28 July 2016

Ancient Idol’s Foot Unearthed in Israel and Andy Warhol’s “Brillo Boxes”

A foot broken off from a life-size sculpture was unearthed on Monday, July 25, 2016, at the archeological dig at Tel Hazor, north of the Sea of Galilee.  This large limestone foot with an Egyptian hieroglyphic inscription on its base was discovered by an American volunteer at the excavation, a key site from the biblical period.



Professor Amnon Ben-Tor of the Hebrew University’s Institute of Archeology said that it was most likely from a temple of the Egyptian god Ptah.   He added that the deliberate mutilation of statues in the 13th century BCE commonly accompanied the conquest of towns in Canaan (1 Samuel 5:1-4 and Isaiah 11:9).  

The Torah portion Mattot/Tribes (Numbers 30:2-32:42) read in synagogues in Israel this week and next week in USA relates to this discovery of an idol fragment. 

The Talmud asks the question, “In what context is a foot or hand fragment of an idol considered idolatrous?” Exploring Andy Warhol’s artwork “Brillo Boxes” in relation to real Brillo boxes in a supermarket aisle can help us appreciate the centuries-old Talmudic dialogue about idolatry in contemporary terms.  The discussion below is based on the “Numbers: Aesthetic Peace” and the “Look Beyond the Image” chapters in my book Photograph God: Creating a Spiritual Blog of Your Life http://photographgod.com.  

MATTOT/TRIBES  

“None of the men over 20 years old who left Egypt will see the land that I swore to Abraham, to Isaac and to Jacob since they did not follow me wholeheartedly.  The only exceptions will be Calev son of Yefuneh, the independent one, and Joshua son of Nun.” (Numbers 32:11-12) 

“God said, ‘The only exception will be My servant Calev, since he showed a different spirit and followed Me wholeheartedly.  I will bring him to the land that he explored, and his descendants will possess it.’" (Numbers 14:24)

Moses brought the Torah to a band of slaves living for centuries in Egypt’s idolatrous culture.

The Torah today was brought to Israel by Jews after millennia scattered among scores of alien and hostile cultures.

Calev's different spirit and independent thought is sorely needed by Calev's descendants who have resettled the Land of Israel in our day.

Jews are called “Jews” since they are from the tribe of Judah, Calev’s tribe.  

Ten of the spies feared that entering Canaan would rob them of a purely spiritual life and force upon them the drudgery left behind in Egypt.

Those Israelites who desired a life of Torah study divorced from enacting Torah in the everyday world were sentenced to die in the desert.  

The Lubavitcher Rebbe explains that "The miracles which sustained the Jews in the wilderness were not the apex of spiritual existence."

"They were only a preparation for the real task: taking possession of the Land of Israel and making it a holy land."

"The purpose of life lived in Torah is not the elevation of the soul; it is the sanctification of the world."

Only Joshua and Calev with his "different spirit" could envision holy sparks emerging from commonplace tasks and hard work.

Calev saw that the same activities forced on slaves in Egypt could be transformed into acts of spiritual significance when done freely.

SEEING IS NOT ENOUGH

My creative work, teaching and research as artist, art professor at Columbia University and research fellow at MIT Center for Advanced Visual Studies has made me understand that seeing is not just visual perception, it is conceptual construction.   What is seen gains its significance from the context in which it is seen.  Concept and context move seeing beyond a simple visual experience. 

My research and teaching art in Jewish thought and aesthetic education as professor at Ariel and Bar-Ilan universities has given me the realization that new art forms in a networked world are redefining art in ways related to Jewish thought and experience.  I explore the “different spirit” emerging from the breakdown of the Renaissance definition of art in my books The Future of Art in Postdigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness (Intellect Books/University of Chicago Press) http://future-of-art.com and in Hebrew Dialogic Art in a Digital World: Judaism and Contemporary Art.  

In his ground-breaking book Beyond the Brillo Box: The Visual Arts in Post-Historical Perspective, my Columbia University colleague, philosophy professor Arthur Danto emphasizes that what makes the difference between art and non-art is not visual but conceptual.  He writes: “The eye, so prized an aesthetic organ when it was felt that the difference between art and non-art was visible, was philosophically of no use whatever when the differences proved instead to be invisible.” 

