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  • What Happened When Miriam Died

    "Miriam died there, and was buried there" (Numbers 20:1). That’s it. In one brief sentence, the Bible records the death of Miriam, sister of Moses and Aaron. The brevity seems almost insulting. Even a death notice in a newspaper says more. And here we are, twenty chapters into the Book of Numbers—in the midst of the Israelites’ wilderness journey in which Miriam has been an important figure, in reach of the Promised Land having survived slavery, escape from Egypt, hunger and thirst, conflicts and rebellions—and all we have is one terse statement marking her death. Just twenty verses later, the death of Miriam’s brother, Aaron, is described at some length and with certain emotion. The whole community observes a thirty-day period of mourning for Aaron. Why not Miriam? Is she less important? Less loved? Do we simply presume a patriarchal bias in the text’s historical development? Can we reconcile this brevity with the way Scripture elsewhere speaks of Miriam as a chosen co-leader along with Moses and Aaron? “I redeemed you from the house of bondage, and I sent before you Moses, Aaron and Miriam” (Micah 6:4). Fascinating responses to this question can be found in Jewish interpretative traditions. Creatively attentive to the text, the Rabbis observed that Miriam’s death does not go unnoticed. Look at what happens. The moment she dies, the very next sentence reads: “The community was without water” (20:2), a fact which impacts harshly upon the Israelites, even erupting into an attack on Moses to which Moses responds badly, displaying none of his characteristic virtues of patience and trust in God. Why do the community and its leadership become unhinged at the moment of Miriam’s death? What is God’s Word trying to teach us? In the Scriptures, Miriam is associated with water. At the Nile she ensures her baby brother’s survival; at the Red Sea she leads a victory dance (Exodus 2:4-8; 15:20). In rabbinic storytelling the Israelites are said to have been accompanied in the wilderness by ‘Miriam’s well,’ a miraculous source of fresh water.[1] When she dies, the well disappears. Can it be that Moses and the community are grieving more than the absence of water? Has the ever-present contribution of Miriam to the wilderness journey been taken for granted until now? Reflection on Miriam’s death releases precious insights into the greater biblical narrative as well as into our own stories and contact with death. Can we ever really fathom the impact of death until a loved one is no longer with us? Again turning to Jewish tradition, we find the Talmud offering this interpretation. Miriam, like Moses, died in a most sacred, intimate way: by the divine kiss. [2] Why a kiss? A literal translation of the Hebrew text tells us that Moses died “at the mouth of the Lord” (Deut. 34:5). [3] For many people death can be a terrifying struggle as they face the finality of ‘letting go’ this world. But so attuned was Moses to divine ways that his release from this life into the Lord’s embrace was like the gentlest of kisses. And this was also true for Miriam, say the Jewish sages, enjoying a midrashic play on a textual repetition: "So Moses the servant of the Lord died there..." (Deut. 34:5). "Miriam died there..." (Num. 20:1). An apparently extraneous word in the text fuels the rabbinic mind in such a way that the tradition enfolds a deeply-held conviction: the Lord’s special love and choice of his daughter Miriam. 1. BT Shabbat 35a 2. Mo’ed Katan 27b-28a 3. English translations often read ‘at the command of the Lord.’ © Teresa Pirola, 2013. lightoftorah.net Reproduction for non-commercial use permitted with acknowledgement of website. Click here for the PDF version. Light of Torah is a grassroots ministry based in the Catholic community, encouraging Christians to reflect on Torah with the help of Jewish insights. More... The reflection above refers to Parashat Chukat (Numbers 19:1 - 22:1), the Torah portion read for this Sabbath in the Jewish liturgical calendar. Shabbat shalom!

