At right, Jochebed enthroned. Detail from a painting by Riki Rothenberg. Courtesy of Riki Rothenberg.

Further evidence of Miriam’s prophetic skills comes from the ancient commentary on Exodus, Exodus Rabbah, which teaches that when the Israelites realized Pharaoh’s plot, “many men decided to remain separate from their wives.” But young Miriam predicted: “a son will be born to my father and my mother at this time who will save the People of Israel from the hand of Egypt.” Persuaded by the sheer power of their daughter’s words, Jochebed returned to her husband Amram enthroned as a queen. She gave birth to a son, “and…the house was filled with a great light like the sun and the moon at their rising.”

Despite her leadership status, in fact, no doubt because of it, the Bible highlights an incident revealing a character flaw. Numbers 12:1-2 finds Miriam and Aaron apparently gossiping about their Cushite sister-in-law and maligning big brother Moses. Miriam bears the brunt of the punishment, struck with leprosy.

However, the same ancient sources who took Miriam to task and accused women in general of being prone to idle talk, also gave us Miriam’s most enduring, positive association, which comes to her only in death. Scripture speaks of Moses’ death and unmarked grave on Mount Nebo (Deut. 34:1-2, 6). As for Aaron, Numbers 20:29 says the whole house of Israel wept for him and mourned him for 30 days. But when it comes to the third member of the triumvirate, there is only the date, “the first month,” and the place, Kadesh (Num. 20:1).

The barren wilderness of Kadesh, where Miriam is buried, as seen from Israel’s present-day border with Egypt in the western Negev. Photo: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh.

The barren wilderness of Kadesh, where Miriam is buried, as seen from Israel’s present-day border with Egypt in the western Negev. Photo: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh.

But then, it is the very next verse that brought Miriam’s cup to our Seder table. The sages who interpreted Scripture were all about connections, and the fact that the death of Miriam is immediately followed by an assembly, not of mourning but of “striving” (Num. 20:3), was simply too good to leave alone.

In answer to the people’s outcry, God tells Moses to strike a rock, bringing water gushing forth (Num. 20:8-12). The Ethics of the Fathers speaks of this well as one of ten amazing sights created on the eve of the first Sabbath after creation—on a par with the rainbow after the great flood, manna, and Moses’ miraculous staff (Ethics of the Fathers  5, 6). In the Babylonian Talmud, Rabbi Jose noted that the well, like other miraculous gifts, was given out of merit for the three wilderness leaders (Babylonian Talmud, Taanit 9a). Because Miriam’s most memorable deeds involved water—saving Moses and leading the women in praise song and dance next to water—the people felt the lack of water most powerfully when she died. And so, in her honor, God caused the well, which had mysteriously disappeared, to return. When the head of each tribe would strike the rock, water would emerge in a stream leading to that tribe’s encampment. Wherever the tribes encamped, there the well would be.

Miriam’s well, as the sages pictured it. Detail of a painting by Riki Rothenberg,

Miriam’s well, as the sages pictured it. Detail of a painting by Riki Rothenberg. Courtesy of Riki Rothenberg.

The legend of Miriam’s well is still with us. Christian pilgrims crossing the Sea of Galilee spot many boats making the crossing with them, pausing mid-lake just like they do. But passengers on other decks are sometimes pilgrims of another faith—their dress clearly identifying them as Orthodox Jews. They are there waiting for a spring—none other than Miriam’s well, which they believe ended up here—to bubble up from the depths of the lake, as it intermittently does, as a sign of God’s faithfulness and healing power.

A 2012 film about reconnecting and renewal bears the name of the fictional town that is its backdrop:  “Hope Springs.” That play on words was not accidental. Hope springs eternal, Alexander Pope said. The cleansing and quenching of our spiritual thirst, the promise of new growth nourished by winter rains of blessing in the Holy Land, are all contained in “Miriam’s cup.”

Women dance, rarely, elsewhere in the Bible (1 Sam. 18:6; Judg. 11:34; 21:21; Ps. 68:25). But it is Miriam who is depicted by the Jewish mystical text, the Zohar, as dancing in Heaven. Miriam’s dance was unique, the very embodiment of praise and hope, which continues to promise that wherever we set our Seder table, in the words of the ancients, “sustenance may be granted for the sake of one individual.”

Sister and brother: through thick and thin: My great-niece Adella (right), her arm around her little brother Cole, remind me of Miriam and Moses, and other shorelines. San Francisco, 2015. Photo: Sierra Schwidder.

Sister and brother: through thick and thin: My great-niece Adella (right), her arm around her little brother Cole, remind me of Miriam and Moses, and other shorelines. San Francisco, 2015. Photo: Sierra Schwidder.

My thanks to the artist Riki Rothenberg (rikiro.art@gmail.com) for her insights about Miriam and for her evocative painting of the prophetess, details of which grace this article.

Lifeline from the Grave

Our recent Purim celebration drew my thoughts to that other biblical woman with a warning for an ancient king: Hulda, teacher and prophetess. This is the story of her tomb, which she shares with two alter-egos from across the religious/ethnic divide.