 
Danto describes how visual arts came to an end and were transformed into conceptual art at Andy Warhol’s 1964 exhibition at the Stable Gallery in New York.  In the art gallery, Warhol stacked boxes on which he had screen-printed the Brillo logo. They looked identical to the cartons of Brillo soap pads that we see in supermarket aisles. We could no longer see the difference between “Brillo Boxes” (the work of art) and Brillo boxes (the mere real things). What Warhol taught was that there is no way of telling the difference by merely looking. The history of Western art as a progression of one visually discernible art style superseding a previous style came to an end.

I believe that what we are witnessing is not the end of art, but the end of art derived from a Jewish structure of consciousness. The contemporary redefinition of art is congruent with a Hebraic biblical consciousness as expressed in the Talmud. Danto’s radical new proposal that concept and context rather than visual appearance gives meaning to images and objects was discussed millennia ago by rabbis dealing with idolatry and Greek aesthetics.  Their discussion is found in the Talmud’s tractate on idolatry Avodah Zarah “Strange Worship.”  The Talmud is a 5,894 page compendium of Jewish law and lore that has a tractate about idolatry, what God isn’t, but none on knowing God, what God is.

The rabbis explored whether found fragments of a statue such as a hand or foot are prohibited or permitted.  Can you pick these parts of an idol up and place them in your home as a decoration?   They concluded that if you see an idol worshiper shatter the statue, it is as if he nullified it as an idol.  It is, therefore, permitted.  However, if the statue was broken by a Jew who never considered it to be an idol, it is prohibited.  The most interesting argument deals with an idol that fell down by itself and broke.  Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish reasoned, the hand or foot are permitted because the owner of the idol annuls it by saying, “If it could not save itself, so how could it save me.”  Both the permitted and prohibited idol parts look exactly the same, indeed they are the same hand or foot.  Concept and context decide what cannot be decided by the visual sense alone.

There are many other examples throughout the Talmud that emphasize that seeing is not enough.  In the same tractate on strange worship, the pagan Greek Proclos puts a question to Rabbi Gamliel who was bathing in a pool in front a large statute of Aphrodite. “If your Torah forbids idolatry, why are you bathing in the Bath of Aphrodite?” The rabbi answered, “I did not come into her domain.  She came into mine.” If the statue of Aphrodite was erected and then a pool was made to honor her, it would be forbidden for a Jew to bathe there. However, if the pool was made first and the statue was placed there as an adornment, then it is permitted.  The difference is invisible.   

Concept and context determine meaning in the case of an idol’s foot and the statute of Aphrodite, like Pop art Brillo boxes in an art gallery rather than in a supermarket or Minimalist art plywood panels hanging in a museum rather than stacked in a lumberyard. The visual sense alone cannot discern between art and non-art today or between idol and mere decoration yesterday.  Significance is contextual and conceptual rather than merely visual.

(From The Times of Israel, July 28, 2016)

25 July 2016

Art Awakening After 2000-Year Coma: The Zionist Miracle

(From The Times of Israel, July 21, 2016, and IsraelSeen http://israelseen.com/2016/07/26/mel-alexenberg-art-awakening-after-2000-year-coma-the-zionist-miracle/)

“God said to Moses, ‘Go up to this mountain of Avarim and see the Land that I have given to the Children of Israel.  You shall see it.’" (Numbers 27:12)  These two sentences appear in Pinhas, the eighth portion of the biblical book Numbers, read in synagogues in Israel on Shabbat, July 23, 2016 and in USA on July 30, 2016.

Why does the Torah, known not to waste words, repeat the word “see”?  Did Moses see something different the second time?

The brilliant Torah scholar Rabbi Haim ben Attar (born 1696 in Morocco, died 1743 in Jerusalem) proposed that Moses’ first vision was seeing the Land of Israel as it appeared in his day.  He saw the desert landscape extending from the Dead Sea to the Mediterranean.  He blinked his eyes and saw life in the Land of Israel in our day.  His sight was transformed into insight.  He could see children playing in the streets in the State of Israel as was predicted by the prophet Zekhariah “And the streets of the city will be filled with boys and girls playing.”