  • Argue For the Sake of Heaven

    “Any dispute which is for the sake of Heaven, its end will endure. But if it’s not for the sake of heaven, its end will not endure. Which is a dispute for the sake of Heaven? That’s the dispute of Hillel and Shammai. And which isn’t for the sake of Heaven? That’s the dispute of Korah and all his gang” (Avot 5:17). [1] This quote is from the Mishnah (a collection of Jewish oral traditions which came to be written down in the second century of the common era). It refers to a famous dispute in Jewish history between two esteemed sages: Hillel and Shammai. Both were insightful and wise in matters of interpreting the Torah, however their approaches differed. Shammai and his followers adhered to a restrictive interpretation of the law, whereas Hillel and his disciples favoured a more flexible one. While the disciples of each school clashed fiercely, over time the rabbinic consensus favoured the school of Hillel. Even so, it was not a simple matter of ruling that, “Hillel is right and Shammai is wrong.” In fact, a famous story handed down in Jewish tradition tells how a divine voice went forth saying: “The words of Hillel and the words of Shammai are both the words of the living God, but the law is according to the school of Hillel.” Why was Hillel favoured? According to tradition it was because Hillel and his disciples were kind, humble and inclusive, not hesitating to teach Shammai’s rulings as well as their own. While settling the dispute in favour of one school, it was recognized that the other, too, had merit, and that the community was best served by respecting the healthy tension between diverse insights. It is this constructive tension that the Mishnah describes as being ‘for the sake of heaven.’ It is a tension that sensitises us to the complexities of life and helps us to resist glib answers where deeper searching is in order. This kind of dispute has enduring fruits; it takes us forward. What, then, is a dispute 'not' for the sake of heaven? It is one driven by self-interest; one that takes us nowhere. What, then, is a dispute ‘not’ for the sake of heaven? It is one driven by self-interest; one that takes us nowhere. This, say the sages, was the problem with the famous rebellion triggered by ‘Korah and his gang’ in Numbers 16. During the Israelites’ long desert trek, Korah wasn’t the only one to object to Moses’ leadership. Why, then, did he meet with a particularly tragic end? The problem was not that he objected, but the selfish and divisive spirit in which he went about it. These stories and commentaries hold wisdom for today. Conflicts within our families and Church communities can be counter-productive, revealing more arrogance and fear than certainty and truth. Then again, some of our debates capture lifegiving questions, tantalizing paradoxes, and the very genius of the term ‘catholic’, namely the capacity to be all-embracing, seeking unity amidst diversity. As God’s people, may we approach our disagreements with the maturity of Hillel. May we seek wisdom in the views of the ‘other’ as much as our own, and find the delicate balance between resolute patience and prophetic insistence. Like Hillel and Shammai, at times we clash fiercely. Robust opinions will be delivered with passion. Bring it on! We don’t want a Church of wimps too polite to say anything ‘controversial.’ But let us do this respectfully, without sarcasm or arrogance, without behaviour that belittles a brother or a sister. May we develop a profound humility that keeps us listening, wondering and probing a graced mystery that is beyond us all and which, even if expressed in the best categories we can muster today, will find richer expression in time to come. • 1. Quoted in Shai Cherry, Torah Through Time (Philadelphia, 2007), 154. © Teresa Pirola, 2012. lightoftorah.net. Reproduction for non-commercial purposes permitted with acknowledgement of website. Click here for the PDF version. Light of Torah is a grassroots ministry based in the Catholic community, encouraging Christians to reflect on Torah with the help of Jewish insights. More... The reflection above refers to Parashat Korach (Numbers 16:1 - 18:32), the Torah portion read for this Sabbath in the Jewish liturgical calendar. Shabbat shalom!

  • Managing Our Anxieties: A Biblical Insight

    Have you ever faced a critical decision where the way forward was unclear, risky, and the stakes high? Yet everything in your life had brought you to this moment. What did you do? Forge ahead or turn back? This is the scene that confronts the Israelites in Numbers 13 as they stand at the edge of Canaan, ready to re-enter the promised land after years of slavery. Moses, Joshua and Caleb—convinced that God is with them—are ready to go forward. But the people are not, swayed by the warnings of the anxious scouts. Like Caleb and Joshua the other scouts have just returned from a reconnaissance mission in Canaan; yet their assessment of the evidence is very different. In Jewish tradition the behaviour of these scouts comes under tough scrutiny for their failure in moral leadership. To appreciate this strong judgement we need to be attuned to the Jewish way of reading Torah, attentive to the details of the text such as apparently extraneous inclusions, use of particular names, and other details. Read the story in Numbers chapters 13-14. Then let’s explore some of the details that the sages have interpreted. Note the amount of space (vv.3-15) given to identifying the names and tribes of the scouts sent to observe the land. Is this listing really necessary to the story? Couldn’t it be omitted? But as the Jewish sages teach us, everything in the Torah is there for a divine reason. How would you interpret the inclusion of vv.3-15? Perhaps you notice how these verses underscore a detail already mentioned in v.2, that the men chosen for the task are not just ordinary scouts, they are important tribal leaders. Their task is not simply to collect data but to make sound judgments based on the evidence. This is why their unfavourable report is so distressing. Their preoccupation with negativity and the chance of failure means that their people are left without hope. Unlike Caleb and Joshua, they give in to their fears, and their assessment of the situation ignores any role for God. At a critical moment they fail to act as responsible leaders. Note, too, the significance of the name Hebron (13:22). It is the place associated with the story of Abraham. It is where the patriarchs and matriarchs are buried. Hebron offers a powerful symbol of the Israelites’ return home. Yet, absorbed by their own fears, the scouts misread a sign vital to the salvation story of their people. Rather than seeing a place to begin a new life, Hebron becomes a reason to retreat to slavery. Before a fragile audience, the scouts describe the land’s inhabitants as ‘giants’ and themselves as grasshoppers “in their eyes” (13:33). To this latter point a rabbinic observer makes the ironic comment, “And how would they know this?” [TB Sotah 35a]. Their fraudulent report is not based on measurable evidence but the result of a faithless insecurity complex. The people are inconsolable. Read how they complain to Moses and Aaron in 14:2-4: “If only we had died in the land of Egypt! Or in this wilderness, if only we had died!” Their negativity spirals out of control. What might have begun as understandable fear becomes regret for the Exodus, for the signs and wonders performed in the desert, for the divine revelation... all these had not been worth it. Their whining moves to a critical stage of no return: “Let’s appoint a chief and go back to Egypt!” (14:4). In their readiness to turn their back on the promised land and head for a place of slavery and false gods, the sages detect not only a loss of heart but a practical plan that is nothing less than the path to idolatry. Reflection: Rabbinic interpretations highlight how small steps can lead to increasingly grave choices and life orientations. Reflect on this in the light of important ‘crossroad’ moments in your own life and in the life of your faith community. Some forms of anxiety reflect serious mental health conditions with complex causes. Other (milder) forms are a normal part of human experience and we have a responsibility to not 'feed' them, lest they become more than they are. Discuss in light of the story of the scouts. Reflect upon the 'lessons for leadership' that emerge from the story of the scouts. Bibliography: Friedman, Commentary on the Torah (New York, 2011); Leibowitz, Studies in Bamidbar (New York: Lambda, n.p.d.). Scripture translation: Friedman. © Teresa Pirola, 2013. lightoftorah.net. This article can be reproduced for non-commercial purposes with acknowledgement of website. For the PDF version click here. Light of Torah is a grassroots ministry based in the Catholic community, encouraging Christians to reflect on Torah with the help of Jewish insights. More... The reflection above refers to Parashat Shelach Lecha (Numbers 13:1 - 15:41), the Torah portion read for this Sabbath in the Jewish liturgical cycle. Shabbat shalom!