“Don’t’ worry,” the service person who gave me my new cellphone told me. “All your numbers are in there.” A prophetess, she wasn’t: Virtually all of them had evaporated. Among the few that remained: my shorthand listing of  “Mhmd Hulda’s  tomb crtker.” Whew! That meant I could still call Hulda’s tomb, and Hulda’s tomb could call me back to confirm. Well, not in the creepy sense, like poor Elva Keen in Twilight Zone’s 1964 segment, “Night Call.”

Elva Keen gets a call from the grave, but not Hulda’s…like I can. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Elva Keen gets a call from the grave, but not Hulda’s…like I can. (Photo: Wikipedia)

The phone number from the grave in this case belongs to Mohammed, the guard who’s got the key to Hulda’s tomb. You can usually find him at the Dome of the Ascension, the venerable Christian holy place next door, now abutted by a mosque. In fact, that’s part of what I want to share with you here: Try running down the list of sites in the Holy Land that have been or are venerated by the believers of one religion – or sect of the same religion – and are now zealously guarded by another. It’s quite a good “theory of everything” when it comes down to grasping the complexities of our relationship across the ethnic/religious divide. At the end of this article is a partial list of these sites – please feel free to add to it! But back to the prophetess.

Who was Hulda?

 A time of major regime change in the Fertile Crescent finds King Josiah purging the land of Idol worship. A “scroll of the teaching” has been found; the king wants to know what’s in it. The star  prophet of the time, Jeremiah, is apparently out of town, but Hulda, wife of Shallum son of Hope (Tikvah), one of the king’s courtiers (and, the sages say, Jeremiah’s cousin), is available and brought to court.

Hulda the Prophetess explaining the scroll to Josiah, rendering of a painting by Mantegna.

Hulda the Prophetess explaining the scroll to Josiah, rendering of a painting by Mantegna.

Hulda, whom the medieval Jewish commentator Rashi gleans from the Bible was a teacher, gives Josiah some really bad news for the nation and then softens the blow with some hope for him personally – albeit “from the grave” (2 Kings 22:14–20;  2 Chron. 34: 22–28).

Hulda’s tomb may have been located within Jerusalem at one point and later removed, for biblical reasons. In any case, by the Middle Ages, Jewish pilgrims write that they visited Hulda’s tomb at the top of the Mount of Olives – apparently the same place you’ll find it if you call Mohammed the guard for an appointment. Rabbi Moshe Basulo, who visited Jerusalem in 1522, writes that the tomb was guarded by a Muslim, whom one would pay for oil to light a memorial lamp. Some things never change (or almost never; nowadays there’s no lamp-lighting).

Not everyone was enthusiastic about visits to Hulda’s tomb. In the early nineteenth century, Rabbi Yehosaf Schartz wrote: “And now the hearer will hear and the viewer will see a wondrous thing: How a big mistake, a lie and a deceit and everything is in the hands of the masses of our people to say and believe that there is the grave of Hulda the Prophetess…and now, dear reader. Does the knowledgeable and understanding heart not pain over this thing that Israel goes to worship at a foreign tomb, saying that it is the tomb of the righteous woman Hulda the Prophetess, may we be protected through her.”*

Now that’s what I call a party-pooper.

Hulda’s Tomb, rendering of an undated, unattributed drawing, Zev Vilay, Jerusalem, Vol. 3, p. 368. The entrance to the tomb can barely be seen here, bottom right.

Hulda’s Tomb, rendering of an unattributed drawing, Zev Vilay, Jerusalem, Vol. 3, p. 368. Tomb entrance barely visible bottom right.

Move over Dr. Atkins, here comes the Hulda Diet

When you visit the tomb, you’ll descend a steep flight of stone stairs to the cenotaph – the tomb marker – and see that it’s in a niche up against a stone wall. An ancient tradition says that if you could walk all the way around the tomb, you’d earn a special blessing.

Hulda’s Tomb marker (note the narrow space in back). Photo: Ana Vargas.

Hulda’s Tomb marker (note the narrow space in back). Photo: Ana Vargas.

Obviously the larger you are, the harder this is. Zev Vilnay writes that the guard at the tomb in his day told him:  how “he once saw with his own eyes how an overweight woman tried to go around the tomb and reached a point where she could go neither backward or forward. She cried out ‘Mother Hulda, save me.’ Immediately she was relieved and went around the tomb with no difficulty. That is a sign that the great righteous woman was in her place in Paradise and Allah knows the truth.”**

The first floor of Hulda’s Tomb. To the right of the prayer rugs, ancient steps lead down to the tomb. Photo: Ana Vargas.

The first floor of Hulda’s Tomb. To the right of the prayer rugs, ancient steps lead down to the tomb. Photo: Ana Vargas.

St. Pelagia

To Christians, this very same tomb is occupied by St. Pelagia, a fifth-century actress and singer from Antioch known for her great beauty. Unfortunately, back in the day, that profession would get you ousted from any self-respecting salon and you’d have to endure a variety of epithets I’ll leave to your imagination. In any case, Pelagia, at the behest of her bishop, St. Nonnus, left her old life behind, disguised herself as a man and came to Jerusalem where she lived alone in a monastic cell and died in 457 CE.

St. Pelagia among the courtesans, with St. Nonnus praying for her, 14th-century manuscript. Photo: Wikimedia commons.

St. Pelagia among the courtesans, with St. Nonnus praying for her, 14th-century manuscript. Photo: Wikimedia commons.

