Imagine it is a beautiful afternoon in Los Angeles, and you decide to take a stroll around the neighborhood. You go to your local coffee shop, order an iced latte, and begin to thumb through a copy of National Geographic. Right away you are transported into another world full of face paint, headdresses, and piercings. The people of Papa New Guinea stare up at you from the slick, glossy magazine pages, their exotic faces and different lives igniting your imagination. These are not the typical people you run into at Starbucks or Ralph’s. It is hard to imagine them living a life so different to your own. Their very existence is difficult to envision.
This phenomenon is what Rebbetzin Tziporah Heller calls, “The National Geographic Syndrome.” We see people from a different culture, speaking language distinct from our own, and we dismiss them as another species. We then close the magazine and return to our mundane lives, never suspecting that these people, of a totally different culture, are deep down exactly like us. The truth is that they want the same things as any human wants: to feel accepted, to be happy, and to be loved.
When it comes to the stories in the Torah, we often react in a similar fashion. We open up a Chumash and think, “Oh, how interesting. Adam, Eve, Abraham. How nice…Now back to my life.” We might question the validity of the lives of our ancestors, often dismissing the thought that they once lived. Additionally, on a more superficial level, one might think that the Torah is just a collection of fictional stories.
However, when one pushes oneself to dig deeper, another reality can emerge. One can find richness and beauty in our biblical predecessors’ narratives, as well as a profound relevance to our everyday lives.
Take Miriam, for example: “Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took her drum in her hand and all the women went forth with drums (tambourines) and with dances. Miriam spoke up to them: ‘Sing to Hashem, for he is exalted above the arrogant!’” (Exodus 15:20)
This is a typical part in the Torah where we apply the National Geographic treatment. Our eyes glaze over the text, and we stifle a yawn; we may have heard this part many times and initially it does not appear to apply to our everyday lives. But what if we take a brief moment to thoroughly analyze these sentences?
- Why is Miriam referred to as the sister of Aaron and not the sister of Moshe?
- After all, isn’t Moshe the one who is famous?
- And why is this the first time that we are hearing Miriam referred to as a prophetess?
- Finally, why does she have a drum in her hand?
All of these questions do have profound answers, but let us first focus on why Miriam had a drum in her hand. To answer this question, we need to recall the backstory on Miriam. When the King of Egypt had decreed that all male Jewish babies must be slaughtered, Miriam’s father, who was the leader of the Jewish nation at the time, made the decision to separate from his wife. He reasoned that if the Pharaoh was killing all the boys, procreation could only result in murder.
However, one person objected. It was none other than the five-year-old Miriam, who proceeded to prophesize that her parents would give birth to a baby boy who would rise to lead the Jewish people out of Egypt. Most fathers would have dismissed a five-year-old’s rant as chutzpah, but instead, Miriam’s father listened and obeyed. He reunited with his wife, and they soon bore a child called Moshe.
While Moshe was raised safely in secret anonymity, Miriam and her mother became midwives. They were assigned by the Pharaoh to continue murdering Jewish children, but instead, they defied this law by single-handedly saving the lives of thousands of infants.
Amongst this harrowing time, Miriam desperately clung to her belief that Hashem would deliver the Jews from the Egyptians. Miriam’s name literally stands for “bitterness” and “rebellion,” which perfectly reflects the timbre of the cruel years of Jewish enslavement. Miriam had such confidence and faith that she kept drums and tambourines at her bedside for the day when she would need them to sing Hashem’s praises and celebrate freedom.
On that note, you may again feel skeptical. We might think to ourselves, “This is just a story, right? Miriam is not real. No one can possibly be as resilient in the face of such suffering. No one is waiting for their suffering to be over in order to sing to G-d.” Personally, when I am in a challenging state, I cannot wait for it to be over simply because I cannot wait for it to be over! Most people are not at the spiritual level of “holding onto a drum” during suffering so that they can later sing Hashem’s praises post-suffering. However, there are people who exist in this world that have this mentality, and you might even see them at the grocery store without even realizing.
One such woman is my teacher named Aviva Feiner. She and her husband had been childless for years, and when she was finally expecting a child, she glowed with joy and radiated both inner and outer beauty. The day her son was born, she did not even have the chance to hold him him in her arms, before he was whisked away for testing. The doctors had devastating news: her son was born with a rare amino acid deficiency – so rare, in fact, that he was one case in a billion.
When the baby was five days old, a gathering was made for his speedy recovery. Mrs. Feiner left the hospital to speak that day in front of 500 people. She was recovering from a C-section, was feeling ill herself, and yet selflessly wanted to speak to give others strength. She did not know if by the time she finished speaking her child would still be alive, as each breath he took endangered his life. She walked into the room and described that despite her physical and emotional pain, she felt G-d lifting her up and carrying her to deliver her profound words.
As I listened to her speak, I expected her to grieve, or, at the very least, complain. But instead she emphatically called out, “I want you all to know that I have never felt closer to Hashem in my entire life. He is guiding me and holding me through every step.” She told us that although she couldn’t hold her baby, she would sing to him, physically resembling biblical Miriam. Mrs. Feiner did not even wait for the suffering to end to begin singing praises to G-d. She never gave up hope.
So how can we channel the resilience of people like Miriam and Aviva Finer into our own lives? How can we learn to sing Hashem’s praises, even when we feel no desire to continue believing? What is it that allows one person to bounce back, while another perishes under the load of their difficulties?
Like Miriam’s drum, we may be stretched to our limits, being pulled to the farthest reaches of what we believe we can handle in life. Yet it is in these precise moments that we are able to make the sweetest music. A drum itself can only resonate when its skin is pulled taut. It is this tautness which gives the drum its resilience.
A study by the American Psychological Association shows that resilience is not something we innately do or do not have. Resilience can be developed.
During a phone conversation I shared with Mrs. Feiner a few years after her son’s birth, told her I had been profoundly impacted by her words when we gathered to pray for him; they still resonated with me years later.
She said, “Yes! It is true! I had never felt closer to Hashem Yisborach in my entire life – never before and never after. It was, and it still is, the closest I have ever felt to Hashem.”
I was shocked. Perhaps it is when when we are pulled in so many directions and experiencing our greatest challenges that our resilience can be brought forth.
We may also recall that Miriam was known for the well that accompanied the Jewish people on their trek through the desert in her merit. When one is in a desert, and there is no water in sight, we dig deep into the earth. Miriam merited a well because it is symbolic of resilience. There’s no relief to our metaphorical thirst in sight, and so we must dig deep.
Lack of water was just one of the many obstacles the Israelites faced in the desert. G-d gives us challenges because he wants us to rise to the occasion. He wants us to grow, change, and flourish.
May we all strive for resilience – with success! – in our moments of challenge.