Miriam

by Rabbi Mara Young

 

Midnight gripped the air

as I ran with bundled bread on my back,

sand stung my legs as I hurried toward the water.

Not a word amongst us, just panic in our eyes,

as we heard the 600 hundred chariots,

whips slapping the hides,

like they used to slap our backs.

 

All I could offer was a panting breath,

a heave of my chest.

When we stood at the sea, still we said nothing,

Hands on knees, mouths open, gasping for air –

gasping for words -

but the salt of the waters sucked dry our mouths.

 

As I looked into the black mirror before me,

my lips were silenced but my heart sang.

My faith unwavered, my determination pounding like the blood in my veins

knowing, knowing it would happen.

 

And in that moment my heart swelled with words and melodies,

prayers of knowing and blessings of love.

With each heavy breath the sea bubbled,

it frothed, it heaved, it lifted.

As the walls rose higher, my heart grew larger

I was drowning in the miracle.

 

Dawn warmed the waters from blue to golden orange,

the mist on my cheek began to roll off with the heat.

As a new shore firmed under my feet

I ran into the sand and collapsed.

My heart pumped to capacity, it burst within me,

 

and I sang.

 

Rabbi Mara Young is the Director of Congregational Learning at Woodlands Community Temple in Greenburgh, NY.

Forgiven

One set of tablets destroyed.  One golden idol melted down.  Another 40 days and 40 nights until Moses descended with a new set of tablets and God’s forgiveness. It was the 10th of Tishrei.

We celebrated this day (and this most compassionate act on behalf of the Divine) yesterday on Yom Kippur.  Yet the memory of the original tragedy remains vivid in our collective memory. We were forgiven, but Torah makes it clear: we should never forget.

The experiences on that horrible day varied though. Midrash teaches that the Israelite women refused to participate in the initial idolatry.  A modern, creative take on what may have occurred:

“Moses had been gone so many days I had begun to lose count.  His presence had become reassuring out here in the open of the wilderness where insecurity lurked behind thorny shrubs…like a snake ready to snap at a young antelope newly emerged from the womb.

And when Moses ran late, when the mountain path stood empty of human presence, fear bit.  The morning the men met, the women huddled around the cooking pots stirring soups and rumors.  “Maybe he was killed,” “maybe he returned to Egypt,” “maybe it was all a lie,” until we were frothy with doubt and nerves.  At full boil the men circled us.  Father came to me, tears in his eyes.  He asked I remove the gold from my ears.  He laid out his hand, his stiff fingers calling to the metal pierced through my lobes.  I looked to my mother, beautifully adorned, who asked why.  “Why?” father answered, “because Aaron told us to! He told us to make a god that will watch over us always, a god that lives here on earth, not in some mountain.  A god we can see.”

Mother’s hands stayed on her ladle.  She made no reach for her ears.  I too stayed still.  It wasn’t right.  I wasn’t ready to give up.  I had seen God here on earth.  I watched the waters part, I saw the thunder and the lightning.

The other men began to shout.  Clamoring erupted within the camp as husbands demanded gold of their wives, daughters and sons.  But like Mother and I, they would not hand it over.  We then heard women’s shouts of pain as the gold was ripped from their bodies, tearing flesh from their lobes.  Our donations to this heresy were not voluntary. We had no choice.”

Rabbi Mara Young serves Woodlands Community Temple in Greenburgh, NY.

Girls with Curls

Curly hair was a curse.  Adolescence onward, I tried blow-drying, gelling, yanking, and otherwise beating my hair into submission. It didn’t care. Like Medusa reborn, my tresses sprouted forth.  I wasn’t on trend; my hair didn’t swing with the breeze. I certainly didn’t feel beautiful.

It wasn’t until college that I found a regimen agreeable to both me and my hair. Nowadays I wash and air-dry to a curly head I feel confident about. Plus, I can get it perfectly straight in 20 minutes. Yeah, you read that right.

My congregants usually find me curly-haired, but on a random Shabbat they’ll also see me straightened out.  Often a girl and/or her mother will approach me after the service with a burning spiritual question: How did you get it like that? How long did it take?  What do you use? They aren’t asking about the sources for my drash, they’re asking about my hair.

After those conversations, I’ll think about conversations us lady-folk had at seminary – the ones about dressing in a way that commanded respect but didn’t draw attention to our looks. We had these conversations in class and informally, all with an eye on practicality (I believe).  The motive was to help us women rabbis succeed by commanding the most authority possible, given that the odds were already out of our favor.

So I’ve considered whether it is worth straightening my hair.  After all, a huge part of me wishes my congregants would only approach the bimah to talk to me about the drash I gave or ask for some personal guidance – of the spiritual sort.  “Beauty tips” aren’t exactly in my job description.

But I still do it.  Straighten my hair, that is.  And I share my tips when asked (the CHI ceramic straightener is the best; be sure to use a heat protector spray).  And sometimes that’s all there is to the conversation.

And amidst this, I wonder if I’ve really ceded my authority.  Is it even about “authority” at all?

There are indeed young women who I talk to about the cute new outfit they’re wearing, or the store I buy my makeup in.  They are the same girls who, weeks, maybe months later, will come to talk about something not so cosmetic.  They come around to talk about their overwhelming lives, their body concerns, their relationship to their parents and friends.  I can’t help but think that the simple acts of “girl-talk” lead to a level of comfort.  Turns out, being a 28 year old female rabbi is not an obstacle.  It’s an asset.

I’ve learned that it’s less about authority and more about authenticity.

This lesson is clearest for me when I meet with a young Bat Mitzvah and her family in my study prior to the service. My favorite moment is when I wrap the talit around her shoulders for the first time and fluff her hair out from underneath. It’s been fettered down by hairspray and bobby-pins, and still it manages to escape in youthful protest.  Often the Bat Mitzvah will look at me and say, “does it look okay?”  I always respond, “Beautiful.”

And at the end of the service, when we stand in front of the ark, I offer a blessing, taking care to specialize it to the young woman in front of me. Through the weeks, though, I’ve discovered that (subconsciously) a theme arose:

Be kind to yourself. Nurture yourself – honoring all those beautiful traits inside of you. Only when you do that, can you go out into this great big world and make a difference.  Make the difference with you first.

It took me weeks to discover the pattern and even more time to figure out why it quietly entered my blessings.  As much as I am talking to the Bat Mitzvah, I am talking to myself.  A young woman of 13 who needed to know that her curly hair was beautiful, that her changing body was something to be cared for and treasured. I needed someone to encourage me to believe that I was beautiful, special, and worth valuing.

So it starts with beauty tips and mutual gushing over sparkly shoes. In doing so, I hope I’m establishing a connection; an understanding that I once was that girl who was on a spiritual quest of self-discovery, expression, and acceptance. 

Once was that girl?  Still is that girl. Perhaps we can go adventuring together.

Rabbi Mara Young is a rabbi at Woodlands Community Temple in Greenburgh, New York.