Guess what? the squeezing tradition made it across the religious divide: Christian visitors paying their respects to St. Pelagia wrote that managing to circumnavigate even the narrow back of the tomb would get you a ticket to Paradise. So here’s another quiz question for readers steeped in Jerusalem lore: Name two other places where squeezing through a narrow place ensures you Paradise (answer at the end).

A righteous Muslim woman remembered

In Muslim tradition, this is the tomb of Sit’ Raba’a al-Aduwiyyeh. She was born a slave in Basra, Iraq, and according to the story, when her master saw a golden aura surrounding her as she prayed, he decided to free her. She rose to fame as a sufi, a mystic in the Islamic tradition, and is said to have written love poetry to God, whom she called “my hope, my tranquility, my joy.” *** She died in 815 CE. (A mosque by that name hit the news during the Egyptian uprising against Mohammed Mursi, when his supporters took shelter there. But I digress. Or not.)

Husband Arik (who’s finally getting well, we hope) has a new home-visit nurse, a young man named Jihad, who is a born-and-bred Jerusalemite. Jihad told me he’s never been to the tomb, but he is very familiar from his childhood with the stories of Sit’ Raba’a as a healer and a performer of good deeds. Jihad and I discussed the apparent proliferation of Sit’ Raba’a tombs throughout the Arab world, and, as he put away the bandages and washed up after treating Arik, we agreed that this is because the world is hungry for righteousness.

So where can the story of Hulda’s tomb take us? The Bible says no one knows Moses’ burial site (Deut. 34:6–7), ostensibly, we are taught, so it would not become a focus of worship. The following legend regarding that issue might give us a path: “The Roman emperor even sent two army units, charging them:  “Go and see where Moses is buried.”  They went and stood up above and saw it down below; then they went down below and saw it above.  So, they split up, half above and have below; those above saw it when they looked down, and those below saw it when they looked up.  Hence it is said, ‘no one knows his burial place'” (Sifrei Deuteronomy 357).

There are ardent seekers of righteousness and justice among all humanity. We  split, splice, slice and dice ourselves into our own tiny human slots (or allow it to be done to us); but Hulda’s tomb might show we just can’t help having much more in common than we sometimes realize. So let’s not forget the “hope” in Hulda’s name.

I like to tell the story you’ve reading here on site Hulda’s Tomb. This 2013 Women of the Bible tour, with Logos Bible Study led by Dr. Bill Creasy, made the time. Photo: Ana Vargas.

I like to tell the story you read here on site Hulda’s Tomb. This 2013 Women of the Bible tour, with Logos Bible Study led by Dr. Bill Creasy, made the time. Photo: Ana Vargas.

Two other narrow places the faithful try to squeeze through for miracles: The columns under the shrine of the hair of the prophet’s beard inside the Dome of the Rock, and Mary’s Tomb in the Kidron Valley. Can you add any?

Can you add to this list of sites that “share sanctity.”  Church of the Ascension; Church of the Holy Sepulchre; Church of the Nativity; Dome of the Rock; Golden Gate; King David’s Tomb; Rachel’s Tomb; Room of the Last Supper; Samuel’s Tomb; Tomb of Joshua; Tomb of the Patriarchs; Tomb of the Prophets; Tomb of Dan. 

Read more about Hulda in Women at the Time of the Bible.

*Zev Vilnay 1972, The Old City, Vol. 3 p. 370.

** Ibid., p. 369.

*** http://amudanan.co.il/#!wiki=P27399 Hulda’s Tomb (Hebrew).

Of Almonds and Analgesics

 

 

Almond blossoms in my neighborhood of Har Adar

Almond blossoms in my neighborhood of Har Adar.

What a briefly blossoming biblical tree can teach us about a much-needed dose of hope.

Time to ‘fess up about what I’ve been hiding in my how-are-you-we-are-fine emails these past months: Husband Arik’s winter has been a bit on the Jobian side. Alright, I exaggerate; there have been no fatalities, and I suppose it compares favorably with what goes on in the lives of some of you, or of people who sat beside us in the Sha’are Zedek emergency room last week, or in any of the other ERs we’ve visited over the past months. And granted also, there has been no divine pride in righteousness, no diabolical bargains over Arik…that we know of.

The proverbial Sabeans (Job 1:15) had already taken away quite a bit away from Arik back in 1973 when he first became a wounded warrior confined to a wheelchair. Over the years he’s had his challenges, but in May came the car that rammed into his car, the broken bones, his mother’s difficult recovery, the pressure sore. Now, just as that has begun to heal, came the next travail. That’s the one that made me think of Job. No dung heap, no potsherds for the itching, burning, rip-roaring pain, but yet of all things, at all times…shingles. In the head.

Let’s all open our Bibles to Job Chapter 3.

Get it?

After the antibiotics, the first pain specialist gave Arik intravenous lidocaine and then sent us off to a special pharmacy for a big fat bottle of Methadone. On it the pharmacist hath inscribed: “50 ccs, 1 x 3.” Two days later I called the specialist to tell him Arik was very, very sleepy. “WHAT?!!” Nurse Ratchett yelled at me over the phone. “Not three times a day…three times a day as NEEDED.”

“But that’s not what it says,” I protested weakly.

She put the doctor right on the phone. Uh oh.