Moses played the leading role in the exodus from Egypt by bringing his people to the borders of the Land of Israel.  The great biblical miracle of liberating thousands from enslavement in Egypt after hundreds of years of exile pales in comparison with the Zionist miracle in our time of liberating millions of Jews from persecution, pogroms, and the Holocaust in a hundred countries after thousands of years of exile and bringing them home to Israel.  Moses could see the Zionist miracle realized.   

Choosing to be an integral part of this Zionist miracle, unprecedented in world history, offers me enthralling creative opportunities as an artist.  I draw inspiration from the Zionist challenge of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook to “renew the old and sanctify the new” as I explore the vibrant interface between the structure of Jewish consciousness, the realization of the Zionist dream in the State of Israel, and new directions in art emerging from postdigital creativity in a networked world.  The wellsprings of my Zionism flows from my Jewish roots and values experienced in a world where art, science, technology and culture address each other. 

As two artists, my wife Miriam and I created the “Torah Tweets” blogart project to link our story to the biblical narrative http://bibleblogyourlife.blogspot.com through photography and digital poetry disseminated worldwide through the blogosphere and twitterverse.   Below is our “Torah Tweets” post for this week’s Torah portion Pinhas (Numbers 25:10-30:1) that is elucidated in my book Photograph God: Creating a Spiritual Blog of Your Life http://photographgod.com that teaches people of all faiths to link the emerging stories their lives to the Bible’s stories.

SIGHT AND INSIGHT

Pinhas (Numbers 25:10-30:1)

God said to Moses, "Go up to this mountain of Avarim and see the Land that I have given to the Children of Israel.  You shall see it." (Numbers 27:12)

And the streets of the city will be filled with boys and girls playing. (Zekhariah 8:5)

God said to Abram, "Go for yourself from your land, from your birthplace, and from your father's house to the land that you will come to see." (Genesis 12:1)

Why is "see" repeated twice?  At first glance, Moses saw the Dead Sea and desert.  Then, he saw the future of his people in their land.

Rabbi Haim ben Attar explained that Moses gained a deeper vision and grasp of the inner spiritual essence of life in the Land of Israel. (Or Hahaim)

Moses could see children playing in the Land of Israel.

Seeing Zekhariah’s vision realized, we photographed our grandchildren and great-grandchildren:

Renana, Inbal, Rachelle, Yishai, Elan, Talia, Or, Yahel, Shirel, Meitav, Tagel, Razel, Elianne, Avraham, Nadav, Ariel, Eliad, Tahila.


The Jewish people's story begins by linking kinesthetic and visual senses. Abram sees the land in a new light by walking away from his past.

On receiving the Ten Commandments, the Torah tells of the Israelites' synesthetic experience:  All the people saw the sounds. (Exodus 20:15)

Passive hearing is transformed into internalized visions of the script for creating a better world.

The Torah formula for transforming sight into insight is:  May God expand Yefet, but he will dwell in the tents of Shem. (Genesis 9:27)

The name of Noah's son Yefet is related to visual beauty.  Yefet's son is Yavan (Greece).

Beauty in ancient Greece is seen in the elegance of outward form.  Israel descends from Shem, related to shemiyah (hearing).  

Torah beauty is tiferet the innermost emanation of divine light that integrates our intentions, thoughts and feelings through creative action.

AWAKE AFTER A 2000-YEAR COMA

(From my book The Future of Art in a Postdigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness http://future-of-art.com)

Rabbi Abraham Yitzhak Kook, a down-to-earth mystic who served as Chief Rabbi of the Land of Israel, wrote a letter of congratulations on the founding of the Bezalel Art School in Jerusalem. By way of allegory, he refers to the revival of Jewish art and aesthetics after two thousand years of exile as a child in a coma who awakes calling for her doll.

