This week we read a double parashah. Usually Chukat and Balak are read separately, however, on certain years they are read together when the second day of Shavuot falls on the Sabbath in the Diaspora. After this happens, subsequent Torah readings between Israel and the Diaspora are then in sync.
Parashah Chukat begins with the laws of the Red Heifer, a ritual to purify those who have been in contact with a corpse. After 40 years of journeying through the desert, the people of Israel arrive in the wilderness at Zin. Miriam dies and is buried there. The people complain they have no water. God tells Moses to speak to a stone and command it to give water. Instead, Moses strikes the stone and the water flows. Moses’ anger results in God telling Moses and Aaron they will not enter the Promised Land.
Aaron dies at Mount Hor and is succeeded by his son Eleazar. The people again grow restless and speak against God and Moses complaining there is no bread and no water. Moses prays for the people and God tells Moses to make a fiery serpent and put it on a high pole. Anyone who was bitten could look at it and be saved. The Israelites march on to battle with those who try to prevent their passage into the lands east of Jordan.
Parashah Balak tells the story of Balak, king of Moab, Balaam, a sorcerer, and a talking female donkey. When Balak sees the Israelite’s victory over the Amorites, he is alarmed. Fearing that the Israelites are too powerful to defeat in battle, he sends for Balaam and instructs him to curse the Israelites. At first, God forbids Balaam to accept this mission, but later God allows him to go if he agrees to obey God’s commands.
As he sets off on the road, his donkey stops him three times, seeing an angel with a sword standing in front of them. Balaam, seeing nothing, yells at her, hits her, and presses her forward. The donkey’s mouth miraculously opens, and she asks him why he is treating her like this: Has she not always been his trusty steed? Finally, the prophet’s eyes are opened. He speaks with the angel and continues his journey, knowing that he can only speak the words that God gives him. The curses he is commissioned to give turn into blessings. The king of Moab is foiled, and the Israelites march on.
The death of Miriam is barely given importance in the Torah. “She died there and was buried there. And there was no water for the community.” That is all that is said. There is no mention of how she died, who buried her, or of her accomplishments during her lifetime. It seems that the water followed Miriam as she wandered through the desert. As long as she lived, the water helped sustain the people.
There is no limit to what women can accomplish. We raise our children, take care of our home, help care for our families, comfort the sick, bake the challah, and do acts of lovingkindness. We engage in careers, demonstrate for social justice, raise money for philanthropic causes, and we authored The Torah: A Women’s Commentary.
Until I started to work on this Voices piece, I did not remember that this day, July 3, is the eighteenth anniversary of my Aunt Sandi’s Yahrzeit. Also known as “Most Gorgeous Aunt Sandi”, my aunt was an important person in my life. As the first born of all the cousins on my mom’s side, I was the favorite (sorry sibs). My aunt took a picture with me as an infant feeding me a bottle. When I turned 21, we took a picture, with the same pose, and instead of a bottle of formula it was a bottle of whisky. We spent a lot of time together and it is the simple memories I treasure. Sandi taught me how to erase pencil marks without leaving smudges on the paper and inspired me to always do my best in school. Sandi worked for the New York City Board of Education. To advance in her position, she took college classes, one of which was an art class. Sandi had a blob of clay, painted it red and then did not know what it was or what to do with it. So, she stuck her thumb in the front of the long end and said it was fish. Neither of her sons wanted it so she gave it to me “because Lisa would appreciate it.”
Aunt Sandi never missed a softball game or school show my cousins were in. All my cousins’ friends knew and loved her. It is because of Most Gorgeous Aunt Sandi I have a passionate love of ice cream. When I was single and still living in New York, Aunt Sandi would call me and say, “hey Lee, let’s go out for some potassium.” And we would go for a banana split. For many years, on July 3rd we would have an ice cream social in honor of Aunt Sandi, complete with at least 8 flavors of ice cream, every kind of topping imaginable, the two pictures mentioned above, and the fish on the table.
On the anniversary of Aunt Sandi’s yahrzeit, the double parashah, and our struggle to survive and thrive during the Covid-19 pandemic, I hope you take the opportunity to appreciate the Aunt Sandi’s in your life, consider all your blessings, celebrate the small and special moments, and enjoy a double scoop of ice cream. A sweet Shabbat to you and those you love.
Lisa Singer currently serves as Treasurer on the WRJ board. She is a Past District Treasurer and has served different roles at her congregation Temple Israel in Akron, Ohio.