Doctor: “WHAT? 50 ccs? I said UP TO 50 ccs. And you didn’t take the patch [from the previous attempt at pain control] off? I TOLD you to take the patch off.”

Oh.

A lot of loving attention by our faithful family physician, another week, and another specialist, different meds, a different protocol, and the pain has finally being brought under control…hopefully.

Just in time for the blossoming of the almond tree.

“Jeremiah, what seest thou? And I said: I see a rod of an almond tree… Then said the LORD unto me: ‘Thou hast well seen; for I watch over My word to perform it” (Jer. 1:11).

In Hebrew,  almond is shaked, which comes from a root word meaning diligence. Now that you know this, you can appreciate the prophet’s play on words. The almond is our version of the groundhog, ever on the watch for the passing of winter so it can announce that spring is on the way, which it does by being the first fruit tree to bloom, painting the hillsides of Judea and Galilee in pink and cream.

It’s the almond pit that we find so delicious, unlike its relatives, the peach and the plum – where it’s the surrounding fruit we like. But by the way, the fruit of the immature almond – tart and fuzzy, dipped in salt – is an acquired taste that I first learned about after moving to Israel. Deliciously bitter. Go figure.

In Numbers 17, the almond appears as a symbol of vigor. That’s because Moses created staffs for each tribal leader and planted them at the entrance to the Tabernacle, but only Aaron’s staff budded and produced almonds, within 24 hours yet. Ecclesiastes takes the almond to another place entirely, using the whiteness of its flowers to symbolize the whitening hair of old age: “When men are afraid of heights and of dangers in the streets, when the almond tree blossoms and the grasshopper drags himself along… (Eccles. 12:5).

The sages of the Talmud mention the many benefits of the almond (which botanists tell us originated in Central Asia, spread to India and eventually to the Middle East) including a delicious paste, relish and oil. The first-century physician Discorides mentions almond oil and sap as a treatment for stomach pain, headache and burns.  The fifth-century doctor Assaf Ben Brachiyahu (“Harofeh”) recommended almond oil to strengthen the heart, for breathing problems and kidney stones. And Prof. Ephraim Lev of the University of Haifa tells us that in 12th-century Jerusalem physicians used an almond and sugar concoction as a medication.

But back in the realm of symbolism, the biblical “watchfulness” of the shaked has its dark side, too. Daniel 9:14 uses the same word to tell us that God “watches upon the evil” – as a way of warning us that sin will be punished.

Let’s ask Job what he thinks of that one, shall we?

Or not.

Instead, as we all anticipate an end to our bitter days, whatever form they may take, I hope we can find in the early flowering of the almond, as Jeremiah did, an encouraging symbol joy and renewed strength that comes with spring: “And it shall come to pass, that as I have watched over them, to destroy and to afflict…so will I watch over them to build and to plant” (Jer. 31:28).

 

For more about almonds, see Food at the Time of the Bible, from Adam’s Apple to the Last Supper

An almond grove in Israel. Photo: Nissan Lev-Ran. Pikiwiki Israel.

An almond grove in Israel. Photo: Nissan Lev-Ran. Pikiwiki Israel.

Spiritual Liquid Sunshine: the Blessing of Rain in its Season

It was a lifetime ago, one sunny July day in New Jersey, where I brought our two little Israeli daughters to visit their grandparents, that I made them a little promise: “Tomorrow, girls, we’ll go to the beach if it doesn’t rain.” I’ll never forget the quizzical look they both gave me. “What do you mean, if it doesn’t rain. It won’t rain, mama, it’s summer!”

That’s what I get (among other things) for raising children in the Holy Land. In Israel there might be only one thing that’s guaranteed – it will never rain in July. Or August, or June. Okay, you get the idea. In fact, for about eight months of the year, basically, not a drop.

Then comes the rainy season, now upon us here in the Holy Land. This all-important season is framed by two important meteorological/spiritual events: the “former rains” in the fall and the “latter rains” in the spring (Joel 2:23).  Then, dry again until the fall. That powerful cycle has shaped virtually every aspect of our Jewish faith and culture, as well as that of our desert-born or nurtured sister faiths, for thousands of years and to this day.

Oh, how we longed for water in the wilderness (Ex. 17:1-2; Num. 20:2). Scripture turned that longing into the ultimate spiritual metaphor – for joy and salvation (Isaiah 12:3) eternal life (John 4: 7-14), justice (Amos 5:24), wisdom (Proverbs 20:5), and yes, sorrow (Lam. 3:48) and God’s wrath (Hosea 5:10) as well.

Oleg Jacob and Rachel at the Well 2

Rachel and Jacob at the well. Artist: Oleg Trabish. Courtesy of Palpnot.

It is at the well is where we often find the women of the Bible – drawing water for home and family as one of their many daily tasks. That made cisterns and springs just about the most important meeting place in any human habitation and as such – the backdrop for some unforgettable biblical encounters. Abraham’s servant deemed Rebecca to be “the one” for Isaac when he saw the energy and strength she put into her well-side work (Gen. 24:14–21) ; It was the best place for Jacob to show how his body-building skills had paid off (Gen. 29:10); Moses meets his future wife Zipporah by the well after fighting off rival water-seeking shepherds (Ex. 2. 16-20) And our ancient sages saw the juxtaposition of the death of Moses’ sister in the wilderness and Israelite clamoring for water (Num. 20: 1–2)  as the reason for the appearance of a miraculous spring.  And by the way, forever after, “Miriam’s well,” according to legend, appeared whenever her people needed her special brand of sustenance (eventually plunking, just as miraculously, into the Sea of Galilee where if you watch and wait, you can see it bubbling up to this day).

