Some things just can’t be forced. One of them is love. The most powerful person in the world, even if he owns all that 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 phenomena, 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–at least in his pursuit of her 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 “chessed” with Him (it goes without saying that this is a manner of speech) when we followed Him out 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 chessed. 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 and vulnerable towards 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, which 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 towards 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 giving moment who is giving and who is receiving. They will 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 which 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 Hanevia held such a central role in the Exodus of Egypt—it was she who represented the yearning the Jewish People had for relationship with Hashem.
While we merited the manna in the desert because of Moshe, and the Anenei 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 Eicha Rabba describes how the positive actions of the Jewish people down here “give strength above,” and the Kometz Mincha uses the words nekeiva tesoveiv gever (the female force will encircle— often explained as overcoming or impacting—the male force, Yirmiyahu, 31) to explain this dynamic.
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, 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, which needed to be dug to be accessed, the Be’er of Miriam was a bubbling forth of insight and understanding. Chassidishe sefarim 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 circle/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 mechila, forgiveness. In a circle mode, you have to “fahgin” 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 Keili, this is my G-d”. There will be no need of an intermediary—G-d awareness will be available to all, as it says, v’chol banayich limudie Hashem, all your children will be students of Hashem” (Isaiah 54:13).
NOT THERE YET
It’s important to note that this “feminine” machol dance —this non-hierarchical, 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 post-modern circle-like society where authority is consistently knocked off its pedestal, and distinctions are blurred to the point of non-existence, 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 for 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 Shela 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 Ashira, 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 Ezekiel, the great prophet.
Rav Tzadok HaKohein tells us that whereas the men merited the “pointing of the finger,” that crystal clear knowledge of Hashem (zeh keili), the woman 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 women were able to touch that moment of feminine truth in a more direct way then the men. Note that while Moshe spoke in the future, ashira 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 Gemora 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 of Miriam will appear as a sieve in the water. What a beautiful metaphor the sieve is for that yearning heart, which seems to be 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 Avrahom Yitzchok Kook, ztl, points out that Mount Carmel, the setting for an intense emotional encounter—where Eliyhau 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 is 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 Utlimate 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.
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.