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Miriam and the Bitterness of Life

Miriam was one of the 3 shepherds who was responsible for the Jewish People when they were in the desert. As the eldest of her brothers, Moshe and Aharon, she also had an unfathomable spiritual level and it was in her merit that the people had water during their journeys.

In fact, her righteousness earned her the supremely coveted death by “kiss from Hashem”, which was granted only to 7 people. However, in Baba Batra 17A, the sages explain that it was not “proper” that the Torah should record such an event. Her death happens precisely at Parshat Chukat together with that of her brother Aharon, which we read this week.

There are many lessons we learn from Miriam, but I believe the most significant is the one based on the meaning of her name.

Kabbalistic teachings of bitterness

Life is full of challenges and no one can claim they live as carefree as they dream. We spoke many times that we are still rectifying the sin of Adam and Chava, and for that, there needs to be difficulties when going up the spiritual ladder. However, these difficulties can be mitigated (or, in Kabbalistic terms, “sweetened”) so that life becomes much more manageable.

Miriam’s name comes from the word מרה which literally means “bitterness”. The sages taught us in the Talmud that the harshest period of Egyptian bondage began precisely when she was born and went on for 86 years, when the nascent nation was released. This is very significant, since 86 is the numerical value of the name Elohim (אלוהים) which also denotes severity. Finally, among the 7 main prophetesses (Sarah, Miriam, Devorah, Chana, Chuldah, Avigail and Esther) of the Jewish People, Miriam is related to the Sephirah of Gevurah (Strictness).

At first glance it seems counter-intuitive to say that such a huge Tzadeket as Miriam would bring about the greatest period of suffering for the Jews. Yet, the world we live in is a paradox in itself. While striving to serve Hashem, we try to abdicate our desires and nullify ourselves to his will. Yet, precisely when we do this, we end up finding ourselves! Similarly, when giving over to others, we are actually helping ourselves the most. Same thing when the sages say that one who prays for others (for something he himself needs), will be answered first.

In the same vein, while most people run away from pain, Tzadikim actually run to it. We find in many instances in the Talmud when the Tannaim and Amoraim would happily accept suffering and the reason is because they can see the blessings that suffering bring when accepted happily.

Transforming pain into blessings.

There’s a well-known Kabbalistic principle that states that the more we peel away the layers of concealment, the more we find Hashem’s goodness. This is what’s written in the Etz Chaim (Tree of Life) by the Arizal HaKadosh that the lowest world of Asiyah is mostly evil. The one above it, Yetzirah is half evil and half good. Even higher than that is Beriyah which is mostly good. Finally the world of Atzilut, above all, is fully good. As a person moves above the spiritual rungs, he’s able to apprehend higher and higher degrees of light, and understand more why he’s going through all the darkness.

In the end, every pain is transformed into light, once we overcome the challenge. This is a code embedded in the very fabric of Creation, which will culminate in the final redemption. While that doesn’t come, we all share part of the responsibility for making the world a better place.

The way to do this work is, according to Rebbe Nachman in Likutey Moharan, to elevate the attribute of “Fear” to its source in “Da’at” (Self-knowledge, awareness). Fear, as we know, is an attribute of the Sephira of Gevurah. This fear, which is fallen into whatever negative feeling we have (either sadness, lust, greed, jealousy, etc…) must be brought to Da’at, the source of mindfulness and clarity in order to be treated and purified.

This is also taught in modern psychology in the famous epithet that “there’s no growth without pain”. When we bring Hashem into the picture, we are able to realize that what we are going through is for the best. In accepting it, we transform not only the pain, but ourselves, and move closer to Hashem.

Miriam’s very essence reminds us of this fact. Accepting that life is not always rosy and that we must step out of our comfort zone helps us navigate our challenges, and conquer them. This is our responsibility and mission given by none less than Hashem himself.

May we all succeed in our challenges and merit to receive all the blessings of the Torah, and that the merit of Miriam guide and protect us!

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