 

 

Miriam the prophetess leading praise by the seashore; facing her miraculous spring. Detail of a painting by Riky Rothenberg. Courtesy of Riky Rothenberg.

Miriam the prophetess leading praise by the seashore; facing her miraculous spring. Detail of a painting by Riky Rothenberg. Courtesy of Riky Rothenberg.

Water quenches, cleanses, heals, revives and purifies – that was an axiom of our biblical ancestors’ lives. And from there, it’s just a short leap of human understanding to making water the ultimate symbol for spiritual renewal, and for life itself.

 

I hope you’ll find pleasure in the slide show, “Waters of Joy” that I prepared, which includes photos of my favorite Holy Land springs, rivers and waterfalls, accompanied by biblical verses and is set to part of Handel’s Water Music Suite No. 2 in D.

 

Here’s wishing us all rains of blessing in 2017, and may we all draw strength from our deepest wellsprings.

Miriam Feinberg Vamosh is the author of a series of books about daily life in the Bible. Her first historical novel, The Scroll  is available in paperback from Koren Publishers .

 

What “a Mother” Wants: Tale of Darkness – Season of Light

Blog Hannah courage of a mother Gustave Dore

Hannah, Gustave Dore

On this, the seventh night of Hanukkah, I would like to jump into the debate on the meaning of the festival – admiration for the fight against tyranny, esteem/excoriation of cultural separatism, paganism at midwinter  – the sky’s the limit. For my part, at the risk of being considered the Grinch who stole Hanukkah, I would like first to focus on a tragic heroine, Hannah.

This is not the Hannah whose fervent prayers at Shiloh were rewarded with the birth of a son who served the sacred and grew up to lead Israel through war, peace, and extreme regime change. This Hannah is still nameless when she appears in 2 Macc. 7:1 as “mother” and later in that chapter, “the woman,” who watched her seven sons tortured and executed one after the other, and who triumphed in their sacrifice to a higher cause.

Yes, I admit, I’m feeling more than a bit grinchy these days, in light of Arik’s and his mother’s ongoing medical challenges since their car was struck in May. And so I’d better quickly tell you that our little family, from great-grandma Tamar herself down to seven-month old Elia, enjoyed our holiday very much, lighting the candles, singing the blessings, eating jelly donuts we made and thinking of Nili and Ami who will be home with us soon. In the photos at the end of this post, you’ll see the Vamosh-Dubinsky family celebrating Hanukkah from generation to generation. Below is a teaser.

Hope of the future - Hanukkah 2014

“In the candles’ rays I see”* – the face of hope in the future.

But bear with me as I return to a tale of darkness at this season of light. We  learn that the story of this mother evolved as it wended its way from the Book of Maccabees to rabbinic tradition and on into Christian tradition. Scholars say that “the woman” of 2 Maccabees and in the version told by Rab Judah in the Babylonian Talmud (Gittin 57b) becomes Miriam in other rabbinic literature, and Maryam in Syriac Christian sources.

It was only in an early 16-century revision of a 10th-century work, “Josippon,” that she received the name that came down in history. There, the author apparently could not resist a connection with 1 Sam. 2:5, where the biblical Hannah praises her miraculous reversal of fortune: “Those who were full go out to work for bread. But those who were hungry are filled. She who could not give birth has given birth to seven.” Scripture teaches, by the way, that seven sons are the ultimate symbol of divine blessing (Ruth 4:15, Jeremiah 15:9, Job 1:2).

According to 2 Macc. 7: 20-23: “…the mother was marvelous above all, and worthy of honorable memory: for when she saw her seven sons slain within the space of one day, she bare it with a good courage, because of the hope that she had in the Lord. Yea, she exhorted every one of them in her own language, filled with courageous spirits; and stirring up her womanish thoughts with a manly stomach, she said unto them, I cannot tell how ye came into my womb: for I neither gave you breath nor life, neither was it I that formed the members of every one of you; But doubtless the Creator of the world, who formed the generation of man, and found out the beginning of all things, will also of his own mercy give you breath and life again, as ye now regard not your own selves for his laws’ sake.”

To the narrator, this horrific tale seems to be not much more than a human interest angle, because right after he completes his account with the death of the mother, like a news anchor pressed to get everything in before the commercial, in a meanwhile-in-other-news tone, he says: “Let this be enough now to have spoken concerning the idolatrous feasts, and the extreme tortures” (2 Macc. 7:42). He then moves on to a security-related story – Judah Maccabee’s draft efforts and subsequent battles, where his victories as a guerrilla warrior lionized him for all time.

I’ve learned in studying about daily life of women in the Bible that the convoluted family ties of the patriarchs and the matriarchs, with their subterfuge, violence, humiliation and other dysfunctions, were about the perpetuation of family lines at a time when so many died young. But martyrdom is a very different call, one whose circumstances I am fortunate not to be able to imagine.

