S ome things just can’t be forced. One of them is love. The most powerful person in the world even if he owns everything money and talent can buy still cannot force someone to love him. While he may be able to coerce someone to act as if they love no one can control another’s heart.
That simple little fact plays switcheroo with some of our most deeply held beliefs about power and hierarchy. In recognizing this phenomenon we reveal that there’s at least as much power in the hands of the weak receiver (cast as feminine in our sources) as there is in the hands of the strong bestower (cast as male in our sources). Even if in comparison to the bestower the receiver has nothing at the moment that he wants a relationship and she doesn’t he is now in her power. This in an unexpected flip reduces all his bounty and abundance to worthless in his pursuit of love.
While everything else in the world works within a hierarchical paradigm — I have more therefore I am more — love kicks the bucket out from under that surety. Whether we like it or not a relationship is dependent upon the one who wants the relationship less.
The Grateful Giver
This dynamic fundamental as it is usually isn’t acknowledged except by Hashem and His Torah. While Hashem — the Ultimate Bestower — tells us that we did a “chesed” with Him (it goes without saying that this is a manner of speech there to teach us about the dynamics of the olam chesed we live in) when we followed Him into the desert human beings cast in the position of bestower generally do not like acknowledging their neediness.
Successful people may be gracious in accepting thanks but it would take a really great (and rare) person to acknowledge that the people filling his waiting room or lecture hall are actually doing him a chesed. Yet what would his life be like if both were empty? As full as he may be in a very real sense he’s dependent on and vulnerable toward the recipients of his gifts. Generally when in the role of bestower we prefer to concentrate on how magnanimous we are for imparting our bounty not on how grateful we should be to those who allow us to give to them.
Yet the Torah teaches us that it’s the complex dynamic between giver and receiver spiraling under the surface that is the path to true love and unity. Only by recognizing this intrinsic reciprocity can a mature relationship be reached. We’ve been taught by Rav Dessler that we feel love toward those to whom we give; imagine the strength of the connection between two people for whom the flow of bestowing and receiving is so mutual that it’s hard to distinguish at any given moment who is giving and who is receiving. They’d be tied together in an eternal bond.
Male Flips to Female
The standard pecking-order approach to the world sees life as linear: a chain of bestowers and receivers where each bestower is male to the receiver below him and female to the person above him. But that’s not the only — nor the truest — way to see things. Moving to a female lens i.e. understanding that the gift the receiver bestows by receiving is as crucial to the bestower as is the bounty the bestower gives to the receiver takes the two ends of that linear chain and pulls them into a circle. Instead of hierarchy there becomes a reciprocal flow of gifts that flows round and round endlessly.
Once this dynamic is acknowledged the receiver becomes very precious because the relationship ultimately depends upon her. This is why Miriam Haneviah held such a central role in the Exodus from Egypt — it was she who represented the yearning the Jewish People had for relationship with Hashem.
While we merited the mahn in the desert because of Moshe and the Ananei Hakavod because of Aharon HaKohein the well which sustained us for 40 years was granted in the merit of Miriam. The well is the perfect metaphor for this interplay between the bestower and the receiver because it represents the lower waters — which bubble and spring up from below the surface yearning for relationship — and the ultimately sustain the rain clouds from above.
The midrash in Eichah Rabbah describes how the positive actions of the Jewish People down here “give strength above ” and the Kometz Minchah explains this dynamic with the words from Yirmiyahu 31 “nekeivah tesoveiv gever — the female force will encircle (often explained as overcoming or impacting) the male force.”
Yearning Is the Best Connector
Klal Yisrael’s feminine yearning for relationship which the Be’er of Miriam represented is such a powerful force because it opens up the possibility of connection. In a startling insight the Maharal reveals that in a certain way yearning for something brings us closer to it than actually acquiring it would.
That’s because in reality acquisition in This World is an illusion. Our existence here is so temporary our hold on anything so tenuous that we never truly own anything — the day you buy a house for example is just one day closer to the day it will no longer be yours. This is why we call a wise person a talmid chacham — it’s by being a student of wisdom that you truly demonstrate your connection to wisdom. No matter how much wisdom you acquire you’ll never acquire it all but when you desire wisdom when you’re willing to learn from everyone you meet you show that your entire essence is bound up with wisdom.
To give a mundane example of this when we’re far away from home we often miss our family members terribly and yet when we’re home we might ignore them. When are we actually closer to them?
Yearning for a relationship sets in motion another process as well. The space that yearning creates becomes a vacuum which draws down the abundance the Bestower has to offer.
The word be’er means not only “well ” but also “to clarify.” Unlike the wells of Avraham and Yitzchak that needed to be dug to be accessed the Be’er of Miriam was a bubbling forth of insight and understanding. Chassidishe seforim tell us that the Arizal used to drink water from Miriam’s Well before he’d expound on the secrets of Torah. Yearning unleashes the bounty from Above and it’s the bestowal of that bounty as we’ve learned above that is Hashem’s ultimate Will.
In another crashing contrast in a male world obtaining knowledge and wisdom requires toil and sweat while in a feminine world of truth and connection revelation is granted as a gift of love. Insight cascades upon the receiver who receives the revelation with delight. Yearning and the subsequent pleasure from receiving is the catalyst for the binding of the bestower and receiver into one.
