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Parshas Chukas

Raindrops Are Falling on My Head

In this week's Torah portion, we fluctuate between some of the Jewish people's highest and lowest points during their forty-year sojourn in the wilderness. We learn about how with Miriam's passing, the water that miraculously flowed from a rock accompanying the people on their journeys, suddenly dried up. The water had flowed in Miriam's merit; with her departure from this world, the waters ceased flowing.

To the nation's enormous credit, although they had just lost their critical water supply, they broke out into an ecstatic song in tribute to Miriam and the blessing of life-sustaining water she was responsible for. The Torah records this song-Shiras Hab'air-for posterity, implying that there is an eternal message to be gleaned from this ode of joy.

What sublime message lies within this joyous outburst? And would it not have been more timely while the well was still operative? Its drying up should have been a source of consternation, pain and uncertainty for the future. Shouldn't those reactions have overshadowed the people's joy?

To appreciate the underlying message of the song, we need to explore the nature of the special merit Miriam possessed that triggered a forty-year flow of blessing for an entire people. Miriam was endowed with a quality that resembled water. Water is the least viscous of all substances; its supreme fluidity enables it to take on the contours of whichever vessel it is stored in. Although it is the vital source of all life, its character and properties melt to accommodate its immediate environment. It was this character quality that Miriam possessed.

As a people, we have endured the most challenging of times. The chapters of our history book are blood-soaked; they overflow with pain. Yet, no chapter is more harrowing than our nation's experiences in the crucible of the Egyptian exile. Subjected to daily tortures and the harshest servitude without any sign of respite, the people faced an abyss of despair. One tiny glimmer of hope sustained them-the glowing faces of their precious children. When Pharaoh decreed that the children should be thrown in the Nile river, thier last ember of hope was extinguished. Despair engulfed the nation.

Not Miriam. She accompanied her mother as an assistant midwife, ensuring that new Jewish life would be brought forth into the world. She is recorded for posterity in the Torah as Pu'ah, the one who cooed and sang lullabies to the children who Paroh had consigned to a terrible fate. Miriam could sing even in the darkest prison cell. She could see the twinkling lights of a better tomorrow when only gloom and misery beckoned from the horizon. Miriam embodied the power of song and the amazing properties of water.

Upon Miriam's passing, the people were immediately confronted with a monumental challenge. Their life source had dried up. Once again they faced a harrowing end, in danger of dying of thirst in the Sinai expanse. Yet Miriam left a legacy that they had imbibed and absorbed. They were capable of singing even in the darkest moments.

My wife, who is the supervisor at a local pre school for severely handicapped children, shared with me an interesting anecdote last week. A co-worker told her that she had spent Shabbos at a Yachad convention, where parents of severely impaired children joined for a weekend of inspiration and rejuvenation. One couple shared their life journey with the assembled in a moving address. They had a severely autistic child who, as they were speaking, was tugging at them and disrupting the talk. He was clearly a supreme challenge to control.

The father related the anguish and frustration that he and his wife experienced after the child was born, especially during his first years. They felt that he had derailed their entire life, and they attempted to deal with the disruption as best as possible, trying to survive one day at a time. He told the assembled that his life took a 180-degree turn when he and his wife went through a dramatic change in attitude.

Until now they were dealing with the situation in an adversarial way, trying not to let it dominate their attention and resources. He suddenly realized that this was not something that they simply had to 'deal' with, but that in a deeper sense, it was their career and integral to their life path. Rather than treating the situation as a problem that had to be marginalized, he and his wife embraced it, and henceforth their family has become enriched with the presence of their autistic son.

In our own lives, we too, face daily challenges and travails as we negotiate the bumps, twists and turns of our life terrain. At times, a person experiences a sense of hopelessness, as if an impenetrable brick wall is cutting off all exit. The message and spirit of Miriam's shira points the way for us to rise above the most difficult challenges. By allowing our faith to adapt to the contours of whatever situation Hashem sends us, and singing through the raindrops, we survive the storms.


Rabbi Naftali Reich

Text Copyright © 2013 by Rabbi Naftali Reich and

Rabbi Reich is on the faculty of the Ohr Somayach Tanenbaum Education Center.



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