“The pleasant and beloved child, the delightful daughter, after a long and forlorn illness, with a face as pallid as plaster, bluish lips, fever burning like a fiery furnace, and convulsive shaking and trembling, behold! She has opened her eyes and her tightly sealed lips, her little hands move with renewed life, her thin pure fingers wander hither and thither, seeking their purpose; her lips move and almost revert to their normal color, and as if through a medium a voice is heard: ‘Mother, Mother, the doll, give me the doll, the dear doll, which I have not seen for so long.’ A voice of mirth and a voice of gladness, all are joyous, the father, the mother, the brothers and sisters, even the elderly man and woman who, because of their many years, have forgotten their children’s games.”

Rabbi Kook saw artists at work as a clear sign of the rebirth of the Jewish people in its homeland. Their playful spirit nurturing sensitivity for beauty “will uplift depressed souls, giving them a clear and illuminating view of the beauty of life, nature, and work.”

Conceptual/Kinetic Art for Creating Community that Honors Individuality



I link Balak, the seventh portion of the biblical book Numbers, to the eruv as a conceptual and kinetic artform that symbolizes community honoring individuality.  It is read in synagogues in Israel on Shabbat, July 16, 2016, and in USA on July 23, 2016.   

The eruv creates a communal public space that permits observant Jews to carry on the Sabbath.  Most cities and villages in Israel have an eruv surrounding them constructed of poles linked by a string or wire.  Jewish communities in the Diaspora, generally define space by linking things already there, such as telephone lines, electric wires, river banks, and the backs of buildings,    

The eruv changes in seven-day cycles like a kinetic artwork. To observant Jews who are carrying, it acquires the properties of a stone wall from sunset on Friday until stars appear in the sky on Saturday night.  During the other six days of the week it serves no religious purpose.  It is as if it disappears.  Although the eruv exists in space and defines it, its actual significance is in time.  Like the Sabbath itself, the eruv is architecture in time.  The eruv creates a dialogue between the invisible and visible, conceptual and real, space and time.

I first recognized the eruv as conceptual and kinetic art in the 1970’s when I was art professor at Columbia University and living in Teaneck, New Jersey.  I was on the Eruv Committee of Congregation B’nai Yeshurun building the first eruv in the state. We negotiated with the municipality and the electric and telephone companies to modify their poles in accordance with requirements discussed in the Talmud.  In anticipation of other towns’ requests to build an eruv, PSE&G electric company and New Jersey Bell printed “Eruv Forms.”  On July 15, 2016, I accessed 19,000 sites when I typed into Google “eruv new jersey.”   In 1999, a year after the founding of Google, there were only two sites.


COMMUNITY HONORING INDIVIDUALITY 
(From the “Torah Tweets” blogart project http://bibleblogyourlife.com created by my wife Miriam and me, and in my book Photograph God http://photographgod.com.)

BALAK (Numbers 22:2-25:9)

Balak son of Tzipor was then king of Moab….  He sent emissaries to Bilaam to summon him, saying, "Behold, a people has come out of Egypt…come and curse this people for me." Bilaam raised his eyes and saw Israel dwelling according to their tribes and the divine spirit was upon him….  He declaimed his parable and said: "How goodly are your tents, O Jacob, your dwelling places, O Israel, stretching out like brooks, like gardens by a river, like aloes planted by God, like cedars by water.  Water shall flow from its wells and his seed shall be by abundant waters."    (Numbers 22:4, 5, 6, 24: 2, 3, 5-7)

What is good and what God requires of you: Only to do justly and love kindness and walk humbly with God.  (Micha 6:8)

When Solomon, descendent of Ruth the Moabite, was king of Israel, his wisdom linking eruv and n'tilat yadayim elicited Divine rejoicing. (Talmud: Eruvin 21b and Shabbat 14b)


An eruv is a boundary integrating private properties into a joint communal domain that makes life more pleasant for Sabbath observers.

N'tilat yadayim is a hand-washing ritual performed each morning to celebrate the wonder of wakefulness and before meals to sanctify life.

An eruv creates community while n'tilat yadayim is a private act of holding up hands to reveal fingerprints that highlight individuality.