Seeing Eye to Eye
This circular/reciprocal approach is reminiscent of Chazal’s description of the World to Come where the righteous will form a circle dance (machol) around Hashem. The word machol comes from the same root as mechilah forgiveness. In a circle mode you have to “fargin” and forgive a little to make room for everyone else around the circle. While in a hierarchical chain each person is either above or below a circle mode creates a dynamic of inclusion and mutuality since there needs to be space for all.
In a linear world some of us know more Torah and some of us know less — which creates a natural hierarchy. In a circle world where revelation is a gift each tzaddik will be equidistant from Hashem — and each will point with his finger and say “zeh Hahem this is my G-d.” There will be no need for an intermediary — G-d awareness will be available to all as it says “v’chol banayich limudei Hashem — all your children will be students of Hashem” (Yeshayahu 54:13).
Not There Yet
It’s important to note that this “feminine” machol dance — this nonhierarchical equality mode — is entirely unsuitable to This World. The Ralbag explains that Hashem created each min (species) to be different in order to create a hierarchical chain because that would encourage us to recognize the Ultimate First Cause at the top.
Indeed we who live in a postmodern circle-like society where authority is consistently knocked off its pedestal and distinctions are blurred to the point of nonexistence are witness to the havoc wrought when a circle perspective is imposed Korach-like on This World. Unfortunately we’ve seen from up close what a tiny step it is from a complaint about rabbinic authority to a who-is-G-d-to-tell-me-what-to-do-maybe-He-should-listen-to-me approach Rachmana litzlan.
Yet just as what a baby needs to stay alive in the womb is diametrically opposite to what he needs when he’s birthed into this world so too what’s crucial in This World will be foreign in the World to Come. The feminine force always represents the long-awaited future which is why in many ways it’s devalued in this world. Hashem has handed women the exceedingly delicate task of remaining faithful to that circle voice — which places interconnection reciprocity and mutuality at center stage — even while recognizing that This World must remain hierarchical.
The redemption at the Yam Suf though was a foreshadowing of that long-awaited feminine future time. The Shelah points out that Miriam used a specifically male term when she talked to the women (vata’an lahem instead of vata’an lahen) while Moshe used the feminine word ashirah because at this moment of revelation there was a switch of sorts.
Women who are lower on the hierarchy here in This World in terms of their knowledge of Torah were rewarded for their intense emunah — demonstrated by their having brought their instruments in anticipation of the great salvation — and the simplest among them experienced a revelation worthy of Yechezkel the great prophet.
Rav Tzaddok Hakohein tells us that whereas the men merited the “pointing of the finger ” that crystal-clear knowledge of Hashem (zeh Keili) the women experienced the circle dance of the future as well. That gift of vision handed to the Jewish People on the banks of the Red Sea was an equal-opportunity vision. The world suddenly turned from a male linear hierarchical world to the joy and love of a feminine circle world where all of us are interconnected and interdependent and only Hashem stands outside of us uniting us all around Him and pouring His bounty onto all.
Because of their intrinsic femininity it seems that the women were able to touch that moment of feminine truth in a more direct way than the men. Note that while Moshe spoke in the future: “Ashirah laHashem — I will sing to Hashem ” Miriam spoke in the present: “Shiru laHashem — sing to Hashem.”
Interestingly the Kli Yakar explains the use of the male lahem to point out that just as in the long-awaited future the physical will be stripped away and any hierarchy between men and women will disappear so too in a foreshadowing of that final redemption at the Splitting of the Sea men and women were equal in their revelation.
The Gemara tells us that someone who wants to see the Well of Miriam should go up to the top of Mount Carmel and look down into the sea where the well will appear as a sieve in the water. What a beautiful metaphor the sieve is for that yearning heart which seems such an undependable agent because of the swiftness with which emotions come and go.
One woman described to me how she tried to track her emotions on paper while she was giving supper to her children as an exercise in self-awareness. She gave up because within less than a minute she had the following list: worry anger relief joy irritation jealousy love and worry again.
If emotions are like that how seriously can we take them? And yet that mercurial heart is the seat of all love the source from which yearning springs. Relationship is impossible without it — but if love can only be given freely and never imposed or forced; if by definition like all emotions it waxes and wanes according to transitory moods and external factors how can we build anything upon it?
Rav Avraham Yitzchak Kook ztz”l points out that Mount Carmel the setting for an intense emotional encounter — where Eliyahu Hanavi brought the Jewish People to revelation — is the perfect spot to perceive the eternal power of the Well of Miriam. True you can’t force a heart to feel — emotions ebb and flow as through a sieve; just as you reach out to grasp one it’s gone. Yet when the heart is immersed in the sea of Torah that permeable responsive and free heart remains forever full.
There are yearnings — I want this and I want that — and there is Yearning. The Ultimate Bestower is waiting for us to wait for Him but we’re too busy yearning for a green light a cup of coffee or a self-cleaning refrigerator. May we merit this Pesach to ground ourselves in the eternity of Torah and transform our transient desires into a yearning that will bring down the Abundance from Above. (Originally featured in Family First Issue 537)
Miriam Kosman is a lecturer for Nefesh Yehudi and teaches Jewish thought to hundreds of Israeli university students each week. In addition she teaches a Nefesh Yehudi Kiruv Training course in Jerusalem and is the author of Circle Arrow Spiral: Exploring Gender in Judaism.
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