Sometimes things just come together perfectly. And it’s hard to image a better time than Pesach for that magical act of creativity to happen.
The leaders of Congregation Beth El in South Orange, like so many other congregational rabbis in shuls around the world, have been rethinking how to make and maintain community during these odd times. Its rabbis, Jesse Olitzky and Rachel Marder, and the rest of the staff have been tossing ideas back and forth.
The shul’s leadership decided, among many other things, that once a week the clergy members would station themselves in the parking lot as members drove by them. They would give them some object, if possible related to the time of the Jewish year, as well as the intangible but perhaps more important chance to see the rabbis and cantor as regular people, living not on the bimah or on screen but at normal human scale.
“In December, we gave out sufganiyot and gelt, for Chanukah,” Rabbi Olitzky said. In other months, when the Jewish calendar yielded fewer holidays, “we set up a coffee bar, and invited people to let their rabbis be their baristas.”
Last month, for Purim, synagogue members got mishloach manot and groggers. That one was easy. But Pesach is harder. Most families already have most of the ritual objects that go on the seder plate; often those objects come with memories and have emotional as well as, often, financial value. They didn’t need more of what they already had. “And no one wants another box of matzah,” Rabbi Olitzky said.
But then he realized that “March is Women’s History Month,” he continued.
“One thing that we are unable to do this year is a communal seder. We are doing it virtually. How can we do it so that each of us is part of it, rather than having our own separate seder experiences? We” — the staff — “were thinking about something creative we could do to link us all together, so that we could all feel that we are part of the same community.
“What ritual object could we provide to people to help us get that feeling?”
He put those ideas together. “On Women’s History Month, our goal is to honor women’s voices, not just the biblical women whose voices often are ignored, but also the women in our history who have shaped our narrative.
“And the name that came to mind, because she is so fresh in our minds, and because she died on erev Rosh Hashanah, was one of the greatest women in American Jewish history. Ruth Bader Ginsburg.”
And although it’s likely that just about everyone has a cup they use for Elijah, they’re less likely to have one for Miriam.
The new ritual object, called Miriam’s cup — koss Miryam — that many liberal Jews now put on their seder tables, an addition to the other, age-old symbols we all recognize, is filled with water, not wine, and used to recall the women who made the Exodus from Egypt. “The goal of Miriam’s cup is to celebrate Miriam’s voice as a leader,” Rabbi Olitzky said.
In the Torah, as soon as the Israelites cross the Sea of Reeds, their pursuers dead in the waters that had parted for them but closed over the heads of the Egyptians, Moses led them in the paean to God and their survival that is called Shirat haYam — the Song of the Sea, in Exodus 15:1. Once he has finished his song, the Torah tells us, Miriam and the women took up timbrels (we’ve never told where those instruments came from and how they survived the sea crossing) and danced to the song.
“But from the historical perspective, many biblical scholars have said that the Song of the Sea, although it’s credited to Moses, really was Miriam’s song,” Rabbi Olitzky said. “The editors attributed it to Moses. Modern biblical criticism suggests that the line beginning ‘Az yashir Moshe’ — Then Moshe and the children of Israel sang this song — was added in later.
“So our goal is to raise up Miriam as an equal leader in the Exodus narrative, and also in what came after, our journey through the wilderness. We thought that honoring Justice Ginsburg’s commitment to women’s rights and gender equality was the perfect way to do that.
“And traditionally there has not been a ritual that goes along with it.”
And if the ritual is being formed, so the need for a ritual object to concretize it grows as well.
His own family has developed the way they incorporate Miriam’s cup into their seder. It comes right after the recitation of the 10 plagues, when we put our fingers into our wine and let a drop of wine fall as the name of each God-given disaster is called. “Following the 10th plague, we dip our fingers into the mayyim chayim” — the living waters — “of Miriam’s cup.”
In the midrash, Miriam is said to be accompanied by a well of water as the Israelites trek through the waterless desert. “We wanted Miriam’s cup not just to be a cup that sits on the table,” Rabbi Olitzky said.
“We are a community, like I hope most Jewish communities today, that staunchly supports gender equality. In our Hebrew school, all of our children wear kippot. We teach our sons and our daughters — all our b’nai mitzvah — to wear tallit and tefillin. The idea of women’s leadership in our congregation is just as expected and anticipated as men’s. So we really want to ritually honor women, especially in the Passover story, which is filled with women’s voices, from Shifrah and Puah, the midwives, to Yocheved, to Pharaoh’s daughter, to Tziporah, to Miriam.
The cup honoring Justice Ginsburg — it includes her image, wearing her jabot, which by now is so iconic that just a few ink lines can evoke it — is not for sale. It’s only for the community, and it’s for the entire community. It’s an object that will draw the community closer.
The cup will sit on seder tables close to Elijah’s.
“Our community is very excited,” Rabbi Olitzky said. “We read the words ‘chadesh yamenu kekedem’ — renew our lives, as of old — and it is our goal to link our traditions with modern sentiment, to find modern meaning in our ancient narrative. This really does that, by honoring the female leaders of the Exodus narrative and those of modern history.”
“We are celebrating women’s leadership; women as visionaries, women as prophets, from the time of Miriam to now,” Rabbi Rachel Marder said. “We wanted Ruth Bader Ginsburg, zichrana l’bracha, to be part of this recognition because we see her in the tradition of visionary Jewish women. She changed this country for the better.
“Not only may her memory be a blessing, may her memory be a movement, and may it inspire us to help this country become more equal and more egalitarian.”
She recalled the night when Justice Ginsburg died, months into the pandemic. “It was powerful, the fact that we couldn’t all be together to mourn her and to recognize her life.
“We always try to think about who has not been included or invited to the table. Whose gifts we have not celebrated enough.”