Balak is a descendent of Moab, son of Lot who separated from his uncle Abraham to live in Sodom where contempt for human diversity was policy.

We surrounded a hill at the site of the demolished evil Sodom with an eruv constructed from 7 telephone poles connected by rope lintels.


Along the hill's ridge, 10 different hand-washing vessels created by Miriam's students reflected the distinctive vision of each student. 


Our environmental artwork teaches that the highest good is reached when we create community that honors what is unique in every person.

Creating community that pays tribute to the emergence of individuality and facilitates its free expression invites God's highest joy.

Rabbi Avi Weiss points out that we have come full circle. Ruth takes heroic strides to embrace Abraham's family that Lot had left for Sodom.

ERUV AS CONCEPTUAL AND KINETIC ART

(From the catalog description of my artworks in “The Poetics of the Eruv” exhibition at Yale University Art Galleries as abstracted from my book, The Future of Art in a Postdigital Age: From Hellenistic to Hebraic Consciousness, Intellect Books/University of Chicago Press http://future-of-art.com .)

SODOM ERUV

The significance of King Solomon’s wisdom linking eruv to the hand-washing ritual of n’tilat yadayim appeared to me as I stood in the heat of the day at the lowest spot on Planet Earth, at Sodom, the desolate site of the notorious biblical city of ill fame.  Before me was a hill from which two distant purple mountain ranges arose.  To the south was Edom, the biblical home of Amalek who attacked and murdered the straggling Israelites. The range to the north was Moav, the birthplace of Ruth, progenitor of kings David and Solomon. 

I had been invited to create an environmental artwork at Sodom for the public to see on Purim.  Haman, the villain of the Purim story, is a reincarnation of Amalek.  Contemplating links between the two biblical books named for women, Ruth and Esther, made it clear to me that my artwork should bring together Sodom and Purim by linking eruv and n’tilat yadayim.    

Building an eruv is a communal act that creates community while n’tilat yadaim is the private act that highlights individuality revealed in the uniqueness of fingerprints.  The denizens both of Sodom and of Haman's Persia idolized bureaucratic standardization that denied individuality.  

I surrounded the hill at Sodom with an eruv constructed from seven telephone poles connected by rope lintels. Ten sawed-down poles were planted along the ridge of the hill.  The short poles served as pedestals for ten one-of-a-kind ceramic vessels filled with water for hand washing.  From a distance, the vessel-topped poles looked like a minyan, the quorum needed to create a community of worshippers. 

I felt on that scorching day at Sodom that my artwork could disarm Amalek and Haman in all their reincarnations; it could teach that the highest good is reached when we create community that honors what is unique about each person.  To create community that pays tribute to the emergence of individuality and facilitates its free expression invites God’s greatest joy.

MIAMI BEACH ERUV


The Miami Beach Eruv is the largest environmental sculpture in America that can be perceived as both a kinetic and a conceptual artwork.  The Miami Beach Eruv runs for twenty miles around all of Miami Beach.  It carries a spiritual message while meandering through the gross material world, passing between the colorfully painted Art Deco buildings on Ocean Drive and the beautiful models sunning themselves on the beach.  It is constructed of poles linked by a string.  Traffic passes under its string lintel hovering from pole to pole over the causeways to the mainland of North America.

The kinetic eruv changes in seven-day cycles. To observant Jews who are carrying, it acquires the properties of a solid wall from sunset on Friday until stars dot the sky on Saturday night.  Although the eruv is visually transparent, it becomes conceptually opaque.  Yet during the other six days of the week it serves no halakhic purpose.  It is as if it disappears.  Although the eruv exists in space and defines it, its actual significance is in time.  Like the Sabbath itself, the eruv is architecture in time.

I created a painting of an eruv passing above a generic Art Deco building in Miami Beach.  It was exhibited in “The Poetics of the Eruv” at Yale University.  A digital version hangs in the Institute of Sacred Music at Yale Divinity School.     

