Jewish history is filled with stories of suffering: the Babylonian Exile in 586 BCE, the Roman Exile in 120 CE, the Expulsion from Spain in 1492, oppression at the hands of Christian Europe for centuries, the Holocaust. Yet it is also a history of Jewish resilience and achievement: the Golden Age of Muslim Spain, the great religious scholarship of medieval Judaism, the Jewish impact on Western society since in the 19th Century and the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948.
This template, of struggle, suffering, and redemption, is first revealed in the book of Exodus, which we begin this week. To what can we attribute the Jewish ability to overcome the challenges and suffering we have faced as a people? In Chapter Two of Exodus, we read, “A certain man of the house of Levi went and married a Levite woman.” (Exodus 2:1) With this seemingly innocuous sentence we begin the story of Moses’ life.
Commenting on this verse, Chizkuni (14th C. France) shares a Talmudic midrash: “We had been taught that when Amram, eventually Moses’ father, heard of the decree [by Pharoah] that all male babies had to be drowned, he divorced his wife so that he would not produce a child that would be drowned. When his daughter Miriam heard of his reasoning, she accused him of being worse than Pharaoh who only wanted to kill male Jews, whereas he would prevent the birth of any Jews if the people were to follow his example.”
In Chizkuni’s understanding Miriam, Moses’ older sister, refuses to give up hope for a better future for the Jewish people and confronts her father, demanding that he remarry her mother, continue to have children, and not break the chain of the Jewish people. She reminds us that if we act in the right way we will find our way forward.
As we go through our own difficult times now it is important to remember Miriam’s example and never give up hope for a better future, and to never give up working for it.