Standing From a Distance

Noa Kushner//Parashat Terumah 5778

I hate when it just so happens that the bar / bat mitzvah kids get the torah portion with the curses, the section in Torah where God warns us what it will be like when our society falls apart.
First of all the curses are graphic and theologically fraught.
It’s hard to explain a loving God in the face of all these horrible images.
And no serious religious person that I know believes in a God who would punish in these ways,
Or, frankly do I know anyone who believes that God that would dole out rewards like an animal trainer.
God just doesn’t work like that.
Just, it is not easy to explain all these layers to a 13 year old.
But I was thinking exactly of the curses this week after our shooting in Florida.
Not because I think God is cursing us, no, but because I think there have been so many shootings for so long,
that it is not a curse God sent us,
but one, I’m afraid, we are bringing on ourselves.

In devarim it says in this list of curses:
“Your sons and daughters will be given to another people
And your eyes will look and search everywhere for them all your days… (28:32).”

I think this is how many of us feel this Shabbat --
Another group of lost young people, “Our eyes will search for them all our days.”
But what turns it from a once-in-a-generational tragedy, to a curse that must be broken, is that we know
That this moment, this moment of sorrow and agony, will pass as it has before,
It will come and go, come and go, we’ve seen this many, many times now
And we will become consumed with the next thing.

And we realize,
It is hazy but we start to realize,
We’ve recovered from so many shootings in the schools and the offices and the movie theaters and the restaurants and parks and concerts and the schools, again the schools…

We realize not only how many times we’ve recovered, we realize just how we’ve recovered – namely, we’ve recovered by going back to business as usual
We have a well documented national pattern now of retreating into denial
It’s a chart on social media, it’s a meme.

So we begin to understand that as the violence happens again and again,
This week in a school, slain high school students
That we are not completely innocent, how can we be?
We realize that we have not done enough since the last time
since there is a this time
We realize that our children’s lives are being wasted
“Our eyes will search for them all our days.”

And, maybe it is just me but it seems that each time
The tragedy comes closer and closer to us.
Like a storm circling
Now it is someone’s cousin, now a girl from camp
Now a nice Jewish girl, now four nice Jewish kids
Could be one of ours, is close to being one of ours.

And I am afraid
I don’t want to be alive on the day when it touches us directly.
I don’t want to have to stand in front of you and speak knowing we could have done something more.
It is hard enough to live through the tragedies that were unavoidable, the accidents.
I don’t think I can live through it, I don’t want to do that funeral.
And the fear that I might have to is what causes me to speak so plainly tonight.

Maybe this moment in our country is what God was talking about in Torah in this section of curses that we read only in hushed whispers.
Maybe Torah is trying to teach us that society is fragile, a web, a delicate multilayered multifaceted ecosystem of creation
And without our vigilance and effort and constant building, without our work, without our faith in each other and our purpose here, it easily falls apart.

This is what I try to teach our bar / bat mitzvah students on this sections of Torah.
The underlying idea, the teaching of the section of curses
The reason it is in our Torah
Is to offer to us that what happens to us in our society is not predetermined,
See the curses are side by side with the blessings of safety, security, sanctuary and joy.
So while we do not get to decide everything in the world, far from it, 
It is up to us whether we take care of just ourselves or also each other. Torah is saying by articulating the very worst that the stakes are that high,
Things can get this bad or we can turn towards the best, towards light, see, we are not victims of circumstance, so much is up to us.

II. Miriam

In Torah, Miriam is one of the few who is called a Neviah / a prophet
And so the rabbis point out moments where Miriam surely demonstrated her prophetic prowess.
For example, they teach that when all the married couples refused to be together, refused to make new babies – because, with Pharaoh killing the babies, what was the point? --
Miriam, little Miriam, is said to have yelled at her parents that they were worse than Pharaoh. That they were doing Pharaoh’s job for him, that they needed to have faith and to make new life.
Precocious Miriam.

Then, not much later, according to the rabbis, Miriam prophesies that Moshe will be born and will redeem everyone. So when Moshe is indeed born and the whole house is filled with light and it is clear that Moshe will be extraordinary, Miriam’s father comes to kiss her on the head saying, “Your prophecy has been fulfilled.”
Miriam haneviah / Miriam the prophet.

But then, in the same midrash, only a lines later, we find Moshe’s mother, Yocheved, has to put her precious Moshe in a basket in the river Nile, risking his life. She’s worried Moshe won’t survive, of course she’s furious. And so the rabbis say that right before Yocheved puts Moshe in the Nile, she comes over to Miriam and hits her on the head, saying, “Where’s your prophecy now?” (Shemot Rabba 1:22)

I think about poor, vulnerable Miriam in that moment.
She got to bask in the glow of her optimism for months, her stubborn and fierce optimism
But now, in this moment, not knowing what will happen, she stands alone on the edge of the Nile
Watching as her brother floats away
The evidence is mounting
Her large role in what looks to be an inevitable tragedy is now undeniable
The sting of the smack from her mother on her head
She stands alone at the edge of the Nile.
She stands far off
VaTetatzav achoto me’rachok / she (his sister) stationed herself at a distance.
L’deah mah ye’aseh lo. / To know what would happen to him, to her brother.

We want to say in that moment to Miriam: “It looks horrible right now but what you have done, the risk, it is not for nothing. Don’t stand so far away. It’s not over yet.”