Some people point out that the lessons of Hanukkah are best served not by glorifying the battles of Judah the Maccabee, but by focusing on the achievements of his brother Jonathan who succeeded him, and is said to have excelled at treaties. But eventually, “us against them” was supplanted (again) by “us against us.” Jonathan’s great-great grandnephews, the sons of Queen Alexandra (Salome) and her second husband, divided the nation in a deadly feud. It can be said that their unceasing and bloody machinations were what eventually brought on Rome’s conquest of our land.

In Gittin 57b Rab Judah intersperses his instances of martyrdom (interestingly, the story of Masada is not among them) with, as was the norm, appropriate biblical proof texts. Transforming the mother’s death at the hands of the tyrants into suicide in his retelling, Rab Judah says: “the woman went up on to a roof and threw herself down and was killed. A voice thereupon came forth from heaven saying, A joyful mother of children.”

“A joyful mother of children”: That reference to Psalm 113:9 is simply chilling. It forces us to ask when death might be perceived as a preferable alternative, even a glorious one. And thus, it forces us to demand of our leaders and those of our neighbors – in our “own language, filled with courageous spirits” – everything possible to rein in extremists, a task we must undertake in honor of the exhortation of Deuteronomy 30:19: “Choose life, that that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed.”

Hanukkah 1985

Our own little seeds, candle-lighting on Nili’s first Hanukkah, December 1985.

 

Hanukkah 2014

Maya, at right, now with her own seeds, Tamar and Elia, lighting the candles with us, Hanukkah 2014.

* “In the Candles’ Rays I see,” by Elma Ehrlich Levinger, a Hanukkah hymn written in 1960.

The Wagtail: a Wintertime Tail…I mean Tale

In the craziness that threatens to engulf us at any given moment, I leave the macro of our political maelstrom to wiser thinkers, and the micro of medical challenges faced by Arik and other loved ones to the experts and to the higher power that guides their hands. For a little peace of mind in the midst of it all, I flee briefly to the natural world no further away than the edges of my Judean Hills hometown. In previous blogs I introduced you to a cucumber that spits to survive and to the symbiotic Atlantic terebinth. This time, I want to tell you about a peripatetic little neighbor of mine that you see in this picture. It’s called the white wagtail (Motacilla alba). Read on, there’s a legend in it for you, too.

 

White wagtail. Photo: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh

White wagtail
Photo: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh

I found the particular wagtail and his mate darting around the bushes they call home on the edge of my little community of Har Adar, just across from the skating park that overlooks the ancient Canaanite city of Hakfira, the biblical Chephirah (there aren’t too many places in the world where a skating park overlooks an ancient Canaanite city, now, are there?). Just beyond Hakfira, by the way, I can see the Ayalon Valley on the edge of which – don’t blink, here’s the Hanukkah connection – at Emmaus, Judah Maccabee defeated the Syrian Greeks (1 Mac. 4:1-25).

Canaanite city of Hakfira (at top left of hill in center) with Qatanah on the slope and the Ayalon Valley in the distance. In the foreground: Har Adar. Photo: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh

The Canaanite city of Hakfira (at top left of hill in center) with Qatana on the slope and the Ayalon Valley in the distance. In the foreground: Har Adar. Photo: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh

But back to our wagtail. This species is well established around the world and very common in Israel, except in the desert. In fact, Israeli schoolchildren learn to recognize it as one of the signs that winter is here, because these tufted tweeters fly in around November and abide with us until March. And while we’re on the subject of their tweet –  to me it sounds something like what you get when you let the air out of a balloon by the neck, very, very slowly (which you might do, once, to amuse grandchildren up to a certain age).

Winging their way to us from points north, each wagtail pair picks a territory and guards it zealously. In fact, because they are so fiercely protective of their small dominion, a wagtail can sometimes be seen doing battle against its own reflection in a car or house window.* Yes indeed, we know a lot about that kind of thing in our part of the world.

Of the 227 bird species the experts say nest in Israel, 143 increased their size and distribution in the 20th century.  The veteran Israeli ornithologist Dr. Uzi Paz just published a new book in which he focuses on several avian species that seem to be thriving due to human presence. In answer to my email query as to whether the white wagtail was among them, Paz responded that this was not his impression, but it was certainly possible. That’s enough for me; I love these little guys.

The wagtail got its name in English because when it’s hopping around searching for insects to eat, it bobs its tail up and down like some old-time telegraph operator beating out an urgent message. In Hebrew it’s called nahlieli – a name that relates to its habitat rather than its body language. The word nahlieli comes from the word nahal, which means stream. Interestingly, it was the famous Jewish writer Mendele Mocher Sforim, all the way back in 1862, who first named the nahlieli, in his book about nature called Toldot Hateva.

White wagtail use this 2

And now for the tale: Nehama and her Mama

A story is told of a little white wagtail named Nehama who lived in Kiryat Ye’arim on the western border of the Tribe of Judah (Josh. 10:9; 1 Sam. 6:21; now Abu Gosh), with her parents and seven brothers and sisters. One day, while Nehama’s mama was busy weaving twigs into a new nest for the next round of family, and her father looked the other way for just a second, little Nehama fledged. She flew over Mount Haruah and over the canyon of Nahal Kfira, and landed in Chephirah (Josh. 9:17, Nehemiah 7:29; now Qatana). But right then, clouds blew in from the west, covered the sky and dropped so much rain that before long Nahal Kfira was a ranging stream. Nehama Wagtail, far from the warmth and comfort of her nest, cried out in terror. Her mother heard her, and immediately took off over the narrow, frothing stream. Her tiny wings tired as they beat against the wind and rain, but with the last of her strength she reached the other side, where she was reunited with her daughter. Nehama’s mama stayed by her side for as long as it took to teach her daughter everything she needed to know to build her own nest, which she did that very year and for many years thereafter.