22 July 2016

Ancient Selfies and Miriam’s Well


My Times of Israel blog posts http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/author/mel-alexenberg/exploring the biblical portion of the week usually begin with the “Torah Tweets” blogart project of digital photography and Twitter poetry created by my wife Miriam and me http://bibleblogyourlife.blogspot.com. 

Hukat/Decree, the sixth portion of the biblical book Numbers, is about Moses’ sister Miriam, not to be confused with my wife Miriam.  It was read in synagogues in USA on Shabbat, July 16, 2016, and in Israel on July 9, 2016.

SEDUCTIVE SELFIES UNDER PHARAOH’S WHIP

Miriam saves the Israelites by encouraging the women to make sexually-enticing selfies to seduce their exhausted men toiling under Pharaoh’s whip.  Making polished brass mirrors to beautify themselves resulted in intimate relations that gave rise to a new generation of Jewish children.    Miriam saves the Israelites again by providing a well of water that followed them on their trek across the desert.

Moses told the Israelites to contribute materials for creating the furnishings of the Tabernacle.  Women brought gold and silver.  Those women who had nothing of value to contribute brought the brass mirrors that they used in Egypt to entice their weary husbands.  Moses recoiled in disgust that these women would have to audacity to bring objects for a sacred sanctuary made of cheap metal designed to inspire lustful thoughts.  God rebuked Moses and said to him, “Accept them, for these are more precious to Me than anything because through them children were born in Egypt when their husbands were weary from back-breaking labor.”

TORAH TWEETS: HUKAT/DECREE (Numbers 19:1-22:1)

“The entire Israelite community came to the Tzin Wilderness in the first month and the people stopped in Kadesh.  It was there that Miriam died and was buried. The people did not have any water, so they began demonstrating against Moses and Aaron.”  (Numbers 20:1, 2)

(I recently found the photo below posted on my Facebook timeline by a young woman who wrote, “Those two students in the photo are my parents.”  My wife Miriam and I didn’t know our role as matchmakers at the college we founded in the Negev desert in 1977.)  


In the Tzin Wilderness where Miriam, sister of Moses and Aaron, ended her journey, the 7 Torah letters crowned with tagin ascended.

Little 3-pronged tagin crown letters of heavy words of hardship to lighten them for their heavenward ascent when the Torah is read.

Hebrew letters in the everyday world meet tagin in the emotional world where compassion, strength, success, and splendor surround beauty. 

On a rocky cliff overlooking the Tzin Wilderness, Mel and his students attached tagin made of balloons attached to rainbow painted letters.

As the weather balloons filled with hydrogen (helium was not available) ascended, an eagle spiraled up around them.

Miriam's brothers ascended to mountain tops and engaged in priestly rites while she brought spirituality down to earth – Torah to water. 

Miriam's life was linked to water.  She saved baby Moses floating on the Nile and led singing and dancing on crossing the Red Sea.

The Israelites were sustained by water from Miriam's well that followed them through their desert wanderings.

The Arizal, Rabbi Isaac Luria, taught that on entering the Land of Israel, Miriam's well reappeared gushing water beneath the Sea of Galilee.


He took his student Chaim Vital in a boat on the Sea above Miriam's well, opposite pillars of an old synagogue, and gave him water to drink.

The Arizal said, "Now you will attain wisdom from this water." From then on, Chaim Vital felt he was entering the depths of Torah wisdom.

SUCCESSFUL ORCHESTRATION (Based upon my book Photograph God http://photographgod.com.)   

Miriam, like her brother Moses, represents the kabbalistic concept netzah.  The Hebrew word netzah has multiple meanings.  It can mean “success and victory” in overcoming obstacles and fighting injustice.  It also can mean “eternity and perpetuity,” leading to prophetic vision, long-range view, endurance, and staying power.   We find it introducing many of the Psalms as the word for “orchestra conductor or choirmaster,” suggesting mastery, organizational skills, and leadership in guiding a diverse group of players to work together in creating an integrated whole. 