And then the rabbis suggest, they interpret, it is not only Miriam standing there but God.
That is, God is Miriam, stationed at a distance in that moment,
For if Miriam is feeling remorse and fear about her optimism and frightened by the depths of her vulnerability and the price of her prophecy,
If Miriam is feeling helpless and scared for trying
God, too, is at a distance,
Maybe also wondering if the price of trying for freedom in the world is too high
God is also, if not helpless, then is still, at a distance, not able to force a just outcome.

For in case it is not obvious yet, God is dependent on us.
If babies are thrown away it is up to us to save them, in Torah and now.
God can make the miracles in the world but cannot save us from each other.
So God herself waits by the river’s edge, is stationed there, from a distance, to hope and pray and see what we will do.



Maybe like Miriam we cannot fathom how it came to be this way.
We remember a time, seems so recent, when the proverbial house was filled with light.
When it seemed the arc was bending towards moral justice.
When the idea of someone slaughtering others in a peaceful public space was inconceivable.
We are struck and confused, much like Miriam, wondering: How did we get so lost? How did this come to be?
Our head stings from the latest slap.
“Where is our prophecy now?”

But we cannot afford to stay locked and transfixed, we cannot afford to lose faith.
In our story, Miriam gets over her shock, actively waits to see who else might be there to help, she works with Pharaoh’s daughter, the most unlikely partner and is right there in the precise right moment to arrange for Moshe’s needs. To make sure he thrives and we become free. Now this is a prophet. Because a Jewish prophet is someone who makes her prophesy come true. Who shakes off her fear and wills her redemptive prophecy into being with sheer courage.



I don’t know if Miriam was waiting by the banks of the Nile in order to help all the other babies who were thrown in. (Maybe this is what makes the midwives so extraordinary, why they receive houses in their name, they helped even those they did not know.) But it seems that Miriam, like most of us, stood apart until it meant the life of her own brother.

Maybe what will help us to wake ourselves up, to overcome our self-imposed distance, is to think of these latest kids as ours.
Maybe we need to spend time knowing the seventeen students who were killed; maybe we need to carry them around on our backs, on our shoulders, as if we are their pallbearers.

Maybe we need to get closer to the details of their lives, until they become like our brothers and sisters, like our children. Maybe we need to know just for starters that Alyssa, was a champion debater, and an amazing soccer player. Can you picture her? Maybe we need to know that Nicholas was on a major upswing in his short life, just having been recruited by the University of Indianapolis for swimming. Imagine his butterfly. Maybe we need to inscribe on our hearts that Joaquin Oliver was a poet who filled up notebooks. What was his handwriting like? That Meadow Pollack was unstoppable and worked at her boyfriend’s family’s motorcycle repair business. Her grit. That Alex Schachter, who lost his mother at five, played the trombone in the marching band. What was his father’s face like when he heard the news? Maybe if we remember them as our brothers and sisters we will find the strength to wake ourselves up. To shake ourselves out of our stupor. We don’t have to live at a distance like this. Like Miriam, we can create a new prophecy. We don’t have to live cursed like this, this is a curse of only our time, it wasn’t always this way and through our voting and lobbying and demonstrating and fundraising, and giving, and refusing to stop until we make some progress, we can choose blessing instead.



I sat next to a tzaddik at an event for Janice Mirikatani, one of the founders of GLIDE. For once, I am not being hyperbolic. This woman, GLIDE macher, Jewish by the way, raised nine immigrant children who were in danger of being deported, starting in the 1960’s. Her husband, across the table, held up nine shaky fingers to emphasize the number of their kids to me. They gave them education and health care, love and a way into this country. She now counts 53 grandchildren. Like most feisty Jewish grandmothers she was very matter of fact about the whole thing. I kept asking her, was there a role model, a source, a narrative, what was it that allowed her to live with such righteousness? She was emphatic that there was nothing that drove her, rather, she could not imagine living any other way. “What else would I do with my life?” She asked me, “They were in danger. So I brought them into my house and made them my children.”

I told her she was a tzaddik but she could’ve cared less. She had already built her life around the truth of helping other people and the truth of that was way more gratifying than of my admiration. Rather than stand at a distance, she had gone in the river, not to save everyone but to save enough souls so that she looked half her age, her smile came easily, and even when she was raising her voice, which was actually during the entire conversation, she didn’t seem angry. Because she had seen the curses of the world and instead chosen to be a blessing.

She is the living embodiment of what Torah means when it says in this week’s parasha, and I’ll end here:
V’asu li mikdash
“Build me a sanctuary that I might live among you.”

This is not about a building fund.
This is not even about a building.
This is about creating a sanctuary in our hearts, in our homes and in our society where God and righteousness can dwell, can thrive, where people can be safe.

V’asu li mikdash is about claiming more brothers, sisters, children as our own.
A safe society: That is a real mikdash / a real collective sanctuary,
The country as a mikdash / a sanctuary for all.
That is a prophecy worthy of Miriam the neviah,
The kind of prophecy worth us risking to realize.
The kind of blessing worth having,
And our wanting it, it is not futile, it is not hopeless, we mustn’t despair, building this sanctuary, this kind of a society, it is not beyond us, it is closer than we realize, it is actually within our reach.