It’s the March madness, with Purim leading to Pesach and as I write this, I am looking at 100 Queen Esthers running around my youngest child’s kindergarten.
It’s gorgeous and cute, and yet also disturbing. What are we telling our daughters to aspire to? Who are the heroes they will want to be when they are ‘big’?
Although we tell the kids that Esther won the beauty pageant (which is already a problem — you want your daughter to aspire to beauty pageants?!), the Megillah tells us that she was trafficked into the prospective wife competition and then forced to enter a harem system to await her chosen night with the king. Yes, she is the heroine of the story, but her position is a fraught one, and G!d forbid any of our daughters should have to walk in her shoes.
Well, Purim will be long gone by the time you read this (I was dressed as Mr Spock — Leonard Nimoy died just before Purim), and Pesach will be on the doorstep. Oh, and what about Pesach? Who leads your seder, and who cooks the food? Who cleans out the chametz? Along with all the (male) rabbis quoted in the haggadah, do you mention Moses? (he’s actually not even in the Haggadah) or talk about Miriam who watched him down the Nile River and negotiated with Pharaoh’s daughter to get Yocheved, his mother, to be his wet-nurse? Or back up, do you talk about Shifrah and Pu’ah, the midwives who bravely saved the Israelite boys from being drowned in the Nile, without whom there would have been no Moses or any Israelites to free? In fact, the opening stories of Exodus are all about heroic women, women who have been dropped from the narrative. As the Talmud puts it, ”If it wasn’t for the righteousness of women of that generation we would not have been redeemed from Egypt” (Babylonian Talmud, Sotah 9b).
So here’s a custom that many have started to include on their Seder tables. The custom is based on a midrash (Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 9a) that during Miriam’s lifetime, and because of her special merit, the Children of Israel drank water from a miraculous well that followed them as they wandered through the desert. When she died, their water disappeared immediately. (B’midbar 20:1-2) According to Rashi, it was a rock from which would issue forth water. It would roll along and accompany the people of Israel in their wanderings.
For seder night, decorate a beautiful cup for Miriam and give it a place of honour in the centre of the table. At a suitable moment in the evening, explain the Midrash that Miriam provided the well of water that sustained the Israelites in their 40-year trek around the Sinai Peninsula. Ask everyone to pour a little bit of water from their own glasses in turn into Miriam’s Cup in celebration of the unsung female heroines of the Exodus and of all women since then, and as they pour the water, let them name a female ancestor recent or ancient, who has inspired them. Declare “Zot kos Miriam, kos Mayyim Chaim — this is the cup of Miriam, the cup of Living Waters” and place it next to Elijah’s Cup on the table. Invite everyone to be part of the process of freeing the world from the slaveries of gender — of trafficking, of professional glass ceilings, of objectified bodies and of rape and abuse. And may we all come out of this Pesach wiser and free-er.