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  • I am a title 02

    Other Vatican II documents PDF version Read More A Brief Note on Dei Verbum and Lumen Gentium In light of Nostra Aetate ​ The 1965 Vatican II document Nostra Aetate is widely regarded as an historic ‘game-changer’ for the Catholic Church’s relationship with Judaism and the Jewish people (and with other religions as well). However, in terms of its authoritative weight, it is sometimes described as being “only” a declaration of the Second Vatican Council; it lacks the authority of a dogmatic constitution which is the highest level of Catholic teaching of such a council. It is sometimes argued that Nostra Aetate was “merely” a pastoral document, and therefore its teaching is not strictly theological and not binding on the faithful. Yet this ‘minimalist’ view is to overlook the fact that Nostra Aetate is not the only conciliar statement to address the Church’s links with the Jewish people. Walter Kasper—president of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, 2001-2010—citing the support of Pope Benedict XVI, describes the teaching as “irrevocable” and “irreversible”: On the Catholic side the declaration of Vatican II, Nostra Aetate, was the decisive turning point. It is ― as Benedict XVI made absolutely clear once again during his visit to the Roman synagogue on January 17, 2010 ― irrevocable. It is irreversible because of the plain fact that the decisive theological arguments of the declaration Nostra Aetate are firmly established in two higher-ranking conciliar constitutions, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Nos. 6, 9, 16) and the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Nos. 3, 14). [1] For example, in Dei Verbum , 14, the Council fathers taught: The plan of salvation foretold by the sacred authors, recounted and explained by them, is found as the true word of God in the books of the Old Testament: these books, therefore, written under divine inspiration, remain permanently valuable. And in Lumen Gentium , 16: There is, first, that people to whom the covenants and promises were made, and from whom Christ was born according to the flesh (cf. Rom. 9:4­5). ​ ************* The points above offer a starting point for reflection, however nothing replaces a reading of the texts themselves. Access them at the Dialogika online library (maintained by the Council of Centres on Jewish-Christian Relations and the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations of Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia). Quotations from Lumen Gentium and Dei Verbum are from the Dialogika website. ​ ​ ​ See Walter Kasper’s Foreword to Christ Jesus and the Jewish People Today: New Explorations of Theological Interrelationships , eds. Philip A. Cunningham et al. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), xi. It can be accessed online at the Dialogika website. ​ ​ ​ © Teresa Pirola, 2021. lightoftorah.net . Reproduction for non-commercial purposes permitted with acknowledgement of website. ​ ​