Miriam rebelled against the debilitating hopelessness of centuries of bitter slavery.  In Hebrew, her name is related to both the words for “rebellion” and “bitterness.”   She successfully orchestrated saving her baby brother Moses by rebelling against Pharaoh’s evil decree to murder all Hebrew new-born boys.  She organized the women in activities that restored the hope for freedom lost by their husbands.  After crossing the Red Sea, she leads the women in singing and dancing with tambourines of rebellion. Miriam’s Well provided drinking water for the Israelites in the parched desert.  These key actions in Miriam’s life are all linked to water.  Water in kabbalah symbolizes the flow of divine light from heaven to earth.

As a young girl, Miriam hid among the high rushes growing on the banks of the Nile River.  She stood watch from afar over her baby brother Moses floating away in a reed basket that her mother had made.  She saw Pharaoh’s daughter Batyah come to bathe in the river and discover the basket.   Hearing the woeful cries of the baby, Batyah decided to rescue him and adopt him.  Miriam had the chutzpah to approach the royal princess and suggest that she could arrange to have a woman nurse the baby.  When Batyah agreed, Miriam brought Moses back to his own mother who coupled material nourishment with the spiritual nourishment that prepared him for growing up as a prince in the royal palace. (Exodus 2:1-10)

Years later, after the Red Sea drowned the Egyptian’s pursuing the Israelites with their cavalry and chariots to return them to slavery, Moses led the Israelites in a song of thanksgiving (Exodus 15:1-18).   “Miriam the prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took a tambourine in her hand, and all the women followed her with tambourines, dancing” (Exodus 15:20).  How did the women get tambourines to take with them in their hasty retreat from Egypt?  They didn’t even have enough time to bake their bread that turned into stiff matzah under the desert sun.   Miriam had instilled her unwavering faith in the eventual redemption in the Israelite women.  She encouraged the women to make tambourines in anticipation of a time when they would sing and dance with them in joyous celebration of their freedom.  She encouraged the women not to lose their vision of a better future despite the bitterness of their brutal bondage and their misery mourning their murdered children.  They shared Miriam’s rebellious spirit to overpower their depression, despair, and hopelessness.

 The high point of the Song of the Sea was followed by a great let down with the realization that a long journey through the parched desert lies ahead.    In response to Miriam’s inner strength, successful leadership, and faith in a better future, God provided a wondrous well that followed the Israelites, gushing drinking water wherever they camped.  However, when Miriam died and was buried in the Tzin wilderness, there was no more water. Without Miriam, the traveling well disappeared and the community was left without water (Numbers 20:1-2). The oral tradition suggests that the source of underground water was contingent upon Miriam's song.   Thereafter, the Israelites could only bring forth water by singing Miriam’s song of divine praise that she had orchestrated with tambourines and dance at the Red Sea. 

Wells are associated with settlement and the wells the patriarchs had dug.  The Tzin wilderness where Miriam’s life ended was the entry point into the Promised Land for the leaders of the Israelite tribes to spy out the land.  It would seem obvious that they would return to joyfully lead their people into the land their ancestors had settled.  Except for Caleb, who possessed a different spirit, and Joshua, Moses’s disciple, the other tribal leaders argued against settling the land where they would have to dig wells, plant and sow, build homes, fight wars, and collect garbage.  They opted for a fully spiritual life in the desert where they could devote all their energies to Torah study while free manna food was delivered to their tents and water supplied from an itinerant well.  They missed the main point of the Torah that genuine spirituality can only arise from the quality of our daily encounter with the material world.     The divine response to their rejection of lowering heaven to earth was the death sentence.  The rejectionists were condemned to wander in the desert for forty years until all of them had died off. 

After Miriam was buried, her well departed from the desert to settle in the Promised Land anticipating that all the Israelites would soon follow.  Legend tells that Miriam’s Well found its home beneath the Sea of Galilee.  The water gushing up from under the lake can be seen to this day from the shore at the city of Tiberius.   To the Prophetess Miriam’s credit, her well continues to feed the Sea of Galilee, a major source of drinking water for the population of modern Israel, mostly the descendants of Caleb’s tribe of Judah.   Archeologists have recently identified Miriam’s Well according to the description of the site by the great 16th century kabbalist known as The Arizal.