This story was told to me by…me.  And yes, the similarity to a tale about a certain Willie Wagtail is not coincidental. However, the original ending is rather gruesome and we have enough of those endings around here, so I like my version better and I hope you do, too.

Happy Holidays!

For more of my short stories, all with happy endings and biblical associations, see my book Teach it to Your Children: How Kids Lived in Bible Days. 

* www.yardbirds.org.il.

A spray of pyracantha in its natural setting in my Judean Hills home, with my wishes for a wonderful holiday

Here’s a sprig of pyracantha in its natural setting  near my Judean Hills home, together with my wishes for a wonderful holiday to you and yours.
Photo: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh

 

Go to the Aphid: Because the Alternatives are Galling

I’d like to think the Atlantic pistachio, the biblical terebinth, has something to teach us about ourselves.

Last week on my daily walk in my community of Har Adar I spotted a beautiful red-leaved tree that I had never noticed before. Captivated by the colors, I snapped a few pictures because I wanted to share with you a rare hint of fall foliage in my adopted Holy Land home. Here, fall doesn’t usually trumpet its arrival in a riotous changing of the leaves, but is much more subtle (unlike most everything else around here…).

A terebinth (Atlantic pistachio) showing off that it knows how to do autumn, down the street from my house.

A terebinth (Atlantic pistachio) showing off that it knows how to do autumn, down the street from my house.

Then I realized I didn’t know what kind of a tree it was! But with help from my wise friend, Yaacov Shkolnik and his botanical buddies, I found out it’s a terebinth, a.k.a. Atlantic pistachio (Pistacia atlantica).

The terebinth in the Bible

I didn’t recognize our local tree because it stands a lot taller than its bush-like relatives I point out to tour groups in the Valley of Elah (1 Sam. 17:2), where David fought Goliath (and where I explain that elah is the name of this tree in Hebrew). I also know some of this species that are a lot bigger and more powerful looking in the rare places where such trees have survived for centuries.

The “nuts” among the choice fruit of Canaan that Jacob instructed his sons to take back to Egypt (Gen. 43:11) were pistachios. And in the grisly tale of the Absalom’s death, it was from the boughs of a “great terebinth,”  (alright, yes, some versions do say oak) that the prince was helplessly dangling by the hair when his father’s General Joab found him, and ran him through (2 Sam. 18: 9–15).

Reading more about this species, I found out that Atlantic pistachio seeds were unearthed in an excavation stratum going back some 9000 years in Jarmo, in northeastern Iraq, near the oil-rich, dispute-steeped region of Kirkuk. These seeds were also among seven types of edible nuts found – along with the stone tools to crack them open – at Gesher Bnot Ya’akov near the banks of the northern Jordan River, where our prehistoric ancestors apparently depended on them to enrich their diet some 780,000 years ago.*

Over the ages, the Atlantic pistachio has found many uses – the fruit produced oil used for lighting and medicine and the wood was carved into olive presses and other agricultural devices.  The tree can also be used as rootstock on which true pistachios (Pistacia vera) are produced.

The God factor

God is in the terebinth tree – literally. The Hebrew name of the tree, elah, is derived from the word El – God. Elah, the feminine form of that word, means goddess and is yet more evidence of the sanctity of trees, and their association with goddess worship that the Bible mentions frequently (for example, Jer. 17:2).  On that subject, for more information, I take the liberty of referring you to the chapter in my book Women at the Time of the Bible about women and worship.  Those big old trees that I show people as we travel the country together usually survived because people believed them sacred and brought them their prayers.

Reading on, I learned that the Atlantic pistachio has quite an amazing symbiotic relationship with a certain kind of aphid. Now that gave me pause for thought. Proverbs says: “Go to the ant” – and I’m sure old King Solomon wouldn’t mind if I took a leaf, so to speak, from his book, so we can “go to the aphid” for some wisdom. But first, a little botany.

The fist-sized growths you see in the picture (they’re black now, but in spring they’re coral-colored and so they’re also called “coral galls”) are formed by aphids called Slavum wertheimae. These little guys create a kind of an incubator out of the leaves apparently only of this particular tree. Their young are nourished by the nutrients in the leaves and eventually emerge fat and happy from an opening in the gall.

Blackened galls among the leaves of our local terebinth.

Blackened galls among the leaves of our local terebinth.

Galls – baaaaaad.  At least that’s what the goats apparently tell each other when they come to feed on Atlantic pistachio trees and catch of whiff of the aroma these galls emit. In fact, chemical analysis of these things showed that they emit quantities of stinky organic compounds called terpenes. Scientists observing foraging goats report that the animals turned up their noses at the Atlantic pistachio and went on to seek something less odiferous for lunch. That way the lowly aphids protect the tree from overgrazing.

Research has also shown that the galls release antibacterial and antifungal agents that also protect the tree, and scientists say they look forward to exploring possible agricultural and pharmaceutical value to these natural guardians.**

Thus, what at first glance we see puncturing and deforming the leaves of the terebinth – the aphids in their little gall cradles – actually defend the trees and help them thrive from season to season, century to century (if no one cuts them down).

An ancient terebinth, the kind people worshipped, or, in Absalom's case, could have hung from by the hair. Courtesy of Yaacov Shkolnik.

An ancient “great terebinth,” the kind people worshipped and Absalom could have hung from. Courtesy of Yaacov Shkolnik.

What the terebinth taught me

“For is a tree of the field a man…” (Deut. 20:19): Thus begins an important question Moses asked the Israelites rhetorically when instructing them not to cut down fruit trees when they besiege cities. “For is a tree of the field a man, that you make war against it?”

The Atlantic pistachio says it all: It radiates beauty, its wood is useful, its nuts nourishing, it protects itself and even hosts entities that seem poised to destroy it. No, a tree is not a “man” – “to make war against.” Humans have perfected the “art” of warfare, no doubt about that, and in our country, some are trying their best right now to rip apart a  symbiosis that many believe has sustained our society for decades. And then there’s the Atlantic pistachio, which can teach us a thing or two about symbiosis and  coexistence, most essentially when threats abound.

 

First winter cyclamen leaves poking through a terebinth-leaf carpet under our local tree.

First winter cyclamen leaves poking through a terebinth-leaf carpet under our local tree.

 

 

* Science Blog from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, February 2002 

** “Gall Volatiles Defend Aphids Against Browsing Mammals.” M. Rostas, D. Maag, M. Ikegami and M. Inbar.www.unboundmedicine.com.

 

 

 

Of Good Deeds and Donkey Scum

As I was taking my daily walk around my hometown of  Har Adar the other day, I came across a weird plant that grows wild in the Galilee and Judean Mountains – as well as in urban abandoned lots, junkyards and cemeteries.  It’s called the “exploding cucumber.” Of course it is. It lies there hugging the ground, looking as innocent as you please, with pretty yellow flowers to boot. But if you step on it, kick it or even touch it, it will explode – literally – catapulting its seeds into the wind. That’s what ensures its survival, botanists tell us.

 

The exploding cucumber (Ecballium elaterium). Late October: Most of the pods are still not ready to pop.

The exploding cucumber (Ecballium elaterium). Late October 2014: Most of the pods are still not ready to pop.

In the Mishnah, in a discussion about how to hang on to ritual purity, an issue that intensely preoccupied the ancient Jewish sages, they note that the “squirting cucumber” as they called it “gives passage to uncleanliness and serves as a screen against it” (Mishnah, Ohalot 8,1).  They might have gotten wrapped up in this because of the plant’s prevalence in cemeteries, where ritual impurity from contact with the dead was considered serious risk.

 

The innards of this plant, which in Hebrew goes by the evocative name yeroket hehamor – “donkey scum” ­ – is poisonous according to botanists. Yet, like many toxins, they say that in the right dosage it can be therapeutic; in folk medicine the exploding cucumber is used in treating jaundice, cataracts, ear and skin ailments.

Call me a masochist, but on my morning walk I like to listen to Israel Radio’s daily talk show, where interviewers elicit outrageous statements by the great and powerful wizards who control our lives. Or call me hope-filled when the show interviews people with ingenious and inspiring startups, studies and initiatives for a better society. On a recent walk, right at the moment I was catching my breath and surrendering to the urge to give our botanical bombshell a little nudge, the radio interviewee was Prof. Oren Kaplan, of the College of Management in Rishon Letzion, Israel. His research: how do people’s reports of good deeds affect others. The study showed empirically what most of us realize instinctively – that good deeds are “catching” – hearing about them spurs some people to do good deeds themselves.  However, according to Oren’s data there’s a catch: Once a person had done a good deed, there’s some tendency to feel smug enough to skate right on by the next opportunity to do good.

Exploding cucumber, November  2014 -  most of the pods are gone with the wind, leaving empty stalks.

Exploding cucumber, November 2014 – most of the pods are gone with the wind, leaving empty stalks.

But I also heard the professor say that morning that he believes we can fight that tendency and go for the good. We can go either way, he says. I say, we can be a “screen for cleanliness or uncleanliness.” Genesis 8:21 has a reflection of that: “The imagination of a man’s heart is evil from his youth,” God says, but right then and there vows never again to punish all of us for being that way.

That day as I watched the lowly plant disperse its seeds so vigorously at the merest touch, I thought: the Exploding Cucumber.  Yes, that definitely works in the part of the world. There are other plants, in the Holy Land and elsewhere, that disperse their seeds through the air more gently, like the milk thistle, or the make-a-wish dandelion. But I like to think of our exploding cucumber as a symbol of the enormous energy we need to keep on doing good. We need this very badly, in a world where we have allowed the power to impact larger events to be taken from us by those who have let impurity through the screen, a world where every one of us “great” or “small” has the capacity to hurt or heal in a heartbeat.

 

Read more about the unusual plants and spices of the Bible in Food at the time of the Bible: From Adam’s Apple to the Last Supper.

As for hope, leadership and losing both, read The Scroll