  • I am a title 01

    Other Vatican II documents PDF version Read More A Brief Note on Dei Verbum and Lumen Gentium In light of Nostra Aetate ​ The 1965 Vatican II document Nostra Aetate is widely regarded as an historic ‘game-changer’ for the Catholic Church’s relationship with Judaism and the Jewish people (and with other religions as well). However, in terms of its authoritative weight, it is sometimes described as being “only” a declaration of the Second Vatican Council; it lacks the authority of a dogmatic constitution which is the highest level of Catholic teaching of such a council. It is sometimes argued that Nostra Aetate was “merely” a pastoral document, and therefore its teaching is not strictly theological and not binding on the faithful. Yet this ‘minimalist’ view is to overlook the fact that Nostra Aetate is not the only conciliar statement to address the Church’s links with the Jewish people. Walter Kasper—president of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, 2001-2010—citing the support of Pope Benedict XVI, describes the teaching as “irrevocable” and “irreversible”: On the Catholic side the declaration of Vatican II, Nostra Aetate, was the decisive turning point. It is ― as Benedict XVI made absolutely clear once again during his visit to the Roman synagogue on January 17, 2010 ― irrevocable. It is irreversible because of the plain fact that the decisive theological arguments of the declaration Nostra Aetate are firmly established in two higher-ranking conciliar constitutions, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Nos. 6, 9, 16) and the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Nos. 3, 14). [1] For example, in Dei Verbum , 14, the Council fathers taught: The plan of salvation foretold by the sacred authors, recounted and explained by them, is found as the true word of God in the books of the Old Testament: these books, therefore, written under divine inspiration, remain permanently valuable. And in Lumen Gentium , 16: There is, first, that people to whom the covenants and promises were made, and from whom Christ was born according to the flesh (cf. Rom. 9:4­5). ​ ************* The points above offer a starting point for reflection, however nothing replaces a reading of the texts themselves. Access them at the Dialogika online library (maintained by the Council of Centres on Jewish-Christian Relations and the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations of Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia). Quotations from Lumen Gentium and Dei Verbum are from the Dialogika website. ​ ​ ​ See Walter Kasper’s Foreword to Christ Jesus and the Jewish People Today: New Explorations of Theological Interrelationships , eds. Philip A. Cunningham et al. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), xi. It can be accessed online at the Dialogika website. ​ ​ ​ © Teresa Pirola, 2021. lightoftorah.net . Reproduction for non-commercial purposes permitted with acknowledgement of website. ​ ​

  • I am a title 03

    Other Vatican II documents PDF version Read More A Brief Note on Dei Verbum and Lumen Gentium In light of Nostra Aetate ​ The 1965 Vatican II document Nostra Aetate is widely regarded as an historic ‘game-changer’ for the Catholic Church’s relationship with Judaism and the Jewish people (and with other religions as well). However, in terms of its authoritative weight, it is sometimes described as being “only” a declaration of the Second Vatican Council; it lacks the authority of a dogmatic constitution which is the highest level of Catholic teaching of such a council. It is sometimes argued that Nostra Aetate was “merely” a pastoral document, and therefore its teaching is not strictly theological and not binding on the faithful. Yet this ‘minimalist’ view is to overlook the fact that Nostra Aetate is not the only conciliar statement to address the Church’s links with the Jewish people. Walter Kasper—president of the Pontifical Commission for Religious Relations with the Jews, 2001-2010—citing the support of Pope Benedict XVI, describes the teaching as “irrevocable” and “irreversible”: On the Catholic side the declaration of Vatican II, Nostra Aetate, was the decisive turning point. It is ― as Benedict XVI made absolutely clear once again during his visit to the Roman synagogue on January 17, 2010 ― irrevocable. It is irreversible because of the plain fact that the decisive theological arguments of the declaration Nostra Aetate are firmly established in two higher-ranking conciliar constitutions, the Dogmatic Constitution on the Church (Nos. 6, 9, 16) and the Dogmatic Constitution on Divine Revelation (Nos. 3, 14). [1] For example, in Dei Verbum , 14, the Council fathers taught: The plan of salvation foretold by the sacred authors, recounted and explained by them, is found as the true word of God in the books of the Old Testament: these books, therefore, written under divine inspiration, remain permanently valuable. And in Lumen Gentium , 16: There is, first, that people to whom the covenants and promises were made, and from whom Christ was born according to the flesh (cf. Rom. 9:4­5). ​ ************* The points above offer a starting point for reflection, however nothing replaces a reading of the texts themselves. Access them at the Dialogika online library (maintained by the Council of Centres on Jewish-Christian Relations and the Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations of Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia). Quotations from Lumen Gentium and Dei Verbum are from the Dialogika website. ​ ​ ​ See Walter Kasper’s Foreword to Christ Jesus and the Jewish People Today: New Explorations of Theological Interrelationships , eds. Philip A. Cunningham et al. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), xi. It can be accessed online at the Dialogika website. ​ ​ ​ © Teresa Pirola, 2021. lightoftorah.net . Reproduction for non-commercial purposes permitted with acknowledgement of website